Urban Studies Urban Soundscapes
by
James Mansell
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0042

Introduction

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.

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

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  • 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.

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    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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    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.

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  • 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.

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

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

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    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.

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  • 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.

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    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.

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

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

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Textbooks

Because the field of urban soundscape studies is so diverse, there is no single textbook that covers the breadth of activity in this area. Scientific approaches such as Kang and Schulte-Fortkamp 2016 remain distinctly separate to humanities scholarship, including the tradition established by the World Soundscape Project. It is in the new field of sound studies that urban soundscape studies has flourished in recent years. Bull and Back 2016 (originally published in 2003) was among the earliest books attempting to draw together the field of auditory culture studies, or what would later be referred to as sound studies, as in Sterne 2012. Smith 2004 does a similar job specifically for historical sound studies. These books all contain several chapters about urban soundscapes. Born 2013 gathers new scholarship about sound and social space, including urban environments. Gandy and Nilsen 2014 was the first textbook drawing together scholarship specifically about the cultural study of urban soundscapes. Novak and Sakakeeny 2015 is notable in that it does not include soundscape as one of its twenty sound keywords (though “space” and “noise” are included), marking a trend away from Schafer’s conceptualization of sound. The editors identify Schafer as the “de facto founder” of sound studies, but criticize the “presumptions of universality” in his work which led him to overlook “the constitutive differences that participate in the “soundscape” as a multivalent field of sounds with divergent social identities, individual creativities and affordances, biodiversities and differing abilities” (p. 7). Schafer’s influence is barely in evidence in Steingo and Sykes 2019, which draws on ethnomusicology traditions to re-orientate sound studies toward postcolonial societies and the urban environments of the Global South. Droumeva and Jordan 2019 is an attempt to reinsert Schafer and the World Soundscape Project back into the scholarly agenda for urban soundscape research.

  • Born, Georgina, ed. Music, Sound and Space: Transformations of Public and Private Experience. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

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    This collection of essays focuses on the cultural and social spaces of sound, including urban spaces such as offices (pp. 151–168) and hospitals (pp. 169–185).

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  • Bull, Michael, and Les Back, eds. The Auditory Culture Reader. 2d ed. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016.

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    This is among the best introductions to the field of sound studies and is especially useful for undergraduate teaching. The chapters represent some of the most prominent sound studies scholarship, including on urban soundscapes, from the last twenty years.

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  • Droumeva, Milena, and Randolph Jordan, eds. Sound, Media, Ecology. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

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    This textbook seeks to update the World Soundscape Project’s approach and acoustic ecology methodology for the present day, taking account of the rise of sound studies. It includes useful new histories of the World Soundscape Project.

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  • Gandy, Matthew, and BJ Nilsen, eds. The Acoustic City. Berlin: Jovis, 2014.

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    This is the best textbook focusing exclusively on cultural, social, and artistic research about urban soundscapes.

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  • Kang, Jian, and Brigitte Schulte-Fortkamp, eds. Soundscape and the Built Environment. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2016.

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    This textbook represents the urban soundscape approach in the field of acoustics and urban planning. The emphasis is on learning how to plan better urban sound environments for human health and well-being.

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  • Novak, David, and Matt Sakakeeny, eds. Keywords in Sound. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015.

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    In this collection each essay takes up a different keyword in the study of sound. Schafer’s soundscape approach is explicitly rejected, with chapters on noise (pp. 125–138) and space (pp. 193–207) setting out alternative ways of thinking about urban sound.

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  • Smith, Mark M. Hearing History: A Reader. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2004.

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    History has been one of the main disciplinary contributors to sound studies. This early textbook gathered influential key texts in the historical study of sound including several about urban soundscapes.

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  • Steingo, Gavin, and Jim Sykes, eds. Remapping Sound Studies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019.

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    The editors of this book criticize sound studies for the extent to which it has relied on theories and case studies from the Global North and ignored research from and about the Global South. Case study chapters showcase scholarship on sound cultures in cities such as Buenaventura (pp. 135–155), Bangalore and Bangkok (pp. 156–172), and Delhi (pp. 228–240).

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  • Sterne, Jonathan, ed. The Sound Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 2012.

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    This useful textbook, which is also handy for undergraduate teaching, collects extracts from the key texts that formed the basis for the emergence of sound studies in the 2000s. It includes an extract from Schafer’s The Tuning of the World, pp. 95–103. It is, however, just the kind of reader that Steingo and Sykes 2019 criticize for overlooking the Global South.

