Manchester: Explorations of Meaning in the Sounds of the City

Image by Rafael de Oliveira on Flickr


by Alex Allred.

Alex is a postgraduate student at NOVARS Centre for Electroacoustic Composition, Performance and Sound Art.

The steady rolling rumble of the busses, the screaming throttle of a passing motorbike, jet engines above, sirens below, “tough” lads singing in the street after several inspirational pints, the city is always moving, always changing. The sounds of Manchester are loud, rough, and industrial. Like its own history, the city is hard. As the center of the industrial revolution, Manchester was filled with hard working people who endured difficult living and working conditions, indoors and out of doors. To understand the acoustic environment of the city, one must first ask ‘what comprises a “city”’; its people, spaces, and noises, its history, or its climate? From the diversity of its inhabitants, to the massive and ever-growing population of students, artists, workers, no ones, some ones, everyone, all occupying space, interacting with each other, and adding a new dynamic in the production of the city’s collective sound.

Setting out to explore the sonic environment of a city is a daunting task. Seeking to discover how and where meaning is attributed, in relationship to the acoustic environment, is a different beast all together. The aim is not to provide a definitive answer to these questions but to set out in a dialogue that employs landscape and acoustic ecologies with an anthropological perspective of culture, place and sound. In a recent document, published by the American Institute of Biological Sciences, aimed at establishing soundscape ecology as a branch of study, the author states:

‘Sounds are a perpetual and dynamic property of all landscapes. The sounds of vocalizing and stridulating animals and the non-biological sounds of running water and rustling wind emanate from natural landscapes. Urban landscapes, in contrast, are dominated by human-produced sounds radiating from a variety of sources, such as machines, sirens, and the friction of tires rotating on pavement’ (Pijanowski et al., 2011).

The document goes on to set out how one might study the production of sound. Setting out three branches of sound in landscape: Geophony or non-biological sound, Biophony or biologically produced sound, and Anthrophony, human produced sound. These categories help to ‘place’ sounds so that they can easily be discussed.

The meanings of the sounds in a city are ever changing, yet timeless through memory. The three spheres of landscape sound help one to view the interactions between the producers, and subsequently, to find the meaning in the sound. In such a discussion, it is necessary to ask questions without clear answers, to break down the structures already in place and examine the personal relationship between memory, as time and place, and the sounds of a city. In this discussion, I will address the sonic environment from the macro to the micro. We will look first at the city as a whole, then at one of its main arteries, Oxford Road, and finally, at Whitworth Park on the southern tip of Oxford Road. The accompanying soundscape composition of this project aims to demonstrate how the everyday sounds of Manchester relate to each other and interact in a given acoustic environment, evoking personal associations and displaying attributions of meaning through sound. Just as Steven Feld came to view the sonic environment of Basavi, Papua New Guinea, as an integral part of any discussion regarding the ecology of the Kaluli, one must also consider the significance of Manchester’s sonic environment when exploring the meaning of sound in the city (Feld & Brenneis, 2004).

The city breathes. The city changes. The city creates. Manchester is a place that stands out from others in the United Kingdom, even many others in the world. The structures that shape the city are as strong as the pride of the hard working people who call it home. Yet, with all of its strength, Manchester has a cultural transparency that demonstrates the city’s core identity, namely, the collective energy of its diverse and vibrant population. As the clocks turn forward, the faces that color the grey gloomy streets are ever changing. Thousands of students travel in and out of the city with each passing term. It is not uncommon to hear people say ‘It is quiet in the city this week, the students must be away’. Clearly, the gauge of the city’s activity and life is often based on the presence and level of noise.

