The Journal of Sonic Studies

To refer to this article use this url: http://journal.sonicstudies.org/vol01/nr01/a08

Journal of Sonic Studies, volume 1, nr. 1 (October 2011)

SOUNDMAPPING: Critiques And Reflections On This New Publicly Engaging Medium

Jacqueline Waldock


Soundmaps have captured the imagination of acoustic communities, libraries and radio stations alike. These interactive maps have placed soundscape collections and research in a more public and interactive space than ever before. However, does this new form reflect some of the polarizations of past sound projects or are there new fractures to be considered, such as gender, economy and the domestic/public divide? This paper will reflect upon the challenges and hierarchies that have developed alongside this new medium and will begin to critique and question this new form of sound engagement.


A new interactive, publicly engaging medium has emerged in sonic studies over the last decade. It is a social media application that has captured the imagination of acoustic societies, libraries, universities and tourist organisations alike. The interactive soundmap[1], combined with the capabilities of smartphones, has placed soundscape collections and research in a more public and interactive space than ever before. From New York’s Sound Seeker, New Orleans’ Open Sound, Seoul’s Sound@Media, and Montréal’s Sound Map to Trevor Cox’s Sound Tourism and the recently launched British Library’s UK Soundmap, these projects have been appearing over the last 10 years on the World Wide Web, and they are capturing the public’s attention and time.

By April 2011, the British UK Soundmap had hosted 1,800 recordings (Pennock and Clark 2011). The older, more established sound maps have archives expanding back years. The maps raise awareness of sound in the environment and create a vast archive of instant historical snap shots. The tremendous amount of material that can be accessed through such maps and the large number of people involved in this and other projects around the world, has led to soundmaps being talked about and understood as having a democratizing effect, through offering widespread ‘authentic’[2] forms of public engagement collaboration.

Soundmaps take several different forms: the New York soundmap is run by the New York Society for Acoustic Ecology, the UK Soundmap is hosted by the British Library, and the Seoul map is hosted by Saii's Media Culture Institute and funded by Seoul's Foundation for Arts and Culture. Most soundmaps have an open archive format with the intention of collecting sounds from across a city or country. The maps have a similar format, interactive maps with pin signs/tags to mark where sounds have been recorded at a particular geographical location. Clicking on the pins allows the soundmap visitor to listen to the sounds and in some cases, such as the New York and Salford Sounds Around You maps, allows you to zoom in to see a picture of the geographical location. Some maps list the categories or sounds alongside the map; others use a map and search option. The UK Soundmap and Audiokarte use Audio Boo FM as part of their interface, which is a ‘mobile and web platform that effortlessly allows you to record and upload audio for your friends, family or the rest of the world to hear.’

Each soundmap informatively clarifies its aims on its website; the New York’s Sound Seeker writes:

Sound Seeker is a map that privileges the ear over the eye. The project reaches across the city's geographic, economic, educational, cultural and racial divides. It is at once a historical record and a subjective representation of the city. It is what each user wishes it to be and it is ever growing, ever changing and totally interactive.
While acknowledging that the visual sense often dominates, and conscious of the fact that the internet is largely a visual interface, we strive to create spaces that engage ALL the senses, and the mind, in a truly interactive way.

Interestingly, it appears to hope to create an open platform for people to use, a space for users and visitors to make of it what they will and utilize however they wish. The Sound Seeker map’s expectations are extravagant; for example, how realistic is the expectation that the soundmap can cross ‘geographical, economical, educational, cultural and racial divides’? (ibid)

In contrast to the New York soundmap, the Basque Country map has a simple aim: ‘… to show, share and exchange field recordings made in the Basque Country. Here you will find several sound recordings, that tell us a little more about the different sonic realities of the Basque Country.’ The open aim of the project gives those who engage with it freedom to choose what to record and represent. The Montreal Sound Map differs yet again, writing:

Sound maps are in many ways the most effective auditory archive of an environment, touching on aspects political, artistic, cultural, historical, and technological.
We are aiming to create an archival database of sound recordings from all over Montréal. The Montréal Sound Map is an ongoing and continually evolving project with the goal of a constant addition of new recordings being placed into a browsable tagging system (see road map).

The Montreal map’s statement raises the question: how effective is the soundmap format as an archive of the environment as a whole?

Seoul’s Sound@Media and Salford’s Sounds Around You maps contain campaign statements. Sounds Around You writes ‘ (the map)…aims to raise awareness of how our soundscape influences us and could have far reaching implications for professions and social groups ranging from urban planners to house buyers’. Sounds@Media refers to its map as a campaign to draw people’s attention to everyday sounds and restore a sense of listening.