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Urban Acoustics and Planning

The legacy of R. Murray Schafer’s World Soundscape Project is most immediately apparent in texts about the management and improvement of urban sound environments. These have in common a desire to reduce unwanted noise and to preserve and produce “positive” sounds. Although sound in general and noise in particular are by no means high priorities in the practice of urban health, urban planning, architecture, and public policy, there is a devoted network of academic researchers whose mission is to “compose” better urban sound environments in the spirit of Schafer’s intentions for soundscape studies. Farina 2014 describes this as “soundscape ecology.” In the field of environmental and architectural acoustics, work such as Kang 2007 sets out models for mapping, modeling, and planning urban sound as well as ways of understanding the psychology and sociology of urban hearing. Jia, et al. 2020 adopts the World Soundscape Project’s interest in soundscape conservation by attempting to understand what kinds of sounds urban dwellers want to protect and preserve in their ever-changing environments (for example, birdsong). Its methods include taking research participants on “soundwalks” through their city to encourage them to listen critically. This research complements approaches that are explicitly about conserving soundscapes in urban heritage areas, such as Huang and Kang 2015 and Karapostoli and Votsi 2018. Policy documents published by urban authorities make for an interesting counterpart to academic research. Mayor of London 2004 is among the most notable city noise plans. Arts projects also frequently intersect with acoustic ecology approaches to the urban soundscape. See, for example, Anderson 2016 and Ouzounian and Lappin 2014. Lacey 2016 uses sound art interventions and cultural theory as the basis of an alternative approach to urban soundscape design. Humanities scholarship on urban sound rarely overlaps with the approach or core concerns of acoustics and urban planning, but texts such as Thibaud and Amphoux 2013 attempt to bridge the gap.

Noise

Texts on the topic of noise are perhaps the best place to observe the diverging paths of urban soundscape studies. For R. Murray Schafer and his followers, noise is a straightforward and uncontroversial category of unwanted or disturbing sound that disrupts communication and makes the world an unhealthy place. This definition of noise is adopted in much urban acoustics and planning literature. Bijsterveld 2019 traces Schafer’s influence on present-day noise abatement campaigns. Critical humanities research, including in the field of sound studies, tends to take a more reflexive approach to the definition of noise, being more cautious about adopting it as a universal category. Thompson 2017 is highly critical of Schafer’s definition of noise, arguing that noise is not always “bad” and can indeed be socially necessary and politically useful. Smith 2005 similarly thinks of noise not as environmental hazard but as a resource for critique. Historical research such as Bailey 2004, Mansell 2014, Payer 2007, and Smilor 1977 shows that the category of noise and organized noise abatement campaigns emerged as part of a middle-class culture of urban civility and then of anti-urbanism in Europe and North America. Texts such as Stoever 2015 show that those who were excluded from normative urban middle-class cultures had different ways of thinking about noise. The author focuses on New York City’s leading black newspaper and shows that in its discourse, instead of disruption, noise was “community defining and key to forging shared space” (p. 145). Stoever 2016 shows that in the United States the white “listening ear” categorizes sounds from black community life as “noise.” Alongside such attempts to complicate our understanding of noise in cultural and social terms, a long-standing tradition of treating urban noise as environmental pollution, represented by Murphy and King 2014, is maintained in the fields of public health and urban policy. The noise research traditions of acoustic ecology, critical humanities, and urban public health remain sharply separated.

  • Bailey, Peter. “Breaking the Sound Barrier.” In Hearing History: A Reader. Edited by Mark M. Smith, 23–35. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2004.

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    Bailey’s article was among the earliest attempts to theorize the history of sound and, in contrast to Schafer, conceived of the category of noise as reflecting social organization rather than environmental change.

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  • Bijsterveld, Karin. “Local Eardonances: Raymond Murray Schafer’s Contribution to the History and Present-Day Practice of Noise Abatement.” In Sound, Media, Ecology. Edited by Milena Droumeva and Randolph Jordan, 65–84. New York: Routledge, 2019.

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    This chapter assesses the extent to which Schafer’s ideas have influenced contemporary noise abatement movements.

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  • Mansell, James G. “Neurasthenia, Civilization and the Sounds of Modern Life: Narratives of Nervous Illness in the Interwar Campaign Against Noise.” In Sounds of Modern History: Auditory Cultures in 19th- and 20th-Century Europe. Edited by Daniel Morat, 278–304. Oxford: Berghahn, 2014.

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    This article considers how noise abatement was medicalized in narratives about urban life in interwar London and Paris, showing how doctors borrowed from languages of cultural decline in fiction and life writing.