The city sounds of wind, rain, engines and people making noise; that fact seems never to change. Whether by activities such as walking, or through vocalization, humans interact by means of sound. Such universality calls into question ‘what did Manchester sound like in previous decades or centuries’? Perhaps an ear to the past will provide some context for the sounds of today. In his book, Victorian Soundscapes (2003), John Picker describes the sounds of London in a time where the celebrities included figures like Charles Dickens, Alfred Tenysson, Florence Nightingale, Thomas Edison, and Alexander Graham Bell. The personal accounts of people like these shed light on the acoustic environment of times past. In the Victorian era, the discussion of sound, and its effects on the lives of all who hear, was actually more of a heated debate. Charles Dickens penned a petition aimed at stopping the performance of street musicians, namely Italian immigrants or ‘organ grinders’. The petition was signed by an impressive list of Victorian authors, artist and scientists including Alfred Tennyson, J. E. Millais, Francis Grant, Forester, Leech, Carlyle, Wigan, and so on (61). It would appear that the public disdain for the sound of the organ grinders was more closely connected to personal prejudice and political stance against immigration than that of the sounds themselves. However, Leech, at the time, defined the struggle as economic, occupational and nationalistic in nature (64).

In 1864, Charles Babbage wrote a list of ‘”instruments of torture” in use on the streets of London, including “The human voice in its various forms” “shouting out objects for sale,” in addition to the predictable musical suspects of organs, brass bands, and fiddles’  (57). These ‘noises’, or sounds produced in the public sphere that could not be controlled, caused great psychological and even physical distress for those who opposed, especially Leech (61). Prior to the debate over organ grinders, Florence Nightingale had already addressed the connection between ‘unnecessary noise’ and health and well-being (65-66). The sounds that nearly drove the great Victorian minds into insanity are not so different from the soundscape of today. Construction noise, human voices, and non-biological sounds of wind and rain are ever-present in the city’s sonic history. High heels have replaced the clicking and clacking of shoed horses prancing down the stone streets. Rumbling engines and the passing buzz of rolling tires replace the hollow bang of wooden carts and carriages. Music fills the streets of Manchester, whether performed on the street, or spilling out of pubs, clubs and passing cars, some things are timeless.

As humans, meanings are attributed to locations based on personal association to a specific place. This phenomenon can include activities that have occurred, as well as the sites, the smells, and the overall sensory experience. Specifically, sounds associated with a place, regardless of location and time, allow for humans to feel a continued sense of connectivity to a place on an individual level. The acoustic properties of a space cause shifts in human emotion. Physical elements of the materials encompassing a space are perceived by the mind as entailing certain qualities. For example, pastoral feelings such, as tranquility along with imagery of unheard natural elements, can be easily experienced in a park filled with rustling leaves and the soft sound of birds chirping; the experience remains with or without the park. The soothing tones of geophony and biophany, compared to the more hurried sounds of energy within a city center, proves that places are moments, events, and happenings; far more than they are simply spaces. (Casey, 1996) Unknowingly, humans actively participate within a space by both contributing sounds and absorbing them. People create the sounds as well as simply experience them.

Within Manchester, Oxford Road is the place in which one can easily contextualize the concept of distinct acoustics associated with personal meaning. Along this road lies the real life of the city; the universities, the pubs, the clubs, the restaurants, all full of people. Like an artery, Oxford Road acts as an extension of the unwanted noise such as construction and traffic to and from the City Centre. No matter the time of day, the spilling sounds of car engines and buses are balanced out by the quiet energy of the contrasting parks. Since the late 1800s, Oxford Road has been the heart of travel. From trams to horse and carriages, the foundational sense of the road itself has been movement, bring with it the sounds of engines, rails, bikes, and pedestrians (Anderson, 2012).

The inhabitants of the city are not the ones directly causing unwanted noise. Most seek interaction with each other in a secluded, controlled, and most importantly, dry space. The problems with the sonic environment come from all of the city’s gears grinding away as they fight to support the infrastructure. Manchester, even Oxford Road, as seen today is a city of neighborhoods and villages connected by centuries of industrial expansion. The greatest maladies in the sonic qualities of the city are those which move and support the support the city’s most basic needs: busses, trams, trains, and cars moving the people around. Trucks beep as they back into a tight alley to supply food or remove waste. Saws grind away and hammers pound out fleeting pulsations as the sounds of construction and renovation fill the air. These are sounds with which Manchester is quite familiar, sounds of progress, seemingly as continuous as its ancient history. The sound, however, represents more than the simple byproducts of construction, it also represents the efforts of the laborer.

