Urban Studies Urban Soundscapes
James Mansell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0042


The word “soundscape” is associated with composer and music scholar R. Murray Schafer and his World Soundscape Project at Simon Fraser University, Canada. Schafer describes the soundscape as “any acoustic field of study.” He argues that, “We may speak of a musical composition as a soundscape, or a radio program as a soundscape or an acoustic environment as a soundscape.” Despite this wide potential, the term has come to be used mostly in relation to the last of these categories, prompted by Schafer’s own explanation of the soundscape as the auditory equivalent of landscape. Schafer argued that modern industrial environments were increasingly polluted by noise, causing harm to human health, culture, and communication. He wanted more thoughtful planning of sound environments as well as the preservation of traditional and natural soundscapes, aims which crystallized in the “acoustic ecology” movement. Schafer provided categories for analyzing and planning soundscapes: “keynote” sounds, “the anchor or fundamental tone” in the background of a soundscape which we may not always notice; foreground “signals” which we listen to consciously; and “soundmarks” which, like landmarks, lend uniqueness to a soundscape. In an urban context, motor traffic might form the keynote (though according to Schafer, an unhealthy one), with sirens, alarms, and religious sounds functioning as signals. What counts as a soundmark is more varied, depending on the cultural listening practices of a community. A church or town hall bell might be a signal, but if it comes to take on special meaning to a community, as in the case of London’s Big Ben clock chimes, it becomes a soundmark and “deserves to be protected, for soundmarks make the acoustic life of the community unique.” Schafer’s way of thinking about sound as both a physical environment and a culture of listening has been influential, inspiring sound recordists, composers, and artists as much as acousticians, architects, and urban planners. It has also underpinned strands of thinking in the interdisciplinary field of sound studies as it has grown since 2000. Contributions to the study of urban soundscapes come from all these directions and more, making it a highly diverse area in disciplinary and methodological terms. Publications on urban sound inspired by these developments may make little reference to Schafer or even to the term soundscape, but are included here because they nevertheless contribute to what may be understood as the field of urban soundscape studies in its broadest sense.

General Overviews

Schafer 1994 is the most widely cited origin text for urban soundscape studies. Sterne 2012 nevertheless points out that it was in fact Fuller 1966 which first coined the term. Key texts published in the early days of the World Soundscape Project, such as Davis, et al. 1977, deal with village soundscapes rather than city soundscapes, where traditional sounds were thought to need the most urgent documentation and protection. Truax 1978 sets out an agenda for such “acoustic ecology.” Schafer and Truax’s approach has nevertheless influenced urban acoustics and planning research, where the call to plan better acoustic environments, known as soundscapes, has been taken up. See Brown, et al. 2016 for an example of this kind of soundscape research. Bull 2016 and others established a separate cultural studies tradition of researching urban sounds. Such work is introduced in the overview Gandy 2014. Here, the term soundscape is sometimes embraced and adapted, as Kelman 2010 explains. Others have rejected it. Ingold 2007 is a notable critique of the soundscape concept. Ingold argues that thinking of sensory experiences like hearing in terms of landscapes is unhelpful since sound is more dynamic than physical geography and our encounter with it more time-bound and embodied.

  • Brown, Lex A., Truls Gjestland, and Danièle Dubois. “Acoustic Environments and Soundscapes.” In Soundscape and the Built Environment. Edited by Jian Kang and Brigitte Schulte-Fortkamp, 1–16. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2016.

    This opening chapter to Kang and Schulte-Fortkamp’s textbook is a useful introduction to soundscape planning in the field of acoustics.

  • Bull, Michael. “Sounding Out the City: An Auditory Epistemology of Urban Experience.” In The Auditory Culture Reader. 2d ed. Edited by Michael Bull and Les Back, 73–86. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016.

    Bull was among the first to take a cultural studies approach to urban soundscapes and this excerpt sets out an alternative approach to Schafer’s, centering on how urban listeners use mobile music technology to navigate urban space.

  • Davis, Bruce, Barry Truax, and R. Murray Schafer. Five Village Soundscapes. Vancouver, Canada: ARC, 1977.

    This text is an analysis of the World Soundscape Project’s investigation of five village soundscapes in various European countries in 1975.

  • Fuller, R. Buckminster. “The Music of the New Life.” Music Educators Journal 52.6–7 (1966): 52–68.

    DOI: 10.2307/3390744

    According to Sterne 2012, this was the first text to use the term soundscape.

  • Gandy, Matthew. “Acoustic Terrains: An Introduction.” In The Acoustic City. Edited by Matthew Gandy and BJ Nilsen, 7–15. Berlin: Jovis, 2014.

    This introduction offers an overview of the cultural study of urban soundscapes.

  • Ingold, Timothy. “Against Soundscape.” In Autumn Leaves: Sound and the Environment in Artistic Practice. Edited by Angus Carlyle, 10–13. Paris: Double-Entendre, 2007.

    This text is prominent among several rejections of Schafer’s notion of the soundscape. It argues that we do not sense the world via separated senses and that our perception of sound is more like our perception of the weather than our perception of geographical landscapes.

  • Kelman, Ari Y. “Rethinking the Soundscape: A Critical Genealogy of a Key Term in Sound Studies.” The Senses and Society 5.2 (2010): 212–234.

    DOI: 10.2752/174589210X12668381452845

    A useful literature review, this text summarizes the adoption of the concept of the soundscape in the interdisciplinary field of sound studies.

  • Schafer, R. Murray. The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 1994.

    A widely cited and influential, though also eccentric, text, originally published in 1977 as The Tuning of the World, setting out a theory and methodology for soundscape studies.

  • Sterne, Jonathan. “Soundscape, Landscape, Escape.” In Soundscapes of the Urban Past: Staged Sound as Mediated Cultural Heritage. Edited by Karin Bijsterveld, 181–194. Bielefeld, Germany: Transcript Verlag, 2012.

    Contextualizes Schafer’s notion of soundscape in the cultural and technological history of the 1960s and 1970s, focusing on the influence of hi-fi music technology.

  • Truax, Barry, ed. The World Soundscape Project’s Handbook for Acoustic Ecology. Vancouver, Canada: ARC, 1978.

    This book sets out the World Soundscape Project’s agenda for acoustic ecology.

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