What is a City Without Sound?

by Min Li Chan

The city is often associated with the noisy, clamorous, cacophonous, and loud. And yet the notion of a city is almost instantly recognizable by its iconic soundscape - the breathy roar of a passing subway under your feet, the layered honks of taxis stuck in rush-hour traffic, the collective chatter and feet on sidewalks. Which brings us to a briefly indulgent thought experiment - what's a city without sound?

Perhaps sheer visual delight. An online community has congregated around "Cities in Minutes", a project which captures and showcases cities in minutes, using time-lapse photography with filmmakers, video enthusiasts around the globe. Here's a taste of one of the contributions, an ode to Tokyo:

My Tokyo from schnobe on Vimeo.

In a similar vein, the story in "Round About Five", a film short by the Guard Brothers, unfolds almost entirely without the soundscape associated with its visual narrative through London. A man, who nearly forgets to pick up his beau from the Eurostar station, rushes through what you could conceive as a crowded, cacophonous, congested rush hour in Londontown in the auditory imagination (even in the absence of actual sound). He's first despondent on foot, then elated on the back of a bicycle. We see London whizzing by, soundless but not without feeling a similar exultant joy.

But even in these examples, the visual delight is not entirely mute. A soundtrack fills the void in place of the city's native sounds. When we think about urban placemaking, we often talk about the physicality of space and our role in it. And as much as our perception of space is arguably visual, perhaps it pays to ponder how we want our world to be in sound.

Credits: Video of "My Tokyo" from "Cities in Seconds" on Vimeo, "Round About Five" on YouTube.


  1. that's true, i hardly ever stop to think about the sounds in places i love the most. people playing music in the subway, muffled horns from a bench in the park, music coming through the windows of cars in the summer. there are millions of different soundtracks too, like the great videos you've posted, with so many people listening to music with headphones. it seems like this music can change the way we see the world. also liked this post on the sound map and the smalls street sounds.

  2. good point, and interesting. i would say that i like the fact that we don't really try to control sound through design. it's nice that it is merely expression of chaotic dynamics and not symptomatic of some larger design.

    walking to the subway today with a new 12" of snow on the ground was awesome, and a big part of that was the fact that snow really muffles sounds. It's wonderful as a break from the constant assault.

  3. faslanyc: Definitely. I really appreciate good sounds that come along spontaneously, contributing to the experience of a place. Sound can also be invasive (even a kind of weapon). It's one of many things to negotiate when living close to millions of people. I remember talking with a friend who loves the country, partially because he can play music pretty much as loud as he wants and also swim naked any time in the pond. As good as that sounds, I would miss the many different sounds in cities. Those street sounds muffled by the snow are such good examples.

  4. Anonymous: It's interesting that you note the people listening to music with headphones. Soundscapes native to the environment are important, since they tell us something about the state of the world, but equally interesting would be the enterprise of comparing everyone's personal soundtrack set against the same visual journey through the city.

    faslanyc & petersigrist: Most definitely.