BLDGBLOG points to this article from the Observer, in which researchers are studying what they call “positive soundscapes”—sounds within the urban environment that are pleasing to the ear. According to the researchers’ website,
The team behind this project comes from a very wide range of disciplines—social science, physiological acoustics, sound art, acoustic ecology, psychoacoustics, product perception and room acoustics. They will apply their breadth of experience to investigate soundscapes from many aspects and produce a more nuanced and complete picture of listener response than has so far been achieved.
The aims of the project are:
1) To acknowledge the relevance of positive soundscapes, to move away from a focus on negative noise and to identify a means whereby the concept of positive soundscapes can effectively be incorporated into planning; and
2) The evaluation of the relationship between the acoustic/auditory environment and the responses and behavioural characteristics of people living within it.
Ken Hume, of the Noise Research Group at Manchester Metropolitan University, puts it another way in the Observer article:
Visual aesthetics are a major part of the planning system with strong guidelines determining what is acceptable or unacceptable. A corresponding aesthetics of sound is missing.
I’m curious to see where this goes. They seem to be tackling this project from an urban design perspective, but insomuch as public artworks are a part of urban design, I'd love to see more sound art used as a form a public artwork in cities. Sound works are already here and there in different urban areas; in fact there is one right around the corner from my house in West Hollywood: Bruce Odland’s Tonic, which absorbs the sound of passing traffic and converts it to harmonic tones in real time (it’s by the bus stop on the southeast corner of San Vicente and Santa Monica, fyi). Physically, the piece is two cubes on the ground and a metal pipe attached to the nearby wall (click the link for pictures). I step off the bus at that stop every night, and those cubes are utilized as seats more often than understood as artwork. Honestly I’m not sure anyone standing there even realizes that there is a public artwork there.
That’s okay though. In a way, that’s the beauty of sound art as a public work. Positive Soundscapes, apparently, could actually quantify whether Tonic is a successful work—assuming its aim (or that of any other sound piece in an urban area) is to calm in the face of urban noise. According to the Observer, the Positive Soundscape team uses MRI scanners “to measure participants’ brain activity as they are played a variety of urban noises,” to see which sounds spark activity in the areas of the brain “associated with reward” versus those associated with stress.
Geoff Manaugh at BLDGBLOG notes the many sounds that have caused pleasure for participants—distant airplanes or motor traffic; skateboards rolling through parking garages; “the thud of heavy bass heard on the street outside a nightclub”—and wonders if the result could be a customizable soundscape for each urbanite. But I doubt that will be the case, based on this bit from the Observer article:
Early results have shown interesting anomalies in the public’s perceptions of sound. ‘People can completely change their perception of a sound once they have identified it,’ [Dr. Bill Davies, head of the Positive Soundscape project] said. ‘In the laboratory, many listeners prefer distant motorway noise to rushing water, until they are told what the sounds are.’
In other words, the sounds identified as soothing are only soothing if they remain abstract. Their context—urbanity—must be removed in order for them to function as a calming influence in the face of urbanity. That is precisely what Odland’s Tonic attempts to do, and what other sound artists could accomplish if given the opportunity to create permanent public artworks.
Of course, Davies would also like to see “more water features”—despite his comment that participants have preferred abstract sound over that of rushing water. At any rate, I hope the Brits didn’t spend £1 million just to figure out they need more freakin’ fountains.