Within this paper, I will question as to whether the implied democracy of access and contribution and the term ‘effective’ are justified in relation to soundmaps, as well as seek to address the cultural hierarchies that underpin online maps. I will also analyse what issues this new form of engagement raises, such as: will these maps exclude the sounding worlds of those who cannot afford smart phones? And: have the makers taken into account the recording culture and norms that are produced and reiterated by these maps?

This new medium is infused with the presumptions of the past doctrines of soundscape studies and acoustic ecology, as well as beliefs developed in relation to older technologies, all of which bring their own hierarchies and expectations. I will discuss how the sound map format reflects and challenges these hierarchies as well as examine fractures within the field.

As a new technology, it stands on the shoulders of the research that has gone before it, and because of this, soundmaps must tackle the hierarchies and assumptions that are carried forward by such developments. The realm of soundscapes is one obvious foundation for soundmaps. Soundscape’s expansive and interdisciplinary journey can be seen to be mirrored in the extensive use of online acoustic maps in a variety of artistic, historical and musical research projects. However, are the early divisions and concerns of soundscape research echoed or challenged by this new form?

Challenging Historic Divisions

Early soundscape work has since been critiqued for its aesthetic moralism in relation to the urban/rural divide, the dualism of pre-industrial/post-industrial sound and the polarised concepts of hi-fi and lo-fi. McCartney (2010) critiqued the relationship between the rural and ecology in her 2010 paper ‘Ethical Questions About Working With Soundscapes’, presented at the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology conference, June 2010.

In both sound recording and sound ecology, the ideal of hifi seems to be related to ideas of authentic experience, of solitude, and of control of the environment. The authentic mountaintop of the hifi sound system and the idea of the hifi soundscape are both represented as retreats from the noise of urban domesticity. Is this what we want to represent to people? That in order to find ecological soundscapes, one must drive away from the city?

I believe that the connection between the rural and ecology is deeper than sound ecology, in that it is a concept fixed deep into the aesthetic values of ecology as a field of research.

Aesthetic values do not define ecology; however, there has, historically, been a close relationship between ecology and aesthetics, an alliance that may have developed from the connections between aesthetic value and nature. Kovas, LeRoy, Fischer, Lubarsky and Burke (2006), in their paper ‘How do Aesthetics Affect our Ecology?’, suggest that the relationship between aesthetics and ecology produces ‘...unacknowledged biases [that] are embedded throughout ecological studies from design to the interpretation of ecological findings.’ (Kovas et al 2006: 62) Their specific concern is that the ‘beauty bias’ sits too centrally within ecology and influences both the practice and implementation of ecological research. When exploring this ‘beauty bias’ they postulate:

...that more often than not, ecologists choose to work in undisturbed wetlands, virgin forest or ungrazed grasslands because of aesthetic preference and a desire to understand pristine systems. The beautiful places chosen as field sites for ecological studies are often remote parts of the landscape and, in the case of national parks or wilderness preserves, protected from development.....What has kept ecologists from focussing on the ecology of industrial, urban, suburban and anthropological disturbed areas for so long? We postulate that this is partially the result of a consistent beauty bias in ecology that has yielded more studies in beautiful, pristine places than in human dominated systems. (Kovas et al 2006: 62)

I contend that the ‘beauty bias’ that is so embedded within ecology is the resin that binds acoustic ecology with ecology, that the aesthetic values of ecology are the ecology in acoustic ecology. Both Schafer (1994: 271) and Truax (1999), in their definitions of acoustic ecology, include the sentence: ‘Its particular aim is to draw attention to imbalances which may have unhealthy or inimical effects.’ This imbalance is the increasingly lo-fi character of the sound environment that Schafer (1994: 3) postulates will lead to ‘universal deafness’. The aim is not solely the study of people and their sound environment, but rather the study of people and their sound environment with an aim to show imbalances and negative developments. Drever in his 2009 interview with the BBC also references Schafer’s interest in the pristine: ‘Murray Schafer has been passionately calling for the preservation of pristine soundscapes, those natural habitats relatively undisturbed by technological developments since the 70s.’

