R. Murray Schafer, "The Sounding City"

You have asked me to speak about the soundscape of the modern city. I wonder if you realized when you asked, that I left the city in 1975 to live in the countryside of central Ontario and havfesnever returned. When I make short visits to cities both in Canada and on lecture tours abroad, I am nothing more than a soundscape tourist. But that is actually significant because a tourist is often more perceptive of the environment than a native inhabitant, who has grown weary of the daily soundscape and tries to shut most of it out.

Tourists are first of all sightseers, which is to say that they were initially attracted to their destinations by pictures or a desire to see buildings or beaches or art treasures. We still say 'have you seen Prague?', or 'I'd love to see St.Petersburg". But, once undertaken, trips to unknown places are multisensory experiences. I remember the constant ringing of the church bells in Germany and Austria but I also remember equally well the smell of goulash or sauerbraten exhaled from the restaurants. And in Italy it was the sound of people singing in the streets, the scraping of the chairs on tile floors and, of course, the aroma of cappuccino. Tourist literature often contains pictures and descriptions of native food, but the unique sounds of tourist destinations are scarcely ever referred to. This is a subject I'll return to later.

The city I left in 1975 was Vancouver. I had been teaching at Simon Fraser University on the outskirts of that city for ten years, and it was during that time that the World Soundscape Project was developed. I had a staff of five young researchers, and the first real project undertaken was a study of the soundscape of the city of Vancouver. In fact, I believe this was the first attempt anywhere in the world to record, measure and document the acoustic pulse of a city. The project took the form of a book and two LP discs to illustrate the texts of the book.1

Vancouver is a relatively new city. It was officially incorporated in 1886. This made it possible to go back to its origins, first as a settlement of the Central Coast Salish native people, many of whom were still in the area when we undertook our study. The first white settlers were loggers and trappers but they were quickly followed by an influx of new arrivals with the construction of Canada's first transcontinental railway which pushed the population of the city up to 100,000 by 1910.

When we began our soundscape research on Vancouver in the early 1970s, there were still people alive who remembered life in those early days of the city. In fact, ear witness accounts are the only source material any researcher who might wish to know about past soundscapes has prior to the invention of the tape recorder. And even after that invention, field recording was seldom attempted except for the recording of birdsong or occasional recordings of tribal singing by ethnomusicologists. I honestly believe we were the first people to take the microphone out of the studio to make phenomenological recordings, that is to record phenomena in their native environment without trying to mediate or manipulate the material for other purposes.2

We were not trying to produce works of art with these recordings; we were using them as source material for the study of past and present soundscapes and ultimately to assist us in what I might call soundscape design.
The Vancouver Soundscape book was, I think, the first attempt to create a methodology for such research. This is not as easy as one might imagine because sound is ephemeral. It is not a commodity or a statistic. So we had to invent new terms and techniques to study it.

Soundscapes consist of a combination of materials and activities and, of course, these materials and activities vary from culture to culture. Originally Vancouver was a wood and water culture. By contrast, most of Southern Europe is a stone culture; much of the Middle East is a pottery and sand culture; traditional Japan is a paper and bamboo culture. This is to say, these materials define and characterize many of the commonplace sounds of these cultures.

The sound of the axe, the sound of the saw and the adze were the principal sounds of pioneer life in Vancouver. Walls, floors and furniture were of wood; even sidewalks were wooden planks echoing under boot heels. Only after 1930 did cement sidewalks overtake those of wood. The location of the growing city of Burrard Inlet also kept the sounds of water and ships omnipresent.

We might call the sounds over which the culture of a civilization is created keynote sounds. Keynote is a musical word and it refers to the predominant tonality of a composition; and although a composition may modulate into other keys, it is always in reference to the predominant key of the work.

And in the same way, the omnipresence of keynote sounds in a given environment does not mean that these sounds are always heard. In fact, the contrary is often the case as our future research began to prove. In soundscape research the sounds you miss are often more significant than those you hear. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and well into the nineteenth, a good example of a keynote sound was that of the quill pen scratching paper, which no writer I have encountered ever mentioned. Today the principal keynote sounds are electrical hums such as those of lighting systems, computer peripherals, and ventilation equipment. We seldom listen to these sounds consciously; most of the time we ignore them. But they are there, nevertheless, and they condition every moment of our lives. A sudden power cut makes us immediately aware of that.

