Direct the city orchestra


Translated from a text originally published in Swedish in 2010

Movium-Bulletinen, nr 1-2 2010: The original pdf in Swedish  

By: Gunnar Cerwén, Landscape Architect


Sound enhances the experience

Imagine the soundscape as an extensive orchestra where all the world’s activities, people and animals participate. Each city and every place have their own constantly ongoing composition. As citizens of the world, we are all taking part, as creators as well as listeners. When we are walking and when we are conversing with someone, we contribute.

The city’s orchestra is a complex and dynamic organism that varies over time and space. All sounds are included, each has its specific place, function and meaning in the composition. But what do we really want to hear, and how can we direct the orchestra for different places?


Richness in details

Sounds are like fairy tales or stories. Vibrating wings of a bumblebee, a nightingale calling out to attract a mate, the water in the woodland stream or the wind in the bamboo forest. Every vibration, every situation, creates a unique combination of sound waves that deepens our experience of the surroundings.

We can perceive subtle variations and associate through an increased understanding for the environment around us. A coniferous tree rustles differently than a deciduous tree. A stream trickles differently in the spring than in the summer. A gravel path crunches when walked upon, but asphalt is silent. The sound transmits emotional information that builds the atmosphere and sets the tone of a place.

Sound has every opportunity to be an important asset in city planning and design. Nevertheless, it is primarily approached as a problem. Considerations regarding sound usually doesn’t take place until a certain decibel level is exceeded – and then quantitatively. But sounds are more than mere sound pressure levels. For example, the sound levels experienced near an ocean can exceed  those of a bustling city. Yet, the sound from the ocean stimulates recreation while urban sounds tend to be judged as annoying.

Schafer and the soundscape

One of the most influential persons to have raised awareness of soundscape sonic experiences in the everyday environment is the Canadian composer and naturalist Murray Schafer. As a reaction to the increasing problems with environmental noise and reduced listening in western cultures, Schafer wanted to emphasize the potentials inherent in the sound environment.

Together with his colleagues in The World Soundscape Project, Schafer conducted extensive documentation, surveys and interviews around the world from the 1960s and onwards. They found that natural sounds – such as those from water, plants and animals – represent the most appreciated kind of sounds throughout the world. The sound of twittering birds and a spinning cat are among the most popular. Sounds created by other people are neutral to somewhat positive and technological sounds, including automobiles, airconditions and factories are negative. Subsequent research has confirmed these  trends. Still, soundscapes cover much more than individual sound sources.

Soundscape design

Professor Björn Hellström is an architect who teaches urban sound design at the Swedish art academy Konstfack. Hellström emphasizes that the experience of sound depend upon a number of cues like relevance, associations and interaction between senses. In urban environments in particular, the interplay between the senses tends to be impaired. We do not always see what we hear – and what we actually hear is often lacking relevance. A clear example is traffic noise, which essentially provides us with vital information when we want to cross a street, but if we are having a picninc in a park, the same sound can become irrelevant and intruding.

In urban planning, there are good opportunities to influence the characters of existing sonic events , and where those will be placed. In other words, we can create prerequisites for a rich, varied and relevant sonic environment that supports the activities in the city. Traffic noise can be limited through strategic planning regarding reduced speed limits, or by aesthetically pleasing screens and use of absorbing materials. By reducing the urban noise, other and more positive sounds, like sounds of nature, are allowed to come forward. Wanted sounds can be further stimulated, amplified or added to strengthen a specific location.

Sounds from water, plants and wind are classic examples of additions. The sound of a fountain can be a quality on its own, but it can also be used to mask out unwanted traffic noise, thus contributing to diversifying the urban sphere. Instead of the traffic noise, the visitor’s attention is moved to focus on a positive water element. A similar effect can be achieved by observing how the wind rustles in vegetation, and from other sounds as well.

