Society Can be Learned by Listening

I happened upon a fascinating article in the Atlantic today. It’s entitled “Mapping the Sounds of a City,” and it illuminates a neat little program called Chatty Maps that compiles the extensive research gathered by urban advocacy group GoodCityLife and generates the “sound profile” of 12 different cities from across the US and Europe. Chatty Maps, with its slick, interactive interface, allows users to look at a city street by street and see what variety of city noise is most prevalent there. It’s elegantly presented, and a fun study for sure, but it also got me thinking about the nature of cities and the sounds they produce.

A common point of observation from a city-dweller moving somewhere more remote, or vice versa, is that there is a marked change in the amount of background noise. It is not hard to make the logical leap as to why; the city has more people and more going on in a considerably condensed space. For that reason, cities are seen by many as epicenters of culture and civilization, uber-condensed cells of humanity rife for observation and analysis of the greater community that is responsible for them.  In my personal experience, this is certainly the case, and that is why I find Chatty Maps so compelling.

I am reminded of my father’s stories of how the cadence and tenor of the New York City bustle were easy indicators of the nation’s feelings that day, and of my own pensive moments listening out through a window over Astoria, Queens and knowing innately that just below me was one of the most diverse neighborhoods on the planet. It is easy to glean the character of a place by the sounds it produces, and so, logically, it is a very culturally significant study to catalog what kind of sounds are prevalent in our major cities. Over decades upon decades of work in the anthropological field, I am driven to wonder how much of it has been devoted to sound, and I wonder how many scholars before me have had the idea. If the goal is to catch the pulse of a people, perhaps the best way is to stop, and put your ear up to its heart.

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