What Can Sounds Say About the Environment?

Think of your favorite place and you’re likely to conjure a picture in your mind — a landscape not a soundscape. That’s because you’re not Peter Cusack, a sound artist keenly interested in the intersection of environment and sound. On a recent visit to Duke I asked him about pleasant versus positive sounds, a topic that got him riffing on sonic monoculture and why it’s such a negative part of our modern culture.

Let’s talk sound.

Most of us probably take sound for granted until it intrudes on our comfort zone. In a city, for instance, the screeching brakes of a bus or a man walking down the sidewalk screaming may not even penetrate our consciousness in the cacophony of other sounds. What do these sounds say about the place? Are they mere intrusions or an intricate part of the space?

Peter Cusack spends his time pondering such questions and looking at different cities around the world from an acoustic point of view. When he started out, he was dismayed to hear London noises encroach on his beloved bird songs – he wanted to record wildlife. But then he realized those urban sounds could be an important part of his study.

Back in 1998 Cusack began a project called “Favorite Sounds.” He asked Londoners –- primarily residents — what their favorite city sound was. Rather than a generic answer like “Big Ben’s clock chimes,” a sound known around the world thanks to its use in BBC broadcasts, people were far more precise –- and quotidian.


“People would say,” Cusack recalled, “my favorite London sound is the guy who makes the station announcements at Waterloo’s South Station on the northern line. And another person would say, well, I like the woman who makes the station announcement at the Regent Park of the south-going Baker line.”

It’s the same sound and yet it isn’t.

Back then, Cusack continued, “All those station announcements were done by real people and everyone had a different voice and a different way of doing it and people remembered that.”


In other words, people’s acoustic references are much more than sounds themselves. They are reference points to the environment they inhabit and their interactions with it. Of the thousands of people he surveyed, much more often than not the favorite sounds were specific and quite mundane.

“A lot of people had some favorite green space, so they would like the birds singing but it wouldn’t be just birds singing it’d be the bird singing in my back garden on a Sunday morning or in a local park or the evening chorus in my local cemetery.”

As he spoke about his findings over his decades of study, I got to thinking about the ultimate potential application of his work. Was it to engineer soundscapes to make them better? And what constitutes a “better” soundscape? One that is more pleasant and soothing?

For Cusack, making a soundscape more pleasant does not necessarily make it better. The ideal is what he calls a “positive” soundscape which may or may not be pleasant.

Take the screech of bus brakes again – it indicates a bus is coming so it’s best to step away from the road. It may not be pleasant, but it’s a sound you need to hear – for Cusack that is a positive sound.

On the other hand, imagine you are standing on the street and there’s so much white noise that you can’t hear someone screaming out for help. That’s a negative soundscape — an environment with so much noise that sounds become an indistinguishable muddle. Sonic monoculture.


Engineering a city with a positive soundscape would allow each individual sound to be heard clearly and for a good distance.

For me, the greatest enemy of positive soundscapes is the white noise produced by the incessant movement of cars and trucks over the ubiquitous roadways and highways that stretch from one coast to another. In America we are blessed with large expanses of wilderness where we can escape the noise, but what about our cities? Well there are urban parks. And more and more of our cities are creating soundscape islands where cars are not welcome and pedestrians can walk freely. (Here is what Michael Bloomberg, the mayor who keeps on running and running, is doing in New York City.)

Do you have a favorite soundscape or sound? Send it in and I will forward it on to Peter Cusack.

Related Links

» Listen to Peter Cusack’s Duke lecture at iTunesU
» Listen to Cusack’s recording of a bell on a London bus
» Creative Research Into Sound Arts Practice – CRiSAP.org
» Cusack’s Sounds of Dangerous PlacesAbstract
» Cusack’s bio at the University of the Arts London
» Acoustic engineer Trevor Cox discusses Sounds from Dangerous Places with Cusack on BBC Radio’s Sounds of Science show

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