Unconcious listening

We tend to be unconcious of our listening skills, and of how sound effects our everyday lives. But even if we do not listen actively to the sonic environment, we are affected by it. Everyone who has experienced the impact of a persistent fan, or a refrigerator that suddenly stops, knows this. We experience a relief once the sound disappears, yet it was hardly noticed when it was still running. Sonic information is not always prioritized in our consciousness. Nevertheless, it affects our feelings and our well-being, and therefore contributes to shape atmospheres and moods. Moreover, we can not turn off our sonic world – we have no earlids.

Hearing is one of the first senses that we develope. Perhaps sounds are so important that they become obvious and that’s why we so seldom think about them?



A greener city is a more quiet city



If the sound of the city constitute an orchestra, the physical space of that city correspond to a concert venue. Consequently, the planning and design of urban space will affect how the concert will sound. Shrubbery, trees and other vegetation have limited effect as noise barriers, at least if they are narrowly planted. However, peat and organic soil constitute examples of materials with good absorption potential. Walls made from soil and climbing vegetation could therefore serve as a substitute for the visually shielding function that shrubberies have in certain places while simultaneously promoting an acoustic environment that is relevant to that space. Two EU-funded research projects on urban acoustics have recently been carried out in Sweden, one linked to Chalmers, the other to Tyréns. Illustration: Gunnar Cerwén.


Plant soil is a material that has good absorbing qualities, and it can be used strategically in urban settings to reduce unwanted sounds. In particular, organic and living soil contains a lot of porosity to enhance the absorbing quailities. In other words, benefits in acoustics goes hand in hand with the plants’ demands for good soil and other environmental benefits. A greener city is also a quieter city.

Sound waves propagate spherically in space. They behave in a way that, to a certain extent, resembles light waves. When sound hits a surface, it can either be absorbed, transmissioned and/or reflected. It is the properties of the surface – its material, structure, shape and thickness – that determines how much, and what parts of the sound that becomes affected. A soft and porous material such as mineral wool absorbs significantly more than, for example, a rock, which instead reflects most of the sound.

Hard surfaces are practical in the city and provides an urban character, but it is easily forgotten that they also reflect sound and in that way, indirectly increases the sound pressure levels. This applies to vertical elements like walls and facades, as well as to streets, squares and other horizontal surfaces. During the winter months in Sweden, when the urban floor temporarily becomes covered in absorbant snow, it is possible to experience how quiet it becomes when some of these reflections are extinguished. Quiet asphalt is based on a similar principle.

Build obstacles

A classic strategy to limit the propagation of unwanted sound is to build different kinds of obstacles. Noise barriers along major roads in the urban fringe is perhaps the most common example. Yet, the same principle can be applied inside cities, where potential applications include things like building facades, walls, elevated plantations and lowered topography. Such considerations for the acoustic environment can be integrated into design solutions, making them visually pleasing as well. As densification of cities proceeds, it will become increasingly important to consider acoustics if tranquil environments are to be secured.

The basic principle when constructing obstacles is to obstruct the direct contact between the unwanted source and the experience point, thus reducing the influence of the sound. However, because sound has a good ability to get around corners and sometimes even go through obstacles, it is not possible to get rid of the noise completely when this is done, but a significant reduction can be achieved. The best effect happens when the obstacle is located as close to the source as possible. Preferably, the barrier should consist at least partly of an absorbing material to avoid unnecessary reflections. A significant reduction in the overall noise levels has been observed in trials involving low noise screens (up to around 1 meter). In these tests, the low screens were covered with mineral wool, but the mineral wool may be exchanged for peat or plant soil, opening up for interesting applications with vegetation and gabion-walls in the future.

“Can architecture be heard? Most people would probably say that as architecture does not produce sound, it cannot be heard. But neither does it radiate light and yet it can be seen. We see the light it reflects and thereby gain an impression of form and material. In the same way we hear the sounds it reflects and they, too, give us an impression of form and material. ” Steen Eiler Rasmussen


Tranquil spaces do not necessarily have to be quiet. It can also be about offering a variation in an otherwise monotonous sound environment, as in adding natural elements in an urban context.