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  • Murphy, Enda, and Eoin King. Environmental Noise Pollution: Noise Mapping, Public Health, and Policy. Burlington, MA: Elsevier 2014.

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    This book represents recent trends in research on urban public health and urban policy.

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  • Payer, Peter. “The Age of Noise: Early Reactions in Vienna, 1870–1914.” Journal of Urban History 33.5 (2007): 773–793.

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    This article traces the emergence of the noise abatement movement in Vienna.

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  • Smilor, Raymond. “Cacophony at 34th and 6th: The Noise Problem in America, 1900–1933.” American Studies 18.1 (1977): 23–38.

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    An early effort at charting the rise of the noise abatement campaign in the United States, Smilor’s work was well ahead of its time.

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  • Smith, Nick. “The Splinter in Your Ear: Noise as the Semblance of Critique.” Culture, Theory and Critique 46.1 (2005): 43–59.

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    Offers a definition of noise from the perspective of critical theory.

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  • Stoever, Jennifer. “‘Just Be Quiet Pu-leeze’: The New York Amsterdam News Fights the Postwar ‘Campaign against Noise’.” Radical History Review 121 (2015): 145–168.

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    This article shows how the black newspaper New York Amsterdam News differed in its discourse about noise compared to the mainstream noise abatement campaign in New York City.

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  • Stoever, Jennifer. The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening. New York: New York University Press, 2016.

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    This book is a history of auditory racism in the United States. Its “cultural politics of listening” approach makes for a sharp contrast with acoustic ecology which tends to view noise as a universal rather than a culturally-specific category.

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  • Thompson, Marie. Beyond Unwanted Sound: Noise, Affect and Aesthetic Moralism. New York: Bloomsbury, 2017.

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    This important book sets out a critique of Schafer’s taxonomy of “good” and “bad” sounds drawing on affect theory. It argues that Schafer’s theory of noise is a form of “aesthetic moralism” in which subjective and culturally-specific antipathy to certain kinds of sound is transformed into a universal theory of acoustics.

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Sound Walking

What most urban soundscape studies traditions have in common is a listening methodology of one kind or another and a desire to encourage others to listen. The World Soundscape Project took field recordings and turned them into a library at Simon Fraser University. In order to democratize this kind of close listening to the environment, the project’s followers created methods such as sound walking, which involves moving through a sound environment and attuning to its sounds by listening carefully. Westerkamp 2007 (originally published in 1974) is the text associated with the founding of sound walking as a method. Westerkamp was a member of the World Soundscape Project. Urban acoustics and planning research uses the sound walk as a community engagement method. Semidor 2006, McCartney 2019, and Polli 2011 provide examples of this approach. It is, however, in the arts that sound walking has really found a wide audience. Drever 2009 and Paquette and McCartney 2012 give useful overviews of the theory and practice of sound walking as it has developed over the years, particularly in artist practice. Sound artists such as Janet Cardiff have become well known for producing headphone-based audio walks in urban spaces in contrast to approaches which instruct participants to listen directly to the urban environment. Headphone-based sound walks are nevertheless also intended as an intervention in urban soundscapes. Pinder 2001 is an example of critical discussion of a Cardiff sound walk in East London. Headphone audio walks are also used at museums and heritage sites, including, as Geismar 2005 explores, at New York’s Ground Zero. Geographers have also adopted sound walking as an embodied method of urban exploration; see Butler 2006. Taylor and Fernström 2019 provides a new theory of sound walk listening.

