16 July 2010
Why collect recordings of everyday sounds?
You are packed into paltry shells of brick-houses; every door that slams to in the street is audible in your most secret chamber . . . and when you issue from your door, you are assailed by vast shoals of quacks, and showmen, and street sweepers, and pick-pockets, and mendicants of every degree and shape, all plying in noise or silent craft their several vocations.
So Thomas Carlyle complained about London's hubbub in 1824. Later he settled in Chelsea, where he could escape the distractions of city noise in his cork-lined study.
Official attempts to control noise in urban settings had long predated Carlyle's complaints, but were parochial in scope. They addressed grievances over incessantly barking dogs, spurriers and other metalworkers plying their trade into the night, and the occasional firing of guns into the air by excited citizens.
Anti-noise action on the national stage had to wait until 1959, when John Connell wrote to the Times about the increase of noise pollution. Among the examples he cited were the growing use of portable transistor radios and the clattering of dustbin lids. In response he received some 4,000 letters of support and the following year the Noise Abatement Act was passed.
Until very recently, many investigations into urban sounds have tended to use the polarising filter of noise-is-bad versus silence-is-golden, and these assumptions were sometimes built into the experimental designs used.
The Dutch psychologist Charles Korte compared people's behaviour in quiet areas of cities with little traffic against busy, noisy districts, and found that an apparently lost person was helped by passersby more often when in tranquil surroundings. In a lab-based study in the US, participants were less likely to pick up books dropped by an experimental stooge, complete with one arm in a plaster cast, when ambient noise levels were high.
In contrast, there's a large body of theory and empirical data on which visual aspects of the environment people respond favourably to. These include architectural approaches such as prospect-refuge theory, investigations into patient recovery times in hospital wards which provide views over parkland or built-up areas, and the finding of reduced physiological stress when people look at pictures of the countryside.
One important strand of research into the environmental sounds people might favour began in 2006 with Positive Soundscapes, a project launched with backing from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Among other results, factor analysis of listeners' responses to soundscape recordings identified the two dimensions of calmness and vibrancy as prominent in forming preferences.
The UK SoundMap aims to gather recordings from as many people as possible through the use of mobile phones. A large collection of such recordings could comprise a rich dataset of people's environmental sound preferences from all over the country, to be made available to our partners in the Noise Futures Network for further analysis and research, and which one day might help inform policy decisions on environmental planning.
Many of us already have our own private environmental sound policies. We try to replace the monotonous sounds of traffic with music from mp3 players, or liven up bus and train journeys with lengthy mobile phone conversations, sometimes with an element of public performance thrown in. We even invest in earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones, the auditory equivalent of holding your nose when passing a rubbish dump.
Collecting and analysing today's environmental sounds could help make better soundscapes tomorrow, to be shared and enjoyed by all.
Editor, UK SoundMap