Where activities are gathered and people meet, there will always be a lot of noise. Therefore, in an increasingly densely populated society, one can expect that the proportion of irrelevant and unwanted information is likely to increase. Per Hedfors, who defended his PhD thesis about sound in landscape Architecture in 2003, argues that sound should be given increased consideration in planning and design, and suggest something he calls auditory refuges to ensure tranquility. Environmental noise is a growing health problem, but directed efforts can be of great importance.
Photo: Gunnar Cerwén.

Nature – A source of inspiration

In the everyday experience, the sounds of  the urban orchestra can play many roles. Sounds are good to build atmospheres and stir emotional responses that can be used to build a sense of place. Sounds are important for how we understand and orient ourselves in the environment. Added sounds can make reference to different historical aspects, awaken curiosity and stimulate imagination. Moreover, a wide variety of sounds experienced as positive can be used to shift our focus  from noise through masking.

In gardening, there is a long tradition of using sonic elements as an asset to enhance experience. Waterworks  can be found in all classical cultures – ranging from simple cooling facilities in Egypt to full-blown masterpieces like the one hundred fountains terrace in Renaissance Italy.

Historical examples also include mechanically driven sound sculptures in artificial trees and caves, wind instruments like the eols harp, bells and much more. Nature has always served as an inspiration for the sounds that have occurred. Sometimes it is used in its pure form.

The water of life

Water is perhaps the most original of all sounds. We find it in the paved brook, the river and the waterfall. In the raindrops falling on the leaves of plants. In the ocean waves breaking against the beach.

Life itself probably occurred while accompanied by water sounds. Maybe that’s why water is so appreciated – we’ve always needed it for our survival.

In urban space, fountains and other installations remind us about nature . Formalized and controlled, yet with rich sensory variations, there is a water feature for any architectural expression. The high rising cascade is a demonstration of power, built for awe and respect. It is often found in conjunction with royal and national institutions. The larger scale found here harmonizes with the stronger sound of the cascade.

Powerful water features are great for masking out traffic noise, as well as other sounds.

Japanese tradition

The Japanese suikinkutu does not claim to produce the loudest sound, at least not in its original, subtle form. Suikinkutu is a centuries-old tradition in Japan based on the sound of water drops as they resonate in a cavity hidden beneath ground. The sound is created at the bottom of the cavity, as a water surface intersects the falling drops. The cavity  above acts as a resonance chamber in which the sound is enhanced giving it that  characteristic subtle tinkling sound with a metallic touch of vibrancy.  Installations have been made with larger and more powerful variants of the same basic idea, amongst others Stortorget in Kalmar, a project which also received the award Sienapriset in 2004.

Suikinkutu produces a sound reminiscent of music, which in Japanese spirit could be seen as a tribute to the more or less delicate musical qualities that we also find in nature.

Streams can provide a dynamic experience as the sound of water changes rhythm and tonality in space and time. Stones can be located strategically to activate the water for sonic and visual effects. Cavities and caves can contribute with resonance to enhance the sound and provide interesting underwater tones. In some situations, it is even possible to hear music in the white noise of water.

The musicality of the sea

The mysterious sound of the ocean speaks to us about unexplored depths and distant places.

It is said that the calming effect of the ocean can partly be explained by the fact that the time interval between two waves tend to coincide with our own breathing rate at rest. Through entrainment, the ocean waves encourage us to breathe in the same rhythm, thus making us feel calmer. The ocean can play musical notes too. In the water organ in Zadar, Croatia, the waves propagate the air into specially designed organ pipes to an everlasting symphony of the sea.

A tradition stemming thousands of years, mechanical systems to control water supply has been used in fountains and waterworks around the world. Mechanical features like singing birds, mystical creatures, organs or roaring lions have all been driven by water. Today, technological developments have made creative design sollutions more accessible, and computers can be used to control the music of nature.

