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The Urban Auditory Experience: Sound Awareness and Understanding our World of Sound - by Edda Bild

A blog by CUS Member Edda Bild where she states that we can understand how cities are being used, appropriated and negotiated by learning to listen and becoming more aware of the auditory environments we are embedded in.


During my first trip to India, I had a few days to kill in Mumbai. I had been warned by several well-intentioned friends about the “madness” of India’s second largest city and its cacophony of sounds. I would allegedly have to fight the feeling of being overwhelmed and over-stimulated to find my way through a “sea of noise”.  Upon stepping off the bus in one of the many hearts of Mumbai, what I did realize is that more than 3 years working on sound as a sociologist have taught me how to be aware of my surroundings – and how to listen. This newly discovered skill helped me navigate these novel, busy auditory environments and confirm that sounds do not exist as entities separate from urban life, but are its result. What I heard were the sounds of street vendors, people rushing to and from their work, children chatting on their way from school, pedestrians, bikes, buses and cars finding their way in traffic; people going about their everyday life.

Mumbai barbers
Photo by Edda Bild

Learning to listen

By learning to listen and becoming more aware of the auditory environments we are embedded in, be they the ones we think we are used to and experience every day or the ones we feel that we are “parachuted” into, we understand how cities are being used, appropriated and negotiated. The conflict and inequalities are immediately apparent in the auditory environment of a city. In shifting our way of relating to sound, we move beyond the mainstream approach of sound-as-noise, that considers sound only when it becomes disruptive or “annoying”, and we shift to sound as an urban resource.

What we listen to when we walk by a street musician, what we overhear as we pass people having conversations, what draws our attention when a door to a busy bar is suddenly opened to allow the sounds of enjoyment to spill in the street, the sound of construction that creeps into our ears despite music playing in our headphones; this is all the result of activity, of people using the city for their everyday purposes, for work, fun or anything in between. 

Mumbai street vendors
Photo by Edda Bild

Soundtrack of urban existence

Urban sounds are not just by-products that need to be managed, limited or contained. They are the soundtrack of our urban existence, the proof of life, of activity, of use of spaces, of dynamism and diversity. We are quick to point out what annoys us or what we find a problem with, but it is difficult for us to talk about the auditory environments that we enjoy, and to articulate what is the appropriate “soundtrack” for what we’re doing, what is memorable or what responds to our auditory needs. We can become more than mere spectators or passive victims of urban noise by being aware and communicating more to each other about how we experience the auditory component of our urban lives and by reflecting on how we ourselves contribute to and change the environments we perform our activities and our life in. Sound awareness can allow us to learn how to articulate and express our auditory needs, expectations and grievances, in a way that can lead to tangible transformations of urban spaces.

Edda Bild

Edda Bild is a PhD candidate in Urban Planning at the Department of Geography, Planning and International Development Studies at the University of Amsterdam, funded by INCAS3. Her work focuses on researching the relationship between the activities that public space users perform in their spaces and the ways in which they interpret and evaluate their auditory environments. The goal of her research is to provide insights that can be integrated in planning and design practices as well as to encourage sound awareness and promote ear-opening experiences among urbanites.