Sound Mapping

The sound walk has been joined in the digital age by the sound map as a tool of soundscape investigation and public engagement. Sound maps are online, interactive, resources which locate sounds as pins on a map, often with an audio file attached. Many world cities now have sound maps dedicated to them. The Montréal Sound Map is a prominent example. While the sound walk has evolved as a genuine, fully fledged academic and artistic method, the sound map is primarily a means of engaging publics in listening in the spirit of the World Soundscape Project’s call for publics to listen critically to the environment. Nonetheless, the sound map has promoted voluminous academic commentary about what it means to map sound and engage publics in this way. Much of this academic commentary explicitly reflects on urban listening. Ouzounian 2014 notes that “by inviting people to experience, document, and share ideas about soundscapes in ways that were previously unimagined, sound maps have fundamentally altered perspectives on sound as it evolves in relation to space and place, our connection to sound in its environmental and spatial forms, and the many “resonances”—social, cultural, historical, and aesthetic—of these relationships” (p. 172). As well as urban community groups which have produced maps such as the Montréal Sound Map, audio archives have used sound maps to engage their publics. For an example of this approach see Maddeaux and Bowditch 2019. Sound maps have also been used to present the findings of historical research projects, for example in the case of Thompson 2015. Community sound mapping has been used as a technique in urban arts projects, as Anderson 2016 discusses. Like sound walking, sound mapping is also potentially useable as a method in urban soundscape design; see Lin 2015. Several texts, such as Théberge 2005 and Thulin 2018, promote and theorize sound mapping and the various ways it could be used. Critics of the sound map nevertheless argue that reducing sound to the visual properties of the map does not do justice to the experience of hearing. They also point out that sound map projects tend to predetermine what kinds of sound will be listened to. Waldock 2011 notes that, like the World Soundscape Project, this includes a gendered focus on the public realm at the expense of the private. Droumeva 2017 and McMurray 2019 add further concerns about the limitations of digital technology to generate unbiased and ethical public listening.

Sound Art

Sound art frequently takes urban space as a theme or otherwise seeks to intervene in or engage with the urban soundscape. Some urban sound art is based on a headphone listening approach and might also involve mobility in the form of a sound walk. Movement through urban space is a key theme is some writing about urban sound art, such as Chattopadhyay 2013. Other forms of urban sound art is intended as a more direct intervention in the soundscape and uses speakers to broadcast sound into urban space, either indoor or outdoor. Harvey 2013 discusses such speaker-based installation work. Some urban sound art explicitly draws on R. Murray Schafer’s theory of the soundscape and on the acoustic ecology tradition begun by the World Soundscape Project. Ouzounian 2017 and Krogh Groth and Samson 2013 trace this trajectory. Some writing about urban sound art focuses on close analysis of key works, such as Strachan 2013. Other writing deals with methods for investigating urban sound art, such as Stirling 2016. Other texts are written from the perspective of the artist and describe the process and politics of sound art as an urban intervention, such as O’Keefe 2017. Ouzounian and Lappin 2016 reports on the most high-profile attempt to use sound art as a basis for urban intervention, a project called “Recomposing the City” based at Queen’s University Belfast. This project sought to connect artistic and architectural research and practice. This theme is also taken up by McCafferty 2016.

History of Pre- and Early Modern Urban Soundscapes

The discipline of history has embraced the study of sound, hearing, and listening as a new way of thinking about lived experience in the past. Even without audio recordings to listen to, historians can find evidence about what past urban spaces sounded like and how listening was socially organized in them. Many of the methodological advances in this area have been made in the area of modern history, but there is also a flourishing area of research on ancient, medieval, and early modern urban soundscapes. As with the field of modern history, among the earliest attempts to account for everyday sound in the past were those associated with the Annales School of historiography. For medieval history, Le Roy Ladurie 1980 is a notable example. Among the earliest work in historical sound studies as it emerged as a self-conscious subfield, Smith 1999 sets out an approach to accounting for sound in early modern England. Early modern soundscapes have been especially fertile territory for historical research, including Rath 2003 on colonial era America, Cockayne 2008 on sensory nuisance in England, Ellis 2019 on noise in London, and Garrioch 2003 on the meaning of sounds in European towns. In fact, most research in this area focuses on early modern Europe and North America, with recent work such as Atkinson 2016 cementing an increasingly mature field. Texts on medieval, ancient, and extra-European contexts are less common. Andaya 2011 is a notable text on Asia, Butler and Nooter 2019 takes a first step toward ancient sound studies, and Sizer 2015 identifies issues and future potential for the study of medieval soundscapes.

  • Andaya, Barbara Watson. “Distant Drums and Thunderous Cannon: Sounding Authority in Traditional Malay Society.” International Journal of Asia Pacific Studies 7.2 (2011): 17–33.

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    This article examines the oral-aural dynamics of premodern Malay society focusing on the significance of the sound of drums and cannon and their role in identity formation.

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  • Atkinson, Niall. The Noisy Renaissance: Sound, Architecture, and Florentine Urban Life. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2016.

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    This book sets out an “acoustic topography” of Renaissance Florence.

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  • Butler, Shane, and Sarah Nooter, eds. Sound and the Ancient Senses. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2019.

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    This collection of essays considers the sound worlds of ancient Greece and Rome.

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  • Cockayne, Emily. Hubbub: Filth, Noise, and Stench in England, 1600–1770. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.

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    This book offers a sensory history of nuisance, covering unwanted sound as well as bad smells and the problem of dirt across England in the 17th and 18th centuries.

