The Sounds of a Lockdown

Written by Vincent Meelberg

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These are interesting times. Not only because of the new social normal that we are experiencing right now, which includes social distancing, but also because of the environmental consequences this has. Pollution of all kinds seems to diminish as this situation continues. For instance, there has been a dramatic drop in pollution across China because of the quarantine measures taken by the Chinese government, and it is expected that similar developments will happen in Europe as well. In fact, cities such as Venice, Italy, already experience the beneficial environmental effects that are a result of the city being on lockdown.

Another kind of pollution that urban life is confronted with is acoustic pollution, also known as noise. Noise are those sounds that are considered as unwanted by particular listeners in a specific context. For instance, a sequence of sounds can be considered music in one context, say by a
listener attending a concert, but noise in another, when that same listener is at home at night trying to sleep while their neighbour is playing that same music from their stereo. In normal circumstances urban environments are filled with sounds that many may interpret as noise. The current situation, however, has resulted urban life being devoid of many of those sounds. This means that the urban auditory environment has changed
completely because of the lockdowns.

An auditory environment can be defined as the totality of the actual sounds that can be perceived in a space, as well as the manner in which this space transforms, blocks, or amplifies these sounds. Such an environment may in itself be objective and measurable, but the ways it is experienced by its inhabitants is not. The Canadian sound researcher and sound artist Barry
Truax uses the term “soundscape”, which he borrowed from R. Murray Schafer, to refer to the experience of an auditory environment. A soundscape can be defined as a relation between individuals and their auditory environment, as an environment of sound with emphasis on the way it is perceived and understood by an individual, or by a society. A soundscape is listener-centred and acknowledges the subjective bonds between listeners and the auditory environment that surrounds them. Consequently, there are as many listeners as there are soundscapes.

The term “soundscape” was originally developed within the World Soundscape Project led by Schafer as an analogue to “landscape” to denote the collection of sounds in an environment. Some of these sounds can be considered natural “keynotes”, which are sounds that arise from the overall geography of a specific area. In addition, a distinction can be made between “hi-fi” and “lo-fi” soundscapes. Hi-fi soundscapes are those soundscapes that are relatively quiet with a wide amplitude range where it is possible to hear a large amount of detail. Lo-fi soundscapes, on the other hand, are loud and noisy, and generally consist of sounds produced by man-made machinery, masking any sonic detail that may be present as well. The cities that are under lockdown have thus exchanged their lo-fi soundscapes for hi-fi ones.

In line with Schafer’s distinction between hi-fi and lo-fi soundscapes, auditory environments reflecting human activity are generally perceived as more pleasant than environments where mechanical sounds are predominant. Listeners generally consider natural sounds such as birdsong and running water as positive soundscapes, and sounds such as traffic noise or construction sounds as negative or unpleasant. Other experiments corroborate these observations. In these experiments sounds of nature, birds, and “other people,” with the exception of angry people, some noises neighbours may make, and cellular phone use were labelled as pleasurable. Sounds produced by cars, traffic, and construction work, however, were considered unpleasant.

Cities under lockdown have auditory environments that are devoid of many of those so-called unpleasant sounds. At first sight, this may be considered a positive thing, and allows for opportunities to create new sounds, such as communal singing. It is quite wonderful to listen to the sounds of a city under lockdown.

Yet, the reason why the urban soundscape has become more hi-fi is
less positive, though. Despite the fact that a hi-fi landscape may be one that provides calmness and rest, the soundscape of a city under lockdown may still be experienced by its inhabitants as stress-inducing, precisely because it reminds them of the pandemic and the devastating consequences it has for many of us. In this sense, it could even be said that silence is the new noise, as silence is now considered as unwanted (absence of) sound.

We can, however, also see this situation as an opportunity. An opportunity to listen more carefully again, not only to the sounds of the city,
but also to your own record collection, for instance. Instead of treating your music as auditory wallpaper during your commute to work, school, or university, give it the attention it deserves. Now that we are  confined to our homes, why not fill them with the most wonderful sounds in the world and actually pay attention?

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