City As Music

Some Conceptual Tools

Notes from a seminar presentation given 27 September 2000 to the Sound Media Research Group at University of Westminster, John Eacott director

A city is about:

  • living together
  • the great surplus of power and energy that results from concentration and collaboration.

The city can be viewed as an organism, a whole greater than the parts, which continuously adjusts and vibrates constantly in different ways. In the case of London, as with many cities, its reason for existence and prosperity is the river, and the water has its own seasonal and tidal rhythms, its ebbs and flows, patterns and eddies as it passes through the arches of the bridges, the sounds lapping or rushing waters and the sounds of navigation, the buoys and bells and hoots and whistles. London tames the river, through a series of natural land forms and assisted channels towards the sea.

Poised in a balloon on a clear temperate day, above the city, weightless as the various individual activities merge into one, at a certain point the city becomes a single organism, an orchestra.

City can be seen and heard as an organism containing sub organisms
city spaces, houses, rooms, each with its resonances and voices.

Civic spaces are connected to each other through air, through sound: sound is a means of understanding the city as a whole and in parts in an over- visual age. The built form of the city – if we could carve it by movement – imagine a world of gossamer spiders webs, which we brush aside in our daily lives. Gradually these webs would coalesce into walls and corridors and rooms and ceilings – whenever a space wasn’t big enough you would brush the walls back. Perhaps this model of the city is the most democratic and efficient – perhaps one would expect the city to evolve like this universally, but it doesn’t. This tactile model of habitable space fails to account for the space above our head , the upper air, aural space.

Information of this invisible medium – air – fills the space. Space is aural – our sense of three dimensions embodied in the ear.

Size of sounds we can hear – think in wavelengths – gives a clue to the body making the sound:

  • 17mm to 17m, the harmonic average is the distance from the mouth to the belly 40 cm.
  • not ear/brain sized, but body sized.

We hear what is relevant to us accurately: architecture-sized, body-sized sounds. We hear with the whole body:

  • soles of feet
  • diaphragm
  • palms of hands
  • bones of skull
  • hairs on the back of the neck
  • as well as ears, brain.

Music is about a particular kind of applied and embodied arithmetic: harmony, the vibrations of a string or column of air,  a sense which recognises the oneness, two-ness three-ness and four-ness of things, that subdivides into halves thirds, quarters and so on and compares these quantities and plays with them: a very embodied mathematics: ‘arithmetic in motion’ as the medieval world described music. It is intimately connected to dance.

I have two eyes, one head, two legs, five toes, my body is divided into head, body, legs, and so on… and I move. Music deals with the resonant frequencies of the various parts of the body, fingers, wrist, upper arm, whole arm, heart and lungs, torso, and so on, and the whole of the body, mind and soul.

Listening through making sound:
Overexcited, we fill a sound with space as a way of appropriating it,
when public-speaking we speak to the back of the room, to the last person listening. We affect the sound and listen for a reaction. Sound asserts our existence and triggers interaction, community and dialogue.Soundscape: Bells were the loudest man-made sound before gunpowder. The sound of bells define the country parish, as a means of timekeeping, marking of special events, and warning. Now many loud small explosions – internal combustion engines – and droning fans are constants in the urban soundscape.

The notion of protected, humane space – space where one is dignified as a human being – peace in its many meanings and dimensions – including a quiet serenity of acoustics where one can ‘hear oneself think’ – is at the heart of an architect’s craft – in this way we add value. So in determining space – setting the spatial boundaries not only within our buildings but in the spaces between our built intervention and the next – we are reflecting peace or noise back onto itself, as well as creating new resonant frequencies and our own activities.

The sound of the city: poised in our quiet balloon: traffic, fans, mechanical noise, the sound of human activity- yet the determining maximum size of a city is its water supply: cities are founded on water. London is founded on water, connected geographically, not only in its thirsty population’s health but also in its historic prosperity through water – trade, communication and political influence.

Water in all its cascading and spluttering varieties is the commonest sound of the city: its unpredictability in detail, in the behaviour of drops, and its predictability in larger quantities, in the fall of a water-course, its direction of flow and so on.

To summarise:

  • hear the city as an organism
  • sound connecting the various spaces within the organism
  • hear through whole body
  • hear through making sound

the soundscape of the modern city.

© Marcus Beale 2000 revised 2007 and 2021.