The strong appeal of conservationism and the aesthetic temptation of the natural have often blinkered the work of sound projects. The search for ‘pristine’, ecologically positive, soundscapes has, in the past, produced a large number of sonic projects based in small villages or towns set in rural environments. The most famous of these rural villages projects is the ‘Five Villages Soundscape’ (ed. Schafer 1977) carried out by the World Soundscape Project in Skruv Sweden, Bissingen Germany, Cembra Italy, Lesconil France and Dollar Scotland. These villages were revisited by Jarviluoma, Uimonen, Vikman and Kyto, resulting in the work ‘Acoustic Environments in Change’ (Jarviluoma, Kyto, Truax, Uimonen and Vikman ed. 2009). There are city-based projects, but often with the intention of highlighting the ‘negative’ aspects of urban sounds. Over recent years this has changed, and researchers and artists are increasingly being drawn to urban environments with no ‘beauty bias’ intent to their study. Does this historical aesthetic moralism, through the influence of ecology, still hold sway within the interactive world of the sound map?

Certainly this does not appear to be the case in the Montreal Soundmap , which categorises and tags its sounds as human (79), mechanical (103), natural (76), societal (61), music (102) and noise (75). Please note that these are not exclusive categories and that sounds may be labelled as both human and natural; the proportion of natural sounds is no greater than the proportion of other sounds listed. This is not surprising, as this is a city-based sound map (as are the New York, New Orleans and Seoul Maps), while the British Library map is a country-wide map; however, the trial project, prior to the UK Soundmap, was also a city-based soundmap of Coventry. As unprecedented as it may seem, sound maps appear to have exchanged the dominance of the rural for a dominance of the city, if based upon the amount of recordings being collected from within the urban environment[3]. Within the collection method of the soundmap it is impossible to establish whether the recordings of the city or the country are being recorded because they are considered a significant aspect of the sound environment, an interesting sonic event, or whether the sound collector is trying to highlight a negative aspect of the sonic soundworld, either rural or urban.

The lack of a nature-based hierarchy does not prevent other more subtle dominances from developing, which raises the question: are there other ruptures highlighted by this medium and its new practices? I will examine the soundmap’s relationship to the dividing lines of gender, domestic and public, private and collective, poor and well-resourced. I will argue that soundmaps, while profoundly democratic in impulse, have lost sight of the challenges their technologies pose to their missions.

It’s a man’s world? Soundmapping the public/private divide

One of the key divides in several sound maps appears to be gender; the three British-run soundmaps and the Canadian Montreal soundmap are all edited by men. The soundmaps themselves have a majority of male contributors[4], with maps quoting over 70% of contributions coming from men. Furthermore, these contributions are predominately made by people aged between 20-50[5] with some maps receiving over a third of their contributions from people aged between 22-33[6], their majority category. Should this divide be of concern? And does gender effect the recording of the sound? Surely the same environmental data will be collected regardless of whether a man records a train leaving St. Pancras Station or a woman does. Admittedly, the individual recordings are unlikely to change, but the big question is who and what are they recording? Is it possible that women’s recordings might highlight some characteristics of the sound environment that men’s recordings might not and also that men and women may sonically capture still existing gendered spaces? However, to explore such an aspect, the number of female contributors needs to increase, since due to the fact that most soundmaps are male-dominated, the recordings by women will inevitably be influenced by the type of sounds that prevail over the map at present. An imaginative way of engaging female contributors must therefore be found, in order for this imbalance to be addressed.

If soundmaps are a ‘permanent researchable resource’ (UK Soundmap), an ‘auditory archive of an environment’ (Montreal Soundmap), ‘a historical record and a subjective representation of the city’ (New York Soundseeker), then what is being constructed, in many cases, is a male-dominated record of sound, an insight into the significance of sound in a male-dominated resource. For example, one notable separation within soundmap catalogues is that of the public/private divide. The historical and contemporary debates surrounding these terms highlights the prominence of these missing sounds, the dearth of registration of quotidian rituals that dominate life. Such debates include the ‘personal is political’ mantra of second wave feminism, the significance of the private/public divide within family law, that can be seen in the work of Elshtain (1981) and Kelly (2003) in their questioning of the family as private, and the exclusion of private voices in public/political spaces[7] The public/private debate here is not reducible to the discussion around male and female, although taking into consideration earlier explorations of the gender divide, it may be an aspect of the discussion; rather the issue is that the public realm outside of the home is given significance in a way that domestic sounds are not.