By contrast, signals are foreground sounds and they are listened to consciously. They must be loud enough to catch your attention. Often they are encoded, such as the signals of your cellphone or computer. Often they are social signals and must be understood by everyone, for instance the signal to wait or cross an intersection, or the whistle signal for the level crossing of a train. In Canada, this is two longs, a short and a long. In the past many level crossings were in cities and this signal was heard frequently to the point of numerous complaints. Certainly it was heard frequently in Vancouver at the time of the Vancouver Soundscape Project and we recorded hundreds of them. Today however they are rarely heard in Canadian cities as trains have receded from the soundscape and viaducts have been constructed for those that pass through city centres.


I mentioned the personal signal of the cellular phone. Many of these signals with their bell-like tone endorse the name of the telephone's inventor - who, by the way, was a Canadian. This is not the first time a personal sounding device has been voluminously unleashed in public spaces. The transistor radio of the late 50s and 60s created a greater controversy, which was finally extinguished when these devices, not much bigger than cellphones at first, expanded into 'boom boxes', and became popular with Blacks as a means of cultural promotion. They were finally prohibited on public transportation vehicles and by the mid 1970s had all but vanished. Probably something similar will happen to all phones after the novelty wears out and they begin to be acquired by the poorer classes of society. On the other hand they may linger as business tools after the social novelty wears off. Already they are a lot more discretely used than when they first appeared.

If we look at a view of a medieval city, we see that the tallest buildings (the castle and the church) were also the most wealthy institutions. In the modern city it's the bank tower and the industrial complex. Every city will have its landmarks and the longer they remain in place, the more cherished they may become, although there are often political or social changes that can affect their survival. In the soundscape too, there are sounds that obtrude over the acoustic horizon. We call these soundmarks and we can define soundmarks as prominent sounds possessing properties of uniqueness, symbolic power, or other qualities that make them especially conspicuous or respectfully regarded.

We identified many soundmarks in the Vancouver soundscape : the Diaphone Foghorn at Point Atkinson, the O Canada horn at 12 noon, the Nine O'clock Gun in Stanley Park, the bells of Holy Rosary Cathedral, to name a few. We recorded them all, often from different places in the city. The latest contender for the status of soundmark is the O Canada Horn, on the top of the B.C. Hydro building, which was introduced in Canada's centennial year, 1967.


Generally speaking, the older the sound, the more it is loved; the newer the sound, the more it is feared. The Diaphone Foghorn at Point Atkinson was probably the best-loved soundmark in Vancouver and when it was replaced by a higher-pitched air horn the newspapers were full of complaints. Listening to the lonely horn while lying in bed on foggy winter nights was what made Vancouver 'home', wrote deprived listeners. The fate of the B.C. Hydro Horn was different. It was silenced for a while in 1972 due to complaints. (We had measured it at 108 dBA three blocks away next

to the Public Library). But it was later reinstated, and I assume is still booming out each day at 12 o'clock noon. Actually, at a distance of about three miles, it is tolerable and even quite evocative.
This illustrates the equivocal nature of the soundmark, which may be loved by some and unloved by others or loved by all at a particular time and then unloved by a following generation. It makes the protection of soundmarks difficult; and yet, without some consistency in the soundscape, we are left spinning in an endless improvisation.

Noise pollution is one of the main problems in modern urban life. In survey after survey, both in Europe and North America, noise ranks above crime, drugs, prostitution and all other social nuisances as the leading source of complaint. The question arises as to how much the ambient noise level of modern cities has increased. Certainly it rose throughout the twentieth century with the introduction of motorized vehicules, increased construction, aircraft noise - not to forget the introduction of schizophonic devices such as radio and piped-in music in public places. Thousands of surveys were done in all the major cities of the western world by acoustical engineers during the latter decades of the twentieth century, but without a starting point earlier in the century, these surveys don't tell us much.

The easiest way to determine the extent to which the ambient noise level of a city or community rises would be to study the changes in emergency vehicules' sirens. We did this in Vancouver starting with the 1912 La France disc siren used by the fire department which measured 88 -96 dBA at 10 meters. We then measured all later sirens up to the "yelp" sirens of the 1970s which peaked at 114 dBA at the same distance. That would be an increase of 20 - 25 decibels in sixty years. It is a fair assumption that there would have been a rise in the same order of magnitude in the ambient noise level of the city over that period of time, since emergency vehicules must always be audible above the ambient sound level.