From research in musicology, we know that rhythms, tones and harmonies can have a profound effect on us. Part of this knowledge can be used to inspire water installations in urban situations. Too many fountains are arbitrarily handled, and some even supply a sound that is intrusive and dissonant.


Acknowledge the subtle sounds

In urban environments, many sonic events are gathered on a relatively limited space. This creates a competition for the acoustic space, where qualitities associated with the more subtle sounds will be increasingly diffult to hear.

Our own sounds, such as those created when we walk, give us an important connection with the environment, confirming our movements and interaction with our surroudnings. The sonic response from our own movements give us a kind of direct contact or communication with the location, and we can, consciously or unconsciously, get an increased understanding of the material we walk on. This is given to us by knowing the structure and listening to the sounds that are created. The sound of crunching gravel in a park gives us other meanings and associations then, for example, cobblestones in an alley.

Stimulate places

One way of  opening up the acoustic space to allow for more subtle expressions is to reduce occurances of unwanted sounds.  Yet, it is also possible to stimulate subtle sound sources by use of strategically located structures with acoustic effects, such as paraboles, walls and other reflective elements.

Man has a long tradition of using such effects. For instance, many churches in Sweden have a clearly marked entrance in the form of a lynchgate. It is commonly understood that the gate symbolizes a transaction between the profane and the spiritual world, it is often integrated as part of the wall of the cemetery. The lychgate floor is covered with gravel, and the crunching sound  is enhanced by the reflections of the walls and the resonance tones of the parabole-like space of the lynchgate roof, thus giving the passage a kind of magical character. The increased sound pressure level also adds a contrast effect so that after the passage, you may experience the spiritual world on the other side as relatively quiet.

Urban environments are full of reflecting surfaces. You find them in, tunnels, alleys, passages and subways for example. Such surfaces tend to stimulate active exploration in the form of exclamation, song and other sounds.

Extra strong effect

Sonic reflections can be used strategically in planning and design. For instance, walls can be used along walkways to enhance the sound of walking, or behind water features to direct the pleasant sound over a larger area. Paraboles can  take the effect a step further by stimulating interactivity and conversation to enhance meeting places.

The consideration for sonic reflections in urban environments open up for many creative possibilities. Not least because all materials have a characteristic colour tone or timbre as they reflect sound. A parallel can be drawn to the different colors of the light, because in both cases, some frequencies are reflected better than others. Wood is considered to have a warm and comfortable tone, whereas stone is often perceived as cold. The character of these reflections are closely associated with the atmosphere of a place.

What is the sound of the Eiffel Tower?


A House for Edwin Denby (2000) by Robert Wilson. An unexpected but appreciated feature in the middle of a beech forest in Scania, Sweden. From the tree tops comes a flow of organ ambience.  The small chapel has no door, yet from the inside, you can hear a written text being recited with an appealing tone. A book is laid out on a table in the illuminated, but deserted house. Suddenly, the sound of a bird fluttering from the tree crowns. Permanent installation at Wanås exhibitions. Photo: Gunnar Cerwén.


Have you ever wondered what the Eiffel Tower would sound like if you could listen to it? Or have you passed through a dense virtual wall of mysterious sounds? What is the sound of an ant, or a fish? And how does a traffic organ work?

Sound Art is an umbrella term for a series of art expressions that focus mainly on sound and listening, such as electro acoustics, noise, musique concrète and soundscape.

Roots in the early 1900s

In its present form, sound art has its roots in the early 1900s, when recording techniques and sound reproduction began to evolve. However, other forms of sound art can be said to have existed long before this, through mechanical devices and performance. Some of these are closely associated with historical gardens.

With the introduction of recording techniques, it became possible to document sound art, and for that matter, it opened up for new possibilities of developing and performing it.