Within the short history of soundmaps, there has developed a cycle of otherness that obtains its clarity in the absence of the domestic. Within the soundmaps there appears to be a trend to capture the public rather than the private moments of life. There are hints of personal moments - for instance the New York Soundseeker s ‘Oxford student’s appreciate busker’ or the UK Soundmap how ‘Great is our God’ Warrington recording - but there are only a handful of recordings within the home. A large majority of the recordings are of something else or at least are tagged as something other and are always tagged in the impersonal: ‘Church bells’, ‘Frankie and Bennies’, and not: ‘my dog’, ‘my front room’, ‘my church bells’. The sounds are tagged as observations of something else. This creates a tension between the personal and the other, as the act of recording and the choice to record are inextricable from the personal. The very act of recording involves a series of personal choices and an individualized frame. Despite this, the recorder takes great care not to appear in the recording. Thus, the recordings have a poignant silence, that of the sound-seekers hiding themselves in the frame, the desire to capture the sounds of the other and not their own.

The counterargument to this is that the sound recordings are snapshots to be heard and taken in the same way that snapshot pictures are viewed and captured, the photographer never appearing in the image. The question then arises: should the aural reflect, so precisely, the capturing of the visual? Surely the aural allows a different freedom to the recorder, a liberty to become involved in a way that photography does not. The instant split second capture of a photographic timer lacks the breadth and space of a 30 second/5 minute recording, a broadness that allows the contributor to capture his/her own position and place in the recording not just by frame but by presence. There are in all the maps surprisingly few recordings that include commentary or sound from the person recording. Both the lack of the personal and absence of the domestic show a barrier within sound maps, a void of private space and engagement.

My current sound project, based in an area of Liverpool known as the ‘Welsh streets’, includes a set of recordings made by a female resident.


The Welsh Streets

One recording is that made by M having dinner with B, another resident and sound volunteer. They carry the recorder with them and treat it as an extra member of the party, explaining where they are in the house and naming any sounds they fear will not be recognised.

M and B telling the recorder where they are and what they are doing.

It is an intimate recording of two people sharing time and food together, as they chop peppers, feed the cats and discuss their lives. M and B often spend time together and are allowing themselves to capture the sonic reality of their meeting in a reflective and personal way.

An extract from M and B's dinner recording

The series of sonic moments in the dinner recording are not uncommon, i.e. two friends cooking and eating together, but this type of event is missing in many of the open online archives of the soundmap. M and B’s recording allows the private to be seen in public and particularly, in this case, it politicizes the private sound. It is particularly political because B’s house where the dinner is taking place is on a road that is under a Compulsory Purchase Order[8] (CPO) for demolition, and this distinct everyday sound recording is capturing the sound of a space that shortly will no longer be.

The focus on the ‘public’ in these online soundmaps is further compounded by the anonymity and simplification of the contributions. The relationship of the contributor with the recording is eradicated by the simplistic nature of the upload, which is essential for easy access and multiple contributions. The connection between sound and person, person to emotion and sound to effect, is key to both the listener and the contributor for understanding the space as sound and sound as life. For those approaching sound maps from a purely acoustical perspective, the relational aspect of the exchange may appear inferior to the physical make-up of the sound. The removal of the relational, less regulated aspect of the sound creates data sets that are more easily collected and analysed: large amounts of data to be processed through specific parameters. When speaking to one soundmap designer, I questioned him about the narrowing of data and relationship on his soundmap due to the limited categories available. He agreed that this categorization inhibited the map in expressing the contributors’ relationship with the sound. Nevertheless, he argues that limiting the categories and tags that contributors can connect to their work is the best way to analyse data. His approach was clear: the data is found more significant than the relationship between an individual and a sound. The systemization and standardization of the approach is a requirement for the system to work. The complexity of the data must be reduced, which then raises the question: what is lost?

Data or Relationship. Quality or Access

The battle here lies between data and the cohesion of person and place. The effect of the sound on the individual and the significance of the sound are lost. Some soundmaps use a tag system allowing the user to input keywords, however this system rarely produces an opinion; the keywords might be: ‘horns, ‘birds’, rather than ‘annoying taxi horns’ or ‘beautiful bird song’.