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  • Ellis, Markman. “The Buzz of Business: Soundscapes of Urbanisation in Eighteenth-Century London.” In Sound, Space and Civility in the British World, 1700–1850. Edited by Peter Denney, Bruce Buchan, David Ellison, and Karen Crawley, 83–105. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2019.

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    This chapter traces the relationship between civility and noise and between commerce and politeness in a changing urban environment.

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  • Garrioch, David. “Sounds of the City: The Soundscape of Early Modern European Towns.” Urban History 30.1 (2003): 5–25.

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    This article notes that in contrast to our assumptions about noise in modern urban environments, sound in the early modern town was treated as a source of information of “auditory community.”

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  • Le Roy Ladurie, Emmanuel. Montaillou: Cathars and Catholics in a French Village, 1294–1324. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1980.

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    Emerging from the Annales school of historiography, this book is attentive to the sounds of the past in its recovery of the voices of ordinary people in a French medieval village.

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  • Rath, Richard Cullen. How Early America Sounded. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003.

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    Rath argues for an auditory approach to the analysis of colonial era America, dealing with the various meanings attributed to sound during the period 1600–1770.

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  • Sizer, Michael. “Murmur, Clamor, and Tumult: The Soundscape of Revolt and Oral Culture in the Middle Ages.” Radical History Review 121 (2015): 9–31.

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    This article explores the relationship between writing and orality in the history of sounds of revolt in late medieval France, Flanders, and England.

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  • Smith, Bruce R. The Acoustic World of Early Modern England: Attending to the O-Factor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

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    This is an important early text in the founding of sound studies. The book constructs a historical phenomenology of sound, aiming to take readers into the sound world of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. It deals equally with the sound of voice and the sound of spaces, including the city.

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History of Modern Urban Soundscapes

There is a thriving field of research on the history of modern urban soundscapes. In contrast to sonic ecologists and urban soundscape preservationists, historians of modern sound are more interested in charting the evolving ways of hearing and listening that have been trained on modern urban and industrial environments. Schafer took it for granted that the history of sound in modern societies was simply a matter of growing noise caused by industrialization and mechanization and of increasing distress and complaints caused by this noise. The historical research detailed below shows that responses to urban sounds were shaped by other factors: shifting cultures of class (Llano 2018), the rise of modern expert power (Mansell 2017), inequalities between gendered and raced subjects (Corbould 2007), state attempts to coerce and control (Birdsall 2012), and civil war (Smith 2001). These historical forces influenced what noise became in the 20th century, as Bijsterveld 2008 shows. Perhaps the most important founding text for the history of modern urban sound is Thompson 2002, a key text in the founding of the field of sound studies. Thompson shows that cultures of urban noise control in 20th-century America reflected a capitalist culture of efficiency that extended from the factory to the concert hall. Corbin 1998, grounded in Annales School approaches, is likewise an important early founding text for sound studies and is included here even though it is about rural France. Corbin’s way of thinking about sound and listening’s role in structuring the spaces of community has been very influential in studies of urban sound. Mansell 2018 offers an overview of historical sound studies, commenting in particular on the place of Thompson 2002 in the development of this subfield.

  • Bijsterveld, Karin. Mechanical Sounds: Technology, Culture and Public Problems of Noise in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008.

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    This important book was the first to take a social studies in technology approach to the history of noise control and noise abatement campaigns. Rather than take a single nation or city approach as many other studies do, the book accounts for the history of noise across Europe in the 20th century.

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  • Birdsall, Carolyn. Nazi Soundscapes: Sound, Technology and Urban Space in Germany, 1933–1945. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2012.

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    This book, especially compelling when used in undergraduate teaching, charts the role of sound media such as loudspeakers and radio in attempts to assert totalitarian cultural control under National Socialism in Germany. It does so by focusing on the role of urban sound in a single case study city, Dusseldorf.

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  • Corbin, Alain. Village Bells: Sound and Meaning in the Nineteenth-Century French Countryside. Translated by Martin Thom. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

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    This highly influential book took a sound studies approach before sound studies existed. Building on the annales tradition in French historiography, this book examines how listening structured the experience of social space in rural France in the 19th century.

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  • Corbould, Clare. “Streets, Sounds and Identity in Interwar Harlem.” Journal of Social History 40.4 (2007): 859–894.

    DOI: 10.1353/jsh.2007.0091Save Citation »Export Citation »

    This article takes the New York area of Harlem as a case study in analyzing race and sound in modern American history.