The boundaries have been erased for what can be achieved with sound. With computer technology, it is possible to build acoustical worlds, atmospheres and spatial reverberation. Soundscapes can be simulated digitally. Similarly, equipment  for presenting sound has evolved, making it possible to  present it outdoors in permanent settings. Sound art installations have the potential to offer something new and exciting in outdoor environments. With loudspeakers, there are opportunities to create variation in monotonous sound environments to highlight different elements, as in sound sculptures. Installations can also be used to mask traffic noise in a similar manner to that of fountains and rustling trees.

Sound art differs from the visual arts in that the room and the place where it is presented becomes even more integrated. Sound spreads, affect and interacts with the environment in a profoundly different way than, say for example, a painting in a gallery. One could argue that the location and context of sound art is as important as the sound itself.

In site-specific sound art, this relationship is acknowledged and installations are made to relate to different historical, emotional or acoustic characteristics of the specific location. This is not rarely comprised of different urban spaces. The installation can aim to provide a different understanding of the place, its architecture or spatial sensitivity. In this respect, the site-specific sound art is also related to architecture and urban planning, as the experience of the urban space is in focus and changes with the intervention. When the location is made part of the work, the work is also part of the location.

Acoustic design

As a parallel to site-specific sound art, some architects and city planners work with loudspeaker additions of sounds, which are then referred to as acoustic design or soundscaping. The intention is to find a sound design that supports and strengthens the function, purpose and architectural expression of that location. With subtle and barely noticeable installations, it is possible to add sound to a location in a similar way that you would normally illuminate it. This can be done with the purpose of enhancing the character and atmosphere of the site, or creating appropriate associations to increase understanding of where to find different functions. Sounds are often combined with light and other visual expressions, opening up for an interplay between the senses, as well as making the sound “belong”.

The use of speaker sounds can be problematic as the visual contact between the viewer and the original sound source is missing. For example, if the sound of rippling water is played on a speaker, we can not see the water. In a natural situation, when experienced by a stream, the rippling water would be perceived as a positive sound by most people. Yet it is not certain it will create the same positive associations while coming from a speaker. The audio-visual contact is important to consider when working with speaker installations.  The connection between the senses can be “re-instated” to some extent by choose of location or construction of a sculpture. In some cases, the lack of audio-vision connection is not a problem. In fact, it can also be a quality.

Studies on how we react and relate to urban sound installations are currently scarce, but researchers are beginning to investigate the subject.

Sound space

Previous experience points to the fact that there is an overwhelming curiosity – especially in the initial phase – of urban sound art installations but that, depending on the design, this attitude can quickly turn into something negative.

In order for an installation to succeed over time, it seems to be helping if there is a link to the specific location to some extent. Moreover, it is an advantage if the installation is dynamic, offering changes over time. It is also good if the installation is not too agressive in terms of sound pressure level. Moreover, leaving some areas free of the installation provides the visitor with a choice to avoid it.

The locations of the loudspeakers in relation to the physical space is of significance. For instance, the speakers can be located to correspond with the delimitation of a physical space and thus interact with and reinforce this expression to create a space of sound. In a park in the western harbour of Malmö city, there is a popular horseshoe-like space that has this property. It is commonly referred to as the sound mound.

This space, which opens up to the sea, is marked with speakers that are integrated and constructed to conform with the shape of the space. Music is played on regular intervals through the speakers, and there are also concerts and site-specific audio installations occasionally. Everything is accompanied by the white noise of the sea and other surrounding sounds. This unique merging of speakers and space ensure that all the added sound become anchored in the site.

Sound sculptures

Loudspeakers in outdoor environments need to be protected from weather and the risk of sabotage. This can be accomodated in the construction through the use of devices like wells, bars, or concrete boxes. The protection devices are often integrated into the design, thus adding a visual expression to the installation. In this way, there is an enhanced possibility for the installation to communicate with other aspects of the site to provide a link and immediate relevance in a similar manner as the sound mound.