I proposed this as a cheap method of determining the noise curve to numerous civic administrations over the years but they all turned the proposal down, preferring to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on elaborate and largely inconclusive surveys by acoustical engineering firms. Of course, it kept countless acousticians employed - and still does - and it gave politicians time to evade the issue until these unending surveys were completed. In 2004 the British government proposed a 13 million pound noise mapping project as a preparation for a national noise strategy. Then what will they have? A noise map of England that will be out of date in two years.

Are cities noisier now than they were in 1970 when we did the study of the Vancouver soundscape? My own subjective reply to that question would be to say probably not; but there has been a shift to lower frequencies, and infrasound. The noise generated by the physical plant of all new buildings is significantly higher that that in older buildings. This seems to be an issue that has been ignored by both architects and acoustical engineers who in my experience are remarkably deaf. We don't really know the consequences of those deep vibrations with which we are being forced to live. Do they stimulate our sexual appetites or calm them? Do they promote headaches or bowel movements? Who knows? Cities will continue to be shaped and reshaped by the demolishing and erecting of buildings, which may now have a terminal life as brief as forty or fifty years - a phenomenon never before known or dreamed of in architectural history, where buildings were intended to live forever.

The downtown areas of cities will continue to be broken up and redesigned. Nothing is permanent here. Famous architects whose designs win prizes will live to see their creations struck down to make room for bigger, more resplendent creations.

It is almost as if architecture has gained the fluidity of music with a very heavy bass and percussion section, as modern buildings resonate with infrasonic growling and the continuous pounding of destruction and reconstruction. As a footnote to that, I might add that 62% of people living in houses in London England that were constructed after 1990 have had noise problems. This is significally higher than residents in older houses, constructed of sturdier materials.3

The Vancouver Soundscape was probably the most comprehensive study of an urban acoustical environment ever undertaken. Certainly, it has never been duplicated or improved on as far as I am informed. We went on to refine our methodology in our next study of Village Soundscapes in Europe, where we compared five villages of about the same population in five countries, (Sweden, Germany, Italy, France and Scotland), but that is another story.

The Vancouver Soundscape did have a significant influence, however, in another direction. A few years after its completion, the recordings we produced to accompany the book began to be aired on radio stations as a new art form. This activity began with Klaus Schoning at the West German Radio in Cologne, who commissioned a whole series of city portraits: London, New York, Venice, Berlin, San Francisco, Benares, Lisbon, Barcelona. Some of these programs were excellent, but without explanation of what was being recorded or why, they remain tourist snapshots. Since that time, however, a great many other city portraits have been presented, some excellent, some inferior. Radio Educacion in Mexico intends to create soundscape portraits of the various regions of Mexico and the first work in the series, a soundscape of Michiocan, has already been produced. They also intend to record individual sounds and soundmarks for incorporation into the archives of a phonoteque planned for 2006. This is a welcome development because future researchers will want sounds and soundscapes recorded in isolation rather than buried in mixes.

The real problem of soundscape recording is that the recordist is always outside the environment being recorded. The recordist is an eavesdropper. This is true even if he or she is a member of the society being documented, just as the photographer of the family photo is outside the picture when the photo is taken. And in the same way one poses for a photograph, the recordist selects and often sets up the recording situation. The ease with which recorded images or sounds can be extracted from the environment and the easy acceptance of this evidence by media-conditioned audiences camouflages the fact that they are decontextualized substitutes for real-life situations. Furthermore, rhetorical devices such as montage and crossfade can induce reactions quite different from those the original might stimulate.4

The reality of our time is that we listen more readily and with greater interest to the mediated treatment of soundscapes than to the material in its original form and context. Of course it is the job of artists to draw our attention to objects and events in the environment that we may not otherwise have noticed. But it is the duty of the researcher to document the material impassionately and attempt to discover, as far as possible, the effect it has on the inhabitants who live with it and participate in its making.
That is what we tried to do in our original research carried on in the 1970s. What has happened since then is that we have become inundated by sound art, but much less original research has been undertaken into the
evolving soundscape.

The World Soundscape and the interest it stimulated eventually led to the establishment of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology, an international organization devoted to improving the quality of the world soundscape by sharing ideas and research techniques. To date there are member associations in several countries (Canada, The United Kingdom and Ireland, Japan, Germany, Italy, Austria, Finland, Australia and the United States). There is a Soundscape Journal that appears twice a year and there are international meetings every couple of years, with the next slated for Japan in November 2006.