A concern that must be addressed is the relationship between these contributions and the potential formation of recording cultures on these websites; a recording culture that is constantly produced and reiterated by the soundmaps. The more recordings that are submitted, the stronger the ‘norm’ that is produced. With every editorial decision and with every new addition, a set of rules is produced that dictates the appropriate recording methodology and praxis. As the recordings are made available to listen to, the type of recordings presented on the website will, in some way, define the type of recordings that are added. If this praxis is not studied, analysed and changed, the driving dominance of certain types of contributions to the soundmap risks becoming an inherent characteristic of online sound maps. In several sound maps only a few contributors create a large number of the recordings, and in many cases these are professionals or those with professional equipment. For example, the Montreal and NY Soundseeker maps both contain and encourage binaural recordings; the NY Soundseeker map states ‘Many of the sounds of the NY Soundmap are binaural.’ Binaural recording signifies a professional approach to recording sound. The type of equipment and techniques used for this kind of recordings are expensive and usually specialized. Binaural recording is often considered to present the most realistic experience of the sound; it is, however, limited by accessibility both in how it is created and heard. To fully benefit from the sound of a binaural recording you need good quality headphones.

The addition of binaural recordings to online archives such as soundmaps is positive from an acoustical and historical perspective. However, their inclusion in open participatory soundmaps produces an acoustical VIP area, a specialists-only part of the map. The concern here is not that binaural recordings will damage soundmaps but that the growing professionalism of the soundmap will discourage new contributors or amateurs to contribute.

The map exists as an online resource for artists and researchers and presents the possibility of saving and storing large amounts of recordings in the same virtual space, a triumph of the online soundmap. Many soundmaps announce that they use a ‘Creative Commons Agreement’ which allows the resubmission of sounds and the use and editing of sounds that have been submitted. Furthermore some maps, including the UK Soundmap , do not specify, upon submission, the responsibility or copyright status of the recordings once submitted. These agreements would allow professionals the freedom to submit without losing control of their work. The application of a Creative Commons Licence by several maps shows a concern for the creative property rights of those making the contributions. Despite this, many fail to explain the status of the Licence, which reflects the assumption that those submitting will already have knowledge of this copyright alternative.

The UK Soundmap’s recent blog (2 February 2011) encourages participants to invest in recording equipment.

This post outlines some ways in which you can make the transition from mono smartphone sound to high-quality stereo, with reference to what UK Soundmap contributors themselves have been doing.
Between smartphones and pocket-sized digital sound recorders lies the half-way house of the stereo mic which can be attached directly to an iPhone or iPod. They range in price from around £30 to £70 depending on their make and model. It's worth checking first to see if they're compatible with your phone. A small number of recordings on the UK Soundmap have been made this way, and they sound pretty good.
A digital sound recorder, however, offers greater versatility and quality. With one you'll be able to make recordings and then transfer them to your computer for editing. Intense competition among manufacturers in recent years has produced a slew of reasonably-priced and capable machines starting from as low as £120. The majority of the UK Soundmap’s non-smartphone recordings have been made with such machines...
...Making good-quality stereo recordings is an easy hobby to begin, and it can start at a cost comparable to that of a digital compact camera.

The number of people with mobile phones, smartphones and internet access is ever increasing, but in many countries, and certainly in the UK, all of these things are a representation of status. The newest technology and fastest internet connections are the most costly and are thus more easily afforded by the wealthy. I recently completed a project in one of the most deprived areas of England, Vauxhall in Liverpool, where several of the participants involved in the project only had internet access at work and did not have a personal email address, and at least two did not have internet access or an email address at all. £150 is a significant amount of money in areas where in 2008 1 in 3 people are on some form of government benefits and 55.7% of children are considered to be living in poverty, according to the government ward profile. Universal online access to an object does not make that object accessible to all. The economical commitment that is needed to have the internet at home and the additional technological requirements to upload and use smartphones[9] are still a luxury beyond the reach of some. It is necessary to recognize that the technological foundation of the soundmap will exclude those with limited incomes and technological skills from participating in it. This group may only be a relatively small percentage of the population; however this economic gap poses the possibility of a privileged perspective of sound recordings being produced. The difference in types of sound may not be obvious at first, nevertheless there are sounds specific to certain domestic settings and not to others. Even more significantly, certain sounds can become normalised, and this normalisation changes listeners relationship to those sounds.

An illustration of this can be seen in the experiences of Mrs T who lived in the Welsh Streets Toxteth. One of the most common sound complaints in the UK is the sound of noisy neighbours. A primary issue in the CPO being placed upon Welsh Street homes, including that of Mrs T, is thickness of the wall. The council considers the walls of the terraced houses to be too thin and any new houses that the residents from the Welsh Streets move to would need to have much thicker, well-insulated walls. Mrs T had lived in the Welsh streets all of her life until the move. She was born there, and when she was married she moved two houses down from her parents. When her house was bombed during the Second World War she moved one road over. She sold her house to the council whilst under the CPO order and moved to one of the newly built properties. I asked Mrs T if she liked her new house, and she responded by telling me how nice it is to have a garden and a new kitchen. Then she reminisced over how things had changed: that she doesn’t see people anymore and that she cannot hear them anymore. She elaborated on this, saying,

I always used to hear the neighbours through the walls. I could hear them, and they could hear me. It made me feel safe knowing that someone would hear me if I fell or they would check on me if they couldn't hear me moving or I would check on them if I heard a thump or a scream.

