The Sounds of a Lockdown

Written by Vincent Meelberg


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?

The Sound of Political Soundbites

by Vincent Meelberg

Soundbites. That is what contemporary politics seems to revolve around.
If a politician is not able to convey his or her message within a single,
catchy phrase, the public is not interested in what this politician has to say.
At least, that is what journalists seem to believe. Political messages need to
fit the headlines of newspapers and, perhaps even more importantly, fake or
real news websites.


Interestingly, it is not just journalism that is seduced by the power of
soundbites. Increasingly, politicians themselves make sure that their message
can be summarised in a single catchphrase. The latest example is the manner in
which British Prime
Minister Theresa May tries to “sell” Brexit
. Through soundbites such as “Brexit Means
Brexit” and “Now Is the Time” May tries to convince the public
that, even though she did not support Brexit before she became Prime Minister,
she now fully endorses it and will make sure that Brexit will happen.

But of course the grandmaster of soundbites is Donald Trump. During the
course of his campaign that lead to his presidency, he came up with a number
of controversial soundbites
that were eagerly quoted by news
channels such as CNN and of course Fox News, usually followed by showing the
original footage in which Trump is uttering these phrases. And it is crucial
for the effectiveness of these soundbites that they can be heard, rather than
merely read, because the success of these soundbites is not just determined by
their meaning, but also by the way they sound when spoken by Trump.

It is the previous president of the United States, Barack Obama, who is praised for
his rhetorical qualities
. The way Obama used rhythm and
timing in his speeches gave them an almost musical quality that contributed to
their persuasive power. Who can resist chanting along “Yes we can!”
with his famous speech which helped him win the 2008
presidential elections? And while it cannot be said that Trump’s speeches have
any musical qualities, they are still seductive from a sonic point of view.

Sound is affective. It has a profound influence in the way we experience
events, environments, or interactions people. Furthermore, the way a sentence
is uttered, which tone of voice is used, influences the way we
interpret its contents
. Trump’s voice is affective as well. His voice
is often imitated in order to
create a comical effect
, but we should not underestimate its power to
convince. Perhaps it is exactly because his voice almost sounds like a
caricature that people believe what he is saying. His soundbites are
entertaining because they have a comical overtone. Not because of the contents
of the soundbites, but because of the way they sound. And because they sound
entertaining, some may have been persuaded to ultimately vote for him. People
want change, and he sure does sound differently from other politicians. Many
did not take Trump seriously, in part because he sounds like a caricature, but
recent history has taught us that we should not be fooled by the tone of a
political voice.