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  • Llano, Samuel. “Mapping Street Sounds in the Nineteenth-Century City: A Listener’s Guide to Social Engineering.” Sound Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 4.2 (2018): 143–161.

    DOI: 10.1080/20551940.2018.1476305Save Citation »Export Citation »

    This article considers noise control in relation to late-19th-century urban planning via the case study of Madrid.

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  • Mansell, James G. The Age of Noise in Britain: Hearing Modernity. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017.

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    This book charts the different ways in which noise was conceived of as a facet of modernity in early-20th-century Britain, offering detailed histories of the country’s Anti-Noise League in the 1930s and 1940s as well as of alternative “noise experts” such as Theosophists who promoted spiritualized listening in an attempt to alter what counted as “modern” sound.

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  • Mansell, James G. “Ways of Hearing: Sound, Culture and History.” In The Routledge Companion to Sound Studies. Edited by Michael Bull, 343–352. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2018.

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    This chapter offers a critical overview of historical sound studies as a subfield of sound studies, including work such as Thompson 2002 on urban soundscapes. That chapter argues that work in historical sound studies is concerned primarily with excavating historical “ways of hearing.”

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  • Smith, Mark M. Listening to Nineteenth-Century America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

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    A landmark early sound studies book, Smith’s text considers the role of listening in the American civil war. Smith’s work set the agenda for thinking about sound’s role in historical cultures of race, modernity, industrialism, and the city.

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  • Thompson, Emily. The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America, 1900–1933. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002.

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    This important and influential book is among those that Kelman 2010 identifies as responsible for updating Schafer’s soundscape concept for the new generation of sound studies. It focuses on the development of architectural acoustics as a professional field in early-20th-century America and argues that its priorities for controlling sound and quietening the city reflected an American culture of capitalist efficiency.

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Literature

Schafer 1994 (cited under General Overviews) makes prominent use of novels and other forms of literature as a source for understanding the changing soundscape of industrializing societies. In fact, in his discussion of the history of soundscapes, literature is the main source of “earwitness” testimony according to Schafer, because writers are uniquely placed to observe and record their surroundings. Accompanying work in the field of history, work in literary studies has built on this tradition by analyzing the role of sound and description of sound in literature. As with other areas of urban soundscape studies, sometimes Schafer’s idea of the soundscape is explicitly adopted as a heuristic. Picker 2003 uses the term soundscape in its title partly to indicate a debt to Schafer. Others, such as Gandy 2014, continue the tradition of using fiction as a source for understanding urban sound culture in the context of soundscape thinking. Boutin 2015 takes a similar approach to Picker 2003 but dispenses with the soundscape concept. Urban sound is nevertheless at the heart of the approach taken in Boutin 2015. The book uses poetry and other forms of literature to understand the changing perception of urban cries in Paris over the course of the 19th century. Modernist literature and its relationship with sonic modernity, especially noise, has been a focus for several works, including Frattarola 2018 and Halliday 2013. Schweighauser 2006 emphasizes the importance of noise in modernism but takes a longer view of “literary acoustics” in modern American literature. Snaith 2020 is the first attempt to draw together and synthesize the field of literary sound studies and includes several chapters which deal with urban sound.

  • Boutin, Aimée. City of Noise: Sound and Nineteenth-Century Paris. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015.

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    Boutin focuses on the presence of Parisian street cries in 19th-century French literature, especially poetry. She uses street cries as a way in to thinking about literary attitudes to and representations of Paris and its changing social makeup as the city modernized.

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  • Frattarola, Angela. Modernist Soundscapes: Auditory Technology and the Novel. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2018.

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    Although its primary focus is on the influence of new media and communication technologies on the modernist novel, this book is useful reading for anyone trying to make sense of sonic modernity.

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  • Gandy, Matthew. “Strange Accumulations: Soundscapes of Late Modernity in J. G. Ballard’s “The Sound-Sweep”.” In The Acoustic City. Edited by Matthew Gandy and BJ Nilsen, 33–41. Berlin: Jovis, 2014.

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    This chapter offers a close-text analysis of a Ballard text from an urban soundscape perspective.

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  • Halliday, Sam. Sonic Modernity: Representing Sound in Literature, Culture and the Arts. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013.

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    Sonic modernity is a useful turn of phrase to encapsulate the culture of modern soundscapes, including their urban dimensions. Halliday’s book usefully puts together a variety of perspectives on modern sound across literature and cultural history.