On Solbjerg plads in Copenhagen, wells have been used to create an anchorage of the sound in the location. In the wells, which also form an important part of the visual design, the architects have decided to put speakers that plays different kinds of natural sounds. This in turn  serves as a contrast to the otherwise stripped and urban expression of the place.

In the sound sculpture, a loudspeaker (or any other source of sound) is located in or in connection with an artistically designed container, statue or sculpture. In this way, the sound sculpture – in a similar manner as a water fountain – speaks to several of our senses. The sculpture can be shaped as an artificial tree or a UFO made from glass fiber. The sound sculpture can present an interesting alternative to conventional ornaments in urban environments because it also offers a variation in the soundscape.

New worlds are opened

Speaker installations can be used to tell an exciting story about activities we do not see, hear or usually think of. For instance, what does it sound like in the depth of the water in the harbour basin, or in the bark of the city park’s old oak? What happens in the humus of the earth?

The technology has opened doors to brand new worlds of sounds that we never had a chance to listen to in the past. In conjunction with lookouts and sightseeing trails, we often find the classic coin-fed binoculars providing us with a better view of the surrounding landscape. The technology is now available to offer similar possibilities for sound. In Gothenburg’s botanical garden and Botanic sounds in 2009, it was possible to enjoy sounds from ants, larvae and other small insects in Jana Winder’s Colonizers of the undergrowth.

All sounds require a certain arena to be performed. A potentially problematic aspect of the sound art installation is the privatization of the urban space that it can be associated with. If visitors are involved to control the installation somehow, the risk is reduced. Therefore, it is important to ask what role the user can be given.

If the installation can be controlled in some way by the user, the power shifts from the artist to the individual, an action which also gives the sound relevance. Interactivity can be as simple as a switch for on and off, or the possibility to change the expression in different ways. In playgrounds with the theme of sound, interactivity is central. When the concept is transferred to the city, chances are that an appreciated feature will materialize. Both adults and children have a lot to discover in the world of sounds.

Sound from a highway

Another form of interactivity occurs when you allow the characteristics of the location to control the sound. In Harmonic bridge by Sam Auinger and Bruce Odland, the artists use sound from a highway as a foundation. The sound of traffic passes through an organ pipe before it is played back in concrete boxes below the bridge. The sound of the passing traffic becomes a harmonious sound in that way, making it become an interesting and positive asset for the location that is given a whole new meaning.

In another installation, the same artists used the tide as a way to control and change the expression. An installation that changes over time should have a better possibility to be an asset over a longer periods of time.

A city of senses?

Man feels good discovering things. Our innate curiosity is the result of evolution’s progress – stimulating and exercising the brain was the basis of its development and for our ecological niche in nature.

Research has confirmed that in today’s modern society we still feel best when we get a fair amount of stimulus and new impressions.

Even if vision is our dominant sense, our experience of the surrounding happens in the interaction with all our senses. Today, some researchers say that we have twelve or more more senses that interact and together form a unit. For example, a fountain communicates to us, except through visual impressions also with increased humidity, white noise and a reduced temperature. Perception is based on a multisensory experience and by changing what we hear, the other senses change as well.

If we make a comparison between dense urban city life and some of the natural environments where man first evolved, the prerequisites for the perception apparatus has changed significantly. The balance between the sensory impressions have changed, as some senses are blocked by overstimulation: Traffic exhaust prevent us from feeling smells while noise blocks out our listening.

We rarely feel material and texture as we walk on flat surfaces where no balance is needed. This could be problematic as the  natural equilibrium and the interaction between the senses are disturbed.

In the urban environments of tomorrow, there should be room for all our senses including sound.


Where are the crickets? Speaker wells on Solbjerg plads in the district Frederiksberg, Copenhagen. Loudspeakers located in the wells play natural sounds that vary over time following a set of themes. SLA Landskap. (Stig L. Andersson, Hanne Bruun Møller, Stine Poulsen, Lars Nybye Sørensen). Photo/illustration: Gunnar Cerwén.