What does it mean to listen?

Bryn Bliska and Charles Holbrow, MIT Media Lab, Boston USA

What does it mean to listen to a city? And, in turn, how do you best capture this experience and share it with others? As research assistants in the Opera of the Future group, we share a deep love for the act of listening, and are fortunate to visit different places around the world simply to grapple with these questions. So, as you all approach A Symphony for Lucerne, we wanted to share our approach with you.

Although there are no right or wrong ways to listen to a city, there are different ways. Whether we’re listening to a new city for the first time, or just considering more closely the sounds that populate our everyday lives in Boston, there are many questions we like to keep in mind. These questions aren’t meant to yield particular answers or outcomes; rather, they help stimulate us to think and hear more, and more deeply. We hope you’ll find an opportunity to listen closely to Lucerne, noticing the details that might otherwise escape your attention. As you do, we invite you to ask yourself the following:

How many individual sound sources contribute to all that my ears perceive?
How are the sounds I hear situated in space? Are they moving? How do the structures in my environment–buildings, walls, streets, vacant spaces–influence the character of these sounds?
Do these sounds resemble what I think of as “music?” How or how not so? Do they have any intrinsic rhythm or harmonic flavor? Unique timbres?
Do these sounds change rapidly as I listen, or evolve more slowly?
Do I notice anything different about these sounds with my eyes closed? If I turn around?
Did these sounds exist 10 years ago? 50 years ago? 200 years ago? Will they exist here in 10, 50, 200 years from today? Will they be absent at a different time of day?
Are these sounds personal and unique? Public and universal?
Do these sounds exist in other cities? What makes them similar or different to those here in Lucerne?
How do these sounds make you feel, and what adjectives would you use to describe them?

These are just a few of many possible inquiries through which you can build your awareness of the sonic world around you. They also present some starting points for connecting with others in dialogue about how you hear the world. We encourage you to invent your own methods, and to listen in the ways that you find most interesting and rewarding!


When listening, we also hope that you’ll download our smartphone app (Android | iPhone) or grab your alternative recording rig of choice and capture the sounds that define your Lucerne. We’re excited to be building up a database of sounds from across the city for the symphony, and would love your contributions. Some tips and ideas for recording with your smartphone:

The most important part of recording is to listen. No microphone works as well as your ears. Listen carefully to the acoustic source, and compare it with your recording.
When listening back to your recorded sounds, ensure that you find them interesting are clear. If they’re not, consider adjusting your distance from the sound source(s), and recording again.
Locate the microphone on your device, and point this towards the source of the sound(s) you wish to capture. Depending on the model of your phone, the microphone may be at the bottom or the top.
If you are outside, try to avoid recording in heavy winds, or shield the microphone from any direct wind.
If you’re recording an ambience, experiment with turning around while holding your phone to capture a sense of the space you’re in.
Experiment by recording the same sound from different locations and/or angles.

Finally, one of the most important factors determining the quality of your recording is the distance between your recording device and the sounds you wish to capture. There is no “correct” distance, but there are important considerations:

If your recording is very noisy, and the sound that you intended to record is masked by the ambient sounds, move the phone closer to the sound source.
If you intend to record the ambient sounds of a city rather than one specific sound, balance the sounds by standing farther from louder sound sources and closer to quiet sources. For example, if you hold your phone near a small stream of water, you will still be able to hear cars passing several blocks away.
As sound passes through the air, high frequencies are absorbed more than low frequencies. If you are far from your sound source, high frequencies may be attenuated. This high-frequency attenuation is part of what makes a sound seem far away.
As you move farther from a source, the sound will contain an increasing number of reflected sounds as it bounces off adjacent buildings and other obstacles. These reflections are collectively known as reverb, and contribute to our perception of distance in the sounds we hear.

Thoughts? Questions? Other ideas about listening and recording? Please leave us a comment below! We’d love to hear from you, and look forward to listening to all of your sounds.


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