As the sounds of nature are pushed farther away from the everyday lives of those who reside in the city, people are reaching for a new sonic environment. Every day thousands walk the streets and ride the busses with headphones plugged in and the sound turned up. Unresponsive to sonic stimuli around them, the listener is being immersed, even transplanted in some way. For those who are unplugged, the change in sonic environment often comes by visiting natural, open spaces and seeking out the sounds of the landscape wherever they can be found in the urban jungle.  Parks, courtyards, fields, or any green spaces offer a place to relax, reconnect, and enjoy life in its natural environment.

As a space, parks act to grant access to the earth below, a place for escape from the rigidity surrounding it; stone, brick, pavement and glass all around, accepting no sound, only passing on each piercing noise. In “Echoless: The Pathology of Freedom and the Crisis of Twentieth-Century Listening”, Veit Erlmann (2010) brings the views of philosophers, scientists and writers from the twentieth century into a dialogue surround the nature of listening and its correlation to one’s self. The ‘echolessness’ of a modern urban soundscape may cause the mind to interpret the space as un-natural and foreign, far removed from the sounds of the landscape. Georg Simmel, a critic of modernity, attributed the ‘alienation’ of society as being caused by more people, more noise, and less space (Erlmann, 2010). Certainly, these issues only grow in scale each year, but what does that mean for quality of life in metropolitan areas?

In the park, the texture is soft. Fields of dark green grass soak up sound like a thick carpet. Soft leaves hang from the enormous, outstretched arms of the oak trees as they reach to catch the light and the wind. The trees break the wind and provide shelter from rain, but they also produce their own acoustic dynamics. While still holding onto the branches, the leaves rustle with the gentle breeze, but the wood creaks as it sways in the stormy gusts. When the seasons change and the leaves fall to the ground, they become percussion instruments, waiting to be played by a visitor’s carefree step. The subtlety of such sounds can be experienced in the park because the environment acts to absorb sound, as opposed to the majority of the city’s hard surfaces, which simply reflect the noise.

Situated on the southern end of Oxford Road is Whitworth Park, the dividing landmark between Rusholme and Moss Side. Opened in 1890, the park was established as a place to experience an oasis from the hard life of the city, giving individuals a place to experience nature and freedom from the dust and smog of the streets. Peeling back the jungle of noise, Whitworth Park, even in its establishing documents, was conceptualized as a place for families to interact with one another and individuals to finally relax, free from the vices of the pub. Built in coordination with the previously established Whitworth Institute, the aim was to ‘secure a source of perpetual gratification to the people of Manchester & and cultivate taste and knowledge of the Fine Arts of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture’ (Giles & Jones).

Parks are timeless. Children will always play, just as weary souls will always need a welcoming bench in the shade of the trees. At the time of its opening, Whitworth Park had a bandstand, sailing lake, observatory, flower beds, fountains, and shelters (Giles and Jones). Although visual evidence the park’s past grandeur has all but disappeared, Whitworth Park continues to maintain the essence of its mission. Remaining connected to the Whitworth Art Gallery provides the park with a secondary meaning. More than a space with trees and grass, the park is an extension of the human experience, art in the gallery and art in the park. Today, the park is not riddled with structures, but instead, has a comforting sparseness. Paths lead from the four corners of the park to a central circle of flowerbeds. The children’s play area has been left as a natural area, tucked under the trees with leaves and dirt covering the ground. This ‘natural area’ provides a place for children to be loud, to enjoy the outdoors and run, free from the noise, the pavement, and the social structures of the street. The significance of the park’s acoustic qualities are not found solely in the absence of human sound, or in the presence of pastoral sounds. The significance of the park’s sonic environment is in the presence of both human and non-human sounds operating in a greater level of balance.

The soundscape composition that accompanies this paper is meant to pull each of these sounds from the city and its original context, and through their organization, to demonstrate their significance. By using these everyday sounds of the city, it becomes clear that through association, personal attribution of meaning and of memory are evoked. The soundscape works by painting sonic scenes, taking the listener from place to place throughout the city. The sounds, paired with an associated texture, set the scenes on the brief, yet sonically diverse, sensory journey.

