Posts Tagged ‘sound’

How did cities used to sound?

Thursday, March 28th, 2013

by Nick Miller

This is a question that many of us may have wondered about, but we at HMMH together with Professor Karin Bijsterveld of the University of Maastricht, Netherlands, her students, associates and staff of the Amsterdam Museum have provided an answer.  Several years ago I became aware of Karin’s research on urban soundscapes via the internet.  I emailed her suggesting that there might be some synergies between her work on soundscapes and our work creating virtual realities with our Soundscape Builder™.  She initially responded that she didn’t think so, but over the next year, she came up with some possibilities – including demonstrating how cities used to sound.  Eventually I traveled to Maastricht, demonstrated how our Soundscape Builder™ worked, and we both thought we could develop a useful collaboration.

Over the course of the following five years, Karin put together a proposal and was funded to conduct research on sounds significant in earlier eras in Amsterdam, and to assemble an exhibit for the Amsterdam Museum.  Using sounds researched by Karin, Annelies Jacobs, Alexandra Supper and recorded by Arnoud Traa , HMMH mixed, balanced, and conditioned the sounds so that they would be realistic if heard in Dam Square in Amsterdam.

Soundscape Builder for Dam Square 1895

Soundscape Builder for Dam Square 1935


The Sound of Amsterdam exhibit is presented with a touch-screen and headphones.  The headphones provide the realism of binaural recordings, as does the Soundscape Builder™ referenced above.  Visitors can choose the year (1895, 1935 or 2012) and the sounds they want to hear.  The 1895 and 1935 screens provide eleven possible sources and single ones or any combination may be selected; both English and Dutch versions are provided.

The exhibit has had considerable attention with writer Warna Oosterbaan producing an article published in the NRC, a high quality Dutch national newspaper, and Arnoud Traa was interviewed on Radio 1, the most important news radio broadcaster in the Netherlands.

For me, the experience has been delightful, working with new friends, separated by thousands of miles and five time zones, but easily sending files and comments back and forth.  The grand opening to the public is 28 March 2013.

So how did Amsterdam used to sound?  Before predominance of the internal combustion engine – 1895 – the most notable difference for me was the absence of low frequency noise.  But add unmuffled cars and trucks (1935), with back firing and horns, and we become surrounded by a continuous rumbling din.

Nails on a Chalkboard

Friday, November 11th, 2011

by Mary Ellen Eagan

I had an “NPR moment” the other day, but it was not the kind they advertise on pledge drives.  This story about Why Nails on a Chalkboard Drive Us Crazy had me sticking my fingers in my ears in a way I hadn’t since high school.  Not good when you’re driving (so I’ll caution you, too, before you click through to be sure you have hands free).

The team of German and Austrian researchers, Michael Öhler of the Macromedia University for Media and Communication in Cologne and Christoph Reuter from the University of Vienna, first picked out two sounds they determined were the most annoying to people: scratching fingernails on a chalkboard and squealing chalk on a slate.  They then played the sounds to a group of volunteers, half of whom were told their real origin and the other half who believed they came from contemporary music.  The researchers found that people who believed the sounds were art rated them as less grating than those who knew where they really came from, suggesting a psychological component to people’s annoyance.

But they also found that the research subjects had clear physiological reactions to the noises, such as increased heart rate, sweating and blood pressure regardless of their beliefs of the sounds’ origin.  This is apparently the consequence of the frequency of the sounds, between 2,000 and 4,000 hertz, which hits the frequency range over which the human ear is considered to be most sensitive because of the anatomy of the ear canal, the scientists said.

I’m blogging about it because it makes two points that are relevant to human reaction to transportation noise:  frequency and attitude.

  1. First, transportation noise also happens to have most of its acoustic energy in the same mid-frequency range (also babies crying – see my previous post on that issue).
  2. Second, attitude plays a significant role in our response (annoyance) to sound (noise).  The chalkboard research showed that when subjects were told before listening to it that the recording was “modern music”, they were much more tolerant than when they were told they’d be hearing nails on a chalkboard.  We often joke about people being much more tolerant of “the sound of Freedom” near military bases, but there is good reason.   Sandy Fidell has written extensively that a significant portion of the variance in annoyance dose-response curves (comparing aircraft noise exposure doses to levels of high annoyance) can be attributed to attitude toward the noise source.  Airports that take this to heart, and make concerted efforts at public outreach, can attest to the difference that attitude makes.

Fortunately, in the case of both chalkboards and aircraft noise, technology has evolved significantly in the last 30 years, so that the need to stick our fingers in our ears is much less.