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The village bell was once a powerful symbol of sonic identity. Living in the noise of today’s global cities, what sounds exist that express our communal identity? Eric Fidler/flickr, CC BY-NC

Let cities speak: what sounds define us now?

This is the first of two “Let Cities Speak” articles. While Western city soundscapes are increasingly homogeneous, these articles seek to explore the sounds that still define us and the ways in which we might discover new sonic identities for our cities.

When village bells tolled in pre-industrial landscapes, the sound was laden with meaning. Religious representation, the passing of the days, and imminent warnings and dangers were all attached to its perception. Their historical meaning to communities has been thoroughly researched.

Alain Corbin’s book, Village Bells: Sound and Meaning in the 19th-century French Countryside, explores the central role these sounds played in everyday life, both in theistic and secular society.

The World Soundscape Project, led by Murray Schafer, investigated the acoustic horizons formed by bell sounds in their Five Village Soundscapes research, and how these sonic boundaries related to community identity.

The fading village bell

If you have ever visited those remaining ancient villages of Europe where the noises of contemporary society remain absent, you can hear not just the initial strike of a bell but its lingering resonance rolling through the streets. It marks a time to stop and listen as the sound stretches out, before receding into inaudibility.

Église Saint-Julien. Some sources indicate that the church bell (cloche) dates from 1691. jan buchholtz/flickr, CC BY

Now, when we hear church bells toll, the resonant tail is lost; only the initial strike of the bell can be heard. Its initial power is enough to compete with contemporary clamours, but along with its religious and quotidian meanings, the lingering resonances of the bell are swallowed by the insistent voice of progress – the ever-present call of our cities.

It is easy to romanticise the sound of bells, regardless of their beatific qualities. One of a series of art interventions by Bruce Odland and Sam Auinger, titled Sounding Bruges created for the 2015 Brugge Triennale, wrote a series of compositions for the carillon bells of a medieval belfry to create new compositions and rhythmic patterns. It brought to our attention the typically unwavering repetition of bell compositions.

This intervention acts as a reminder that the repetitive sound of village bells can be understood as the sound of control, as expressed by the religious and political authorities of the day.

As much as we might lament the homogenising impact of noise on our city environments – caused primarily by vehicles and air conditioning – we might also reflect on them as sonic expressions of industrial processes and technological evolution.

These are the sounds that have forever changed our lives, for better or worse, replacing the age of the village bell.

For the villagers of Helmsdale in Sutherland, Scotland, the chiming of the clock tower is still part of their lives.

Searching for our sonic identity

However, regardless of religious and political intent, the village bell was a powerful symbol of sonic identity.

In an era when global cities are defined by unerring technological drones and interruptions (i.e. sirens and hand-held devices), what soundmarks express our communal identity today?

In a previous article for The Conversation, I wrote that we are in danger of becoming the “passive and defeated receptors” of our city noise. Like the ancient bells, our subtleties and particularities are at risk of being subsumed by the swamp of noise, providing no significant moment to which we can attach our identities.

Even the famed gun salute of Anzac Day, a soundmark in which many Australians might find identity, has been silenced.

The factory workers of the 20th century, and their surrounding communities, were connected by way of the now-extinct siren that called for lunch or the end of the day. The bell of the local school is a soundmark that may linger in some places, reminding the community that the sounds of children are about to fill the air (if indeed any walk home – now, it most likely follows the sounds of multiple people-carriers arriving for pick-up).

It is worth noting the strange dichotomy in cities like Melbourne, where the clamour of busy centres is countered by the enduring silence of the suburbs.

In my own suburb of Glen Huntly the night silence is relentless. I’d prefer to hear the cicadas, frogs and birds of nature – the presence of life – than the total absence of life that so often marks our suburban existence.

Indeed, to call nature “silent” is a fallacy. In comparison to suburbia its soundscapes are eventful and vibrant. Yet this fallacy is fast becoming fact as a great silence falls across nature, concomitant with the rise of the global city.

The sounds of Melbourne’s trams have provided the city with a certain ‘distinctness’ for many years now. VirtualWolf/flickr, CC BY

Another victim of homogenisation

There is one familiar sound in my suburb, like much of Melbourne, that can still reach our ears: the lonely screech of the late-night 67 tram turning corners. I picture those workers and late-night partiers returning home, as I’m curled up in bed, its driver glaring into an illuminated distance.

This soundmark is made all the more meaningful because there is a history in each screech – every night, for as many years as those steel parts of wheel and track have connected.

The sounds of a tram travelling through the city are familiar to almost every Melburnian.

However, the bells of trams, like the horns of trains, have fallen victim to homogenisation. Little character to be found here, unfortunately.

But what about now, as community-defining sounds increasingly disappear into the noise? Could we find this to be an opportunity, rather than a lament? Do we have the opportunity to discover new sonic identities? How can communities work towards soundscapes that produce meaning?

I will discuss some research approaches exploring these questions in a second article.

You can read the second “Let Cities Speak” article here.

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