The advantage of an international organization like the WFAE is that we can all benefit from different research techniques developed by individuals who come from other cultures than our own. For instance, a Finnish team of researchers went back to the five European villages we visited 25 years after we were there and, thanks to some generous funding, were able to remain in each environment longer than we did, so that they came to know the local people better and were able to talk to them about their attitudes towards the changes that have occurred over the years. Their work is now being published as "Soundscapes in Transition".

The Japanese Soundscape Association has developed an original project entitled "The Hundred Most Beautiful Soundscapes of Japan." They asked people all over the country to nominate places where they thought the most beautiful or original soundscapes existed and from the many nominations they visited each site and selected the most attractive. The advantage of this project is that it involved the public at large and the consequence is that many localities, proud to be cited as in possession of a unique heritage have taken measures to protect their inheritance. Some of them have even erected monuments to advertise the distinction.

A large team of French researchers at the University of Grenoble have produced numerous studies of the evolving soundscape in France and I am pleased that McGill University Press in Canada has translated Jean-Francois Augoyard's book, A l’ecoute de I'environnement into English so that others may become acquainted with the work of CRESSON.

In Australia, Nigel Frame and his colleagues have developed a unique project in association with a number of zoos to reproduce natural habitat soundscapes for exotic animals to help them feel less alienated than in the traditional zoo environment. A related, but so far little-researched project, might be to determine how the problems of immigrant resettlement might be made easier by host nations if the importance of traditional soundscapes were recognized. To an extent this occurs naturally in immigrant communities where language and native music is preserved, but I am speaking of the soundscape in more general terms. What occurs in the homes, kitchens and restaurants, or at weddings and other ceremonies of these communities? Certainly this is a transitional period for the immigrants and integration into the general framework of the host nations must also be a priority; but the subject is an important one nowadays and deserves attention and research.

Another current issue is that of national parks, where the soundscape is being threatened by the invasion of exterior sounds such as motorized vehicules, aircraft and an increasing number of visitors. This has been a concern of the American recordist and bioacoustician Bernie Kraus, who informs us that when he began his beautiful series of recordings of natural environments entitled "Wild Sanctuary" in 1968, he would record for about 15 hours to capture about one hour of useable sound: a ratio of 15 to 1. "Now it takes nearly 2000 hours to record one hour…due to the unimaginable loss of native habitats."

This is a very difficult issue for, on the one hand, the more people who visit parks, the better the chances of persuading governments to fundand preserve them, while the increase of careless or ignorant visitors leads to their ultimate destruction. This is why Bernie has been giving workshops to park employees to acquaint them with the importance of quiet behaviour at all times while in wilderness areas.

These are just a few of the activities that were stimulated by the initiative of The World Soundscape Project. Perhaps we are coming closer to the dream I once had of training researchers who would one day become soundscape designers attached to or affiliated with civic or national institutions to help guide the evolution of the changing soundscape in the same way urban planners try to modulate the placement of roads, settlements and the whole infrastructure of expanding societies.

In 1998, 56 percent of Paris inhabitants said they were disturbed by noise. In London the Environmental health department received approximately 8000 noise complaints in 1991. By 2001 this had grown to 21,000. Other cities are posting similar results to surveys. But we will never solve the problem of noise pollution until we realize that the real issue is one of public education, in schools, universities, workplaces, and, of course, the media. We need listening programs in schools. We need soundscape programs in universities, affiliated with schools of architecture, urbanology, geography, sociology and ecology. We need manufacturers to recognize the value of quieter products and we need the media and the entertainment industries to tone down their garishness and sensationalism. The theories are already there; all we need to do is begin to apply them. Actually I think some progress is being made. In his 2004 "Ambient Noise Strategy"5, the mayor of London England writes: "Cities need, not just more effective noise control, but more sound-conscious design and arrangement. SoundScape quality and diversity need to be enhanced. The Mayor will encourage arts organizations, sponsors, and others to promote creative exploration of city soundscapes."


1 - The recordings were later reissued on a CD but regrettably without the book as guide.
2 - It is true that when the CBC asked us to produce ten one-hour programs on « The Soundscapes of Canada », we obliged them by going back to our source material, which survives catalogued in the communications Department of Simon Fraser University.
3 - Sounder City : The Mayor's Ambient Noise Strategy, London (England), 2004, p. 15.
4 - A case in point was a mix in a recent soundscape documentary that blended chanting monks with bleating goats as a sarcastic commentary on the church.
5 - Sounder City: The Mayor's Ambient Noise Strategy, London (England), 2004, p. 207