The first fifteen seconds place the listener in an environment with water, running or falling, as the distant but steady rumble of a jet engine passes overhead. After the first fifteen seconds, the texture builds with the sound of leaves crackling underfoot while magpies call back and forth with a shrill crow. After thirty seconds, a bus pulls up to the stop and the squeaking breaks ring out with a shrill, high-pitched cry. Forty-five seconds into the scene the listener is on the bus, overhearing the conversations of the fellow travelers in the confines of the crammed moving box. Just after the one-minute mark, the listener has arrived in Piccadilly Gardens and hears a young man yelling about the pride of the Manchester City Football Club. A passing cart clicks and clacks over the patterned arrangement of the stone street. One minute and twenty-five seconds in, one can hear the whistles of the trams as they approach from a distance. The surrounding crowd of people can be heard speaking multiple languages as they pass by, occasionally raising their voices to be heard over the ambient sound. Just before the two-minute mark, a woman in high heels taps past in a steady, yet fleeting pulsation. At two minutes thirteen seconds, the tram approaching earlier passes just beside the listener. The whistle is abrasive and startling, followed by the screeching of metal as the wheels squeeze the steel tracks. Two minutes twenty-five seconds, a cyclist slowly cruises by as the petals click with each turn of the tires. Two minutes and forty seconds into the acoustic journey, the previously faint and distant construction noise becomes more present and eventually, overpowering all other sounds. When the sound of the electric saw cuts out, the listener can hear the traveler notice playing in the background on the nearby tram platform. As the noise of the trams, saws, and wind gain intensity, the dynamics of the voices surrounding become louder. When the environmental sounds become loud, those speaking must fight to be heard.

Now headed back down Oxford Road on foot, busses, cars and bikes zip past the listener, marked by the occasional honking car horn. On Oxford Road, traffic lights spread the vehicles out into groups of racing traffic. Moments of engines screaming throttles are matched by moments of relative quiet. Three minutes and eighteen seconds, a car with loud speakers quickly passes, demonstrating the Doppler effect heard so many times each day in Manchester. Just before the four-minute mark, a trash collector walks past as he pushes his cart down the pavement, whistling a tune over the busy noise of the city. After four minutes, the listener arrives at Whitworth Park. The sound of the place being distinctly different from the previous scenes, one can hear the birds sweetly chirping while the children play on the swings under the trees. While hearing the children play, one can make out the busses passing not so far away, and the beeping of a truck as it backs up somewhere in the distance. The crackling leaves and the calling magpies reenter the scene to mark the natural environment.  Just after five minutes, the rainfall becomes a steady drizzle, bouncing off of the leaves of a sheltering tree while cars pass the park driving through the water that stands on the road. The rain, which Manchunians unwillingly learn to endure, becomes subtly and beautiful in the acoustics of the Park.

The experience takes the listener out of their circumstances and places them in a series of memories and associations. Connecting the sounds of Manchester today with the sounds of Manchester over a century ago, the interaction between the three sound producers, geophony, biophony, and anthrophony, raises questions about the sonic future of the city. Manchester is a diverse and vibrant city filled with a multitude of sounds. All of the textures, spaces and sounds of the city evoke memories of places, events, feelings, and associations for all of its inhabitants, but who is actually listening?

Alex has created a soundscape piece to accompany this text which can be played below. Both text and composition were first performed at Locative Audio event organised by NOVARS on June 29th 2012.

Works Cited

Anderson, B. (2012). Rusholme and victoria park archive. Retrieved from

Casey, E. S. (1996). How to get from space to place in a fairly short stretch of time: phenomenological prolegomena. In S. Feld & K. H. Basso (Eds.),Senses of Place (pp. 13-46). Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

Erlmann, V. (2010). Reason and resonance: A history of modern aurality. (pp. 307-342). New York: Zone Books.

Feld, S. (1996). Waterfalls of Song: An acoustemology of place resounding in Bosavi, Papua New Ginuea. In S. Feld & K. H. Basso (Eds.),Senses of Place (pp. 13-46). Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

Feld, S., & Brenneis, D. (2004). Doing anthropology in sound. American Ethnologist31(4), 461-474.

Picker, J. M. (2003). Victorian soundscapes. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pijanowski et. al.(2011). Soundscape ecology: The science of sound in the landscape. BioScience61(3), 203-216.

1 thought on “Manchester: Explorations of Meaning in the Sounds of the City

  1. Pingback: Locative Audio | Angela Guyton

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s