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  • Picker, John M. Victorian Soundscapes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

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    This book was one of the founding texts in the field of sound studies and has gone on to be very influential in the study of the culture of modern and urban sound. Picker traces the presence of modern soundscapes in 19th-century British literature. A particularly influential chapter deals with the involvement of writers, including Charles Dickens, in the noise abatement campaigns of the 1860s.

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  • Schweighauser, Philip. The Noises of American Literature, 1890–1985: Toward a History of Literary Acoustics. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006.

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    This book traces the presence of noise, including urban noise, in late-19th- and 20th-century American literature to advance a new theory of “literary acoustics.”

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  • Snaith, Anna, ed. Sound and Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2020.

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    This collection of essays draws together new research about sound’s presence in literature, including chapters about noise, vibrations, and the idea of “literary soundscapes.”

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Urban Sound Media

In contemporary cultural studies, a major focus for research on urban soundscapes has been the role that media technologies and mediated information play in constructing our experience of urban space. Bull 2000 was an influential early text in establishing this area, focusing on mobile music listening in urban space using personal stereos. Bull 2015 builds on this approach while Bull 2013 takes an historical view of urban sound media. Bijsterveld 2010 and Bijsterveld, et al. 2014 extend this approach to listening in cars, making an interesting counterpart to scholarship that has focused on traffic noise. Other work in this area such as Bull 2020 and Barns 2019 has focused on sound signals such as sirens in the urban environment. Hagood 2019 puts forward a new theory of mediated sound’s effect on bodily discipline, focusing on the listening body in urban space through case studies such as noise-canceling headphones. O’Keeffe and Kerr 2015 takes a more positive view of sound media’s capacity to allow marginalized groups to create accommodating urban spaces for themselves. Uimonen 2019 represents scholarship which deals with the representation of urban soundscapes in broadcast media, in this case radio.

  • Barns, Sarah. “Responsive Listening: Negotiating Cities of Sirens, Smartphones and Sensors.” In Sound, Media, Ecology. Edited by Milena Droumeva, and Randolph Jordan, 217–231. New York: Routledge, 2019.

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    This article takes a media studies approach to understanding urban soundscapes, drawing on acoustic ecology concepts to analyze urban listening to mediated sound signals in the city.

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  • Bijsterveld, Karin. “Acoustic Cocooning: How the Car Became a Place to Unwind.” The Senses and Society 5.2 (2010): 189–211.

    DOI: 10.2752/174589210X12668381452809Save Citation »Export Citation »

    This article considers the car as a space of music listening in relation to urban cultures of privacy.

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  • Bijsterveld, Karin, Eefje Cleophas, Stefan Krebs, and Gijs Mom. Sound and Safe: A History of Listening Behind the Wheel. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

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    This book considers listening in cars, an urban place that is often overlooked by other researchers. The car is a place of music listening but also of listening to sound signals both within the car and on the road.

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  • Bull, Michael. Sounding Out the City: Personal Stereos and the Management of Everyday Life. Oxford: Berg, 2000.

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    Bull was one of the first scholars to connect the city, sound, and media in his research about mobile music listening in urban space. Considering personal stereo use in urban space and how it allows listeners to navigate and personalize city experience, Bull makes exemplary use of interviewing as a method.

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  • Bull, Michael. “Sound Mix: The Framing of Multi-Sensory Connections in Urban Culture.” Sound Effects: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Sound and Experience 3.3 (2013): 25–45.

    DOI: 10.2752/174589210X12668381452809Save Citation »Export Citation »

    This article takes a historical view of media’s role in shaping and training the urban sensory subject.

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  • Bull, Michael. Sound Moves: iPod Culture and Urban Experience. New York: Routledge, 2015.

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    Bull builds in this book on the approach that he established in Bull 2000 and focuses his attention specifically on the Apple iPod and its use in urban space.

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  • Bull, Michael. Sirens. London: Bloomsbury, 2020.

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    In this book Bull considers the ideologies and materialities of sirens in cultural history. Sirens are ever present as warning signals in urban societies.

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  • Hagood, Mack. Hush: Media and Sonic Self-Control. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019.

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    In this book Hagood advances a new theory of sound media. He argues that instead of being primarily transmitters of information, sound media primarily control how we engage with our environments, including urban environments. Among his case studies are noise-cancelling headphones, a particularly interesting case study for those interested in how listeners use headphone-based audio media as they move through urban space.

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  • O’Keeffe, Linda and Aphra Kerr. “Reclaiming Public Space: Sound and Mobile Media Use by Teenagers.” International Journal of Communication 9 (2015): 3562–3582.

