chicago acoustic ecology

The Summer Sound of Chicago: Celebrating our Urban Acoustic Ecology


As the temperatures drop, we are all battening down the hatches and getting ready for winter.  One thing that changes during this season is the influx of city sounds into our interior lives.  The urban soundscape is just outside the door, of course, but we are about to dramatically reduce the amount of time we spend hearing it.  So today we celebrate the sounds we love, and don’t, in the Windy City.

Soundscapes and Acoustic Ecology

We are very familiar with the idea of iconic sights in a location – the sky line of Chicago, the L tracks, or the bean would all be instantly recognizable to any resident or visitor to our city.  What we may consider less are the recognizable sounds of our home city, although they can have just as much influence on our experience of place.

Here are a few favorite auditory moments repeated often in the experience of working at moss:

  • a rush of sound (and shift of light) as an afternoon Metra train whooshes by
  • the more rattling clatter of the Brown Line, punctuated by the occasional “Doors closing.  Addison is next,” in Lee Crooks’ familiar voice
  • the (picturesquely distant) roar of the crowd at nearby Wrigley Field

On the flip side, everyone here cringes at the weekly din of leaf blowers in the neighbor’s yard or the daily screech of a commuter’s faulty starter that reminds us its 5:20.  Being woken in the night by car alarms or early in the morning by passing garbage trucks are the bane of urban life.  But … they are also simply a part of it.  Acoustic ecology is just what it sounds like – the interconnected web of sounds associated with a certain place.

Noise Complaints are Universal

People certainly do love to complain about the sounds of urban life.  The Tribune ran an article recently listing common Chicagoan nose complaints: Wrigley, the 606, concerts at Montrose Beach, and noisy neighbors.   We can’t help but agree with their conclusion:

The sounds of summer are the sounds of celebration. For a few glorious weeks, Chicagoans turn up the volume outdoors. […] Who are we to tell them to keep it down?

Urban noise has been a consideration (and considered a problem) pretty much since the city came to be.  Emily Ann Thompson’s The Soundscape of Modernity, cites a Buddhist scripture from 500 BCE listing the “ten noises in a great city”: elephants, horses, chariots, and drums as well as people yelling in the street.  So this probably does speak as much of the human tendency to complain as to the universality of urban noise.  

It is interesting to note is that all the sounds listed in pre-industrial cities were organic – made by people or animals.  Today we have to contend with the clamor of our convenience machines as well.  Noise, in an urban context, probably means traffic sounds, air conditioner motors and planes (or helicopters) overhead.  That kind of noise can be more than a nuisance. It can be harmful both to the ears and the psyche, and even to our physiology, apparently.

Soundscape of Chicago

We aren’t the only ones who value the urban sound scape.  Favorite Chicago Sounds collates recordings of soundscapes across the city (check out this link for their jukebox function) and makes them available.  You can find the lions in the zoo, basketball in Cole Park, Metra and CTA announcements, or the sound of the wind at the lakeshore.

To conclude: here’s an apropos moment from my childhood Saturday morning cartoons

This 1935 cartoon shows Betty Boop leaving in a huff for the country to escape the cacophony of the city.  I wonder if that city is Chicago, since there is an elevated train outside her window.  She settles down to relax in the idyllic countryside only to be driven nuts by the sounds of birds, farm equipment and insects.  She concludes by returning home and throwing open the window to the sound of construction and traffic in relief.

Are the sounds of city living a blessing or a curse to you?