The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding

Sound and the City


Istanbul at night, from WIkimedia

Istanbul at night, from WIkimedia

Some people need total silence in order to sleep. They need to curl up in a room devoid of music, conversation, dogs barking next door or traffic noise below. The sound of a siren will wake them. But I am not one of those people. I sleep best with my ears open.

The nighttime street noise that comes back to me time and again is from my first night in Istanbul. Sometime last spring, amidst weeks of travel with my Peace and Conflict Resolution Program I landed at this distant airport late in the evening and tumbled straight into the heart of the city. The streets of Taksim (an area that has received a lot of press recently because of the protests there) were utterly alive as we ate dinner and watched thousands of people strolling by, conversing, shopping, drinking, reveling. Afterward, we made our way under a darkened sky to a small hotel nearby, climbed the stairs to our shared rooms and opened the windows to let in the evening air.

There’s almost nothing lovelier than encountering a new city in this manner. You take its pulse. You let each individual sound wash over you—every car horn, every shout, every door that closes—until they come together to create the soundscape of the city. For me, every impression of Istanbul is contained in that first night when the sounds of the city rocked me to sleep.

Fran Tonkiss, Director of the Cities Programme at the London School of Economics, writes, “Sound gives us the city, as matter and as memory.” Certainly, were I to return to Istanbul, the dull buzzing of mopeds crossing sidewalks, the clank of bottles dropped into bins at bartime, the lively exchange at roadside food stands, the buses honking, constant music, intermittent calls to prayer—all of it would compose my frame of reference. It is these sounds that distinguish Istanbul from other places in my mind, but I had to close my eyes that night and hear them at their fullest in order to relate them to you now.

I began to be interested in sound a long time ago (aka my freshman year of college), when I took perhaps the most interesting class I’ve ever taken called “Spiritual Soundscapes.” (Maybe someday I’ll post the podcast I created for that class which profiled a Buddhist community in Walla Walla and the sounds they utilized in relation to mystical experience.) In a wonderfully hands-on fashion, this course addressed the ways that different faith communities use sound, and on a broader scale the class led us into the almost untouched world of sound scholarship. Centuries of theologians, historians, and anthropologists have turned their eyes toward art and literature in cultures across the world, but they have done remarkably little when it comes to listening.

In fact, with the exception of hearing music or reacting to a sudden noise, sound is something that most people ignore in their daily lives. Tonkiss (one of the few scholars we read) writes, “Individuals’ relation to sound in the everyday spaces of the city tends to be one of distraction rather than attention.” As city dwellers, it is easy to tune out the noises we hear each day. To an extent, this is probably helpful when it means our accustomed ears can ignore a car stereo in order to carry on a conference call or soothe a baby.

But in other ways, an ignorance about the sounds of our cities detracts from our ability to describe them or draw out their unique characteristics. Of course, you can tell me about famous landmarks I might see if I visited your city, but can you describe what I’d hear if I sat on your porch for an evening? Maybe you could refer to the sounds of the ocean if you lived in a seaside village. What about Miami, though? What about Montreal? Surely they sound different, but what makes it so?

I think it is remarkably hard to refer to the sounds of our particular cities unless we close our eyes and listen like tired travelers in a new place. Or at least, it is for me. I need the sounds of a city coming through my window at night, and I need those nights in order to hear my city.

Fran Tonkiss, “Aural Postcards: Sound, Memory and the City.” The Auditory Culture Reader. Ed. Michael Bull, Les Back. New York: Berg Publishers, 2006. 303-309.


2 thoughts on “Sound and the City

  1. You just took me back 20 years to a night when I too arrived in Istanbul late. We stayed in an old part of the city (Pera?) and those sounds will stay with me forever. A lovely, well-written and intelligent post. Loved it.


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