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    This article reports on a project to understand teenagers’ use of mobile sound media in Dublin, deploying methods including interviews, sound walks, sound maps, and photography.

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  • Uimonen, Heikki. “Evening of Sounds: Auditory Cultures in Radio Call-in Programmes.” In Sound, Media, Ecology. Edited by Milena Droumeva and Randolph Jordan, 261–284. New York: Routledge, 2019.

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    This chapter analyzes a Finnish radio program that specializes in broadcasting and discussing environmental sounds, including urban soundscapes.

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Religion

Among the various ways in which sound structures the experience of urban space, the case of religious sounds have been especially well researched, although plenty more work remains to be done. Schmidt 2000 was among the earliest attempts to provide the auditory history of religion and has become a foundational text in sound studies. Sykes 2019 nevertheless makes a powerful case that mainstream sound studies have not yet done enough to integrate the study of religion into wider research on auditory culture. It is true that research on religion in urban soundscapes has tended to be a separate strand of research in sound studies. Hirschkind 2006 examines the urban media of the cassette tape and its role in generated new forms of Islamic religious publics in Cairo. The author’s approach to researching urban religious sound has been influential; see Hirschkind 2015. Weiner 2014 focuses explicitly on pluralistic religious environments. Pakravan 2017 is an example of research which builds religious culture into a wider study of urban sound.

  • Hirschkind, Charles. “Religion.” In Keywords in Sound. Edited by David Novak and Matt Sakakeeny, 165–174. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015.

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    This useful chapter offers a critical overview of approaches to researching religious sound.

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  • Hirschkind, Charles. The Ethical Soundscape: Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.

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    This important book examines the role of cassette sermons in Cairo and the ways in which they produce participatory religious culture.

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  • Pakravan, Mahsa. “Soundscape and Sonic Memory: Dynamics of Jewish and Muslim Day-to-Day Social Interactions in Udlajan, Tehran.” Sound Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 3.2 (2017): 134–151.

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    This article uses oral history interviews to consider the memory of urban sound in an area of Tehran inhabited by Jewish and Muslim communities.

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  • Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion and the American Enlightenment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

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    This important early sound studies book considers the role of theories about sound and hearing in the American Enlightenment.

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  • Sykes, Jim. “Sound Studies, Difference, and Global Concept History.” In Remapping Sound Studies. Edited by Gavin Steingo and Jim Sykes, 203–227. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019.

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    This chapter makes the case for a different kind of sound history, more attuned to the global south and more willing to engage with religious histories.

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  • Weiner, Isaac. Religion Out Loud: Religious Sound, Public Space, and American Pluralism. New York: New York University Press, 2014.

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    This book examines public religious sounds in American urban space, such as church bells, and the gradual shift to a multireligious urban environment.

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Heritage

An emerging area of research in urban soundscape studies is heritage and museums. The key question for texts in this area is how can we recover and engage the public in the sounds of the past or, otherwise, what role can sound play in fostering memory cultures in the city? Some texts, such as Alexander 2019, are explicitly about memorial soundscapes. Others, such as Kannenberg 2019 and Bijsterveld 2015, are about the way in which museums could collect and present urban sound cultures for their visitors. Bijsterveld 2012 takes a wider view of urban soundscapes as heritage.

Beyond Europe and North America

The scholarship on urban soundscapes emerged from a concern for and has remained overwhelmingly focused on European and North American urban environments. This is partly because of the concentration of urban soundscape research in European and North American universities. Research on urban soundscapes is increasingly undertaken by researchers beyond these geographical confines and within European and North American universities where research on Asia, in particular, has flourished as economic and cultural links between these parts of the world have increased. The texts listed below have little in common beyond their focus on extra-Euro-American contexts. They are gathered in this way to indicate a current direction of travel in urban soundscape studies. Some texts, such as Cheung 2016, extend World Soundscape Project methodology to the context of Asian cities, in this case Bangkok and Hong Kong. Others, such as Andaya 2018, attempt to unravel a different approach to Asia, taking account of colonial histories and non-Western traditions of listening. Enstad 2016 also focuses on the circuits of globalization established by imperialism. Lynch 2019 takes account of the unique religious conflicts in India in analyzing localized ways of problematizing noise. Tausig 2019 similarly deals with the role of sound in Thai cultures of protest. Other texts such as Battesti and Puig 2016 focus on the question of methodology for sound research beyond Europe and North America, in this case ethnography. Others such as Novak 2014 and Hsieh 2019 deal with national case studies.

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