by Andrew Wade

Picking up on a theme from a previous post, there are multiple ways of engaging with the city for the audiophiles out there looking to capture literal and interpretive soundscapes. The Domus Mixtape series explores one such method — so far covering Mexico City, NYC (Harlem), Buenos Aires, Melbourne, Milan, and London. By curating mixtapes / DJ sets based on specific cities, they test out the idea that a certain essence and energy can be captured and channeled into audio files that speak directly to the city that inspired them. At points this happens literally, with voice-overs supported by the ambient background music.

On a more literal level, you can simply explore the natural sounds of your neighborhood and its overlapping textures of traffic, footsteps, exchanges, and animated expressions of economy, culture, and society. Would you be able to tell one city from another by sound alone?  What distinguishes them other than the accents of their inhabitants?

Credits: Photo from


  1. This is an interesting question, and sits at the intersection of my profession (ethnomusicology) and my fixation (urbanism), though I've not personally written about it. It happens that there's quite a substantial body of research on the idea of soundscapes as socially and culturally meaningful/functional phenomena, though not much of it is urban in focus. The study (now called acoustemology) has its roots in Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer's _The Tuning of the World_ (now published as _The Soundscape_, and Steve Feld's use of his ideas to write about music in highland Papua New Guinea in various pieces mostly from the 1980s. Two urban applications of this idea come immediately to mind: Jonathan Sterne's "Sounds Like the Mall of America," (_Ethnomusicology_ 41/1, Winter 1997) which adds commerce and the suburban built environment to the puzzle; and Matt Sakakeeny's "'Under the Bridge': an Orientation to Soundscapes in New Orleans" (_Ethnomusicology_ 54/1, Winter 2010). I think the Sakakeeny is truly the most interesting academic approach to soundscapes I've read in a very long time, and is, as a bonus, the only thing I've read about NOLA brass bands and funeral parades that isn't wildly romantic and minimally researched.

    In answer to your last question, Sakakeeny, at least, says yes, for NOLA, at least. I'm of two minds about it. I suspect that you can hear the difference between cities--things like the width of streets, size of buildings, building materials, traffic patterns, and so on in the built/planned environment are bound to create distinct acoustic properties, and cultural features like specific vendor practices and mores about how loud to talk, whether to play music publicly or on headphones, etc. will be unique to each city. (I will never forget the particular vending cries of the Italian Market in S. Philly--"Hey, pretty, pretty! Got fresh Joisey speargrass here! Got fresh ripe peach! Hey, pretty, pretty!" was my favorite). On the other hand It seems like most Western cities, at least, are similar enough that without other stimuli (sight, smell) I doubt I could tell what city I was hearing a recording of.

    That said, I'm quit sure that whenever I'm in a city the ambient soundscape is fundamental to my experience (and enjoyment) of the urban space.

  2. Thanks so much for these thoughts and details and sharing your expertise! It is very interesting to see how ethnomusicology and urbanism can intertwine. I've recently discovered an amazing website of open-sourced soundmaps of cities around the world called Soundcities that hosts a great collections of audio files.

    The noise/sound component to cities seems very underrepresented to me, as it is critical to both the expression of culture and heritage as well as current technologies and the logistics of urban life. While such sounds are officially recognised as music within concert halls and noise 'pollution' outside of them, there seems to be very little blending or room in between to interpret and appreciate the auditory experiences of cities.

  3. Delighted! Nice to find one of those rare opportunities where expertise in ethnomusicology is useful to someone outside the field.

    Thanks for the Soundcities tip, I've now spent the morning sidetracked into trying to figure out how to interact with it for research purposes. I'll be in Melbourne soon, and will try to upload some sounds, and will be in Port Moresby and Goroka, Papua New Guinea in the fall, and will see what I can do there, too.

    I'm actually working on a class for next spring that may develop into a mobile (probably iPad) app oriented around jazz and urbanism. If you're interested, I'll keep you posted!


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