The sound of people next door wasn’t something that annoyed Mrs T but something that comforted her. Another participant N from the Welsh Street project also recorded, through the wall, her neighbour making sounds. When I questioned her about the recording, she said ‘it’s the sound of community and sharing’. Their relationship with the sounds of their neighbours differs greatly from the assumed norm of annoyance at neighbours who invade the private space domestic space of others.

Another example is that of S who lives one road over from the Welsh Streets. During a visit I made to her one day to deliver new batteries for her recorder, she told me about a sound she heard but which she failed to make a recording of, as she could never find her recorder when she needed it. The sound was of some young men who would regularly start fights at the entrance to the park close to her house. Several other people from the area recorded sirens and police helicopters that regularly circled the now-empty neighbours’ homes. These genres of sound are lacking in the soundmap’s vast catalogue.

Welsh Street Resident’s recording of the Police Helicopter at night

There are two issues to be addressed here. One is the outreach of the map beyond those specialized in recording, and the other is access to skills and equipment. The Montreal Soundmap primarily relies upon word of mouth to gain contributions; the Salford Sounds Around You map relies on press releases and an online presence; the UK Soundmap relies upon the same. The press releases are made to the BBC, the Times, the Independent and more recently, the Daily Mail newspapers. The result is connection to a very specific demographic of people; in the case of the Montreal Soundmap , it is primarily specialists in the field. For the UK and Salford soundmaps, it is not BBC listeners and Times readers, but rather people from within those groups who, after hearing about the project, then access the website. The responsibility sits with those who are recording rather than those who want the recordings.

‘If the mountain won’t come to Mohammed, then Mohammed must go the mountain.’

This paper has briefly highlighted the assumptions and hierarchies that have begun to embed themselves in soundmap praxis. The questions remain: what tactics could be employed to bridge these divides and gaps? Do the obvious advantages of online maps outweigh these problems? I propose that if soundmaps are to challenge the norms that are so quickly becoming entrenched upon them and are to encompass larger demographic areas, they must go beyond purely technological solutions and work at a community level.

Firstly, a greater tie between community/school sound projects and online sound maps would greatly strengthen the range of contributors. Local community engagement has been prevalent in soundscapes since the early work of the Five Villages (Schafer 1977) soundscape project. The implementation of school questionnaires and soundwalks that were integral to the methodology of the project displays the public participatory approach that was common at the birth of soundscape research. The Five Villages work included sound preference tests that were completed by school children in the five villages and outlined the most liked and disliked sounds of the children. The team also interviewed local residences and talked to them about both their sonic memories of the space and their current experience of the sound environment.

Contemporary community-centric projects that could be tied to soundmaps may involve encouraging schools to start recording projects, as has recently happened in the Vauxhall Liverpool Sure Start Centre. As part of a community-centric sound project and art collaboration piece in Vauxhall Liverpool, I worked alongside staff and children at a pre-school facility that aims to prepare children for entering school and provide support and advice for new parents. I ran a series of workshops with the older children at the centre, teaching them to listen, then to record sounds in the playground and classroom, and then ultimately listen once again to the recordings with staff. These workshops became known as the Sound Explorer Course. The first workshop was a series of games to encourage the children to listen. These involved soundclips, large speakers vibrating so they could feel the physicality of sound and listening cups. The listening cups are small plastic cups with no bottom that can be placed around the ear to help funnel sound. These were used partially because small children tend to cover their ears with their hands, rather than cup their ears with their hands and also to give them a physical action to involve them in the listening process and encourage them to concentrate. They then went into the playground to hunt down sounds alongside staff.

An extract from Freya’s (seen in the picture below) recording. You can hear her pause her trike and stop to listen and capture the sound of a vehicle passing by.


A child recording sounds in the playground


A child recording sounds in the playground

The second workshop, led by me, was accompanied by a puppet to introduce sound recorders to the group. After they understood how to operate a digital sound recorder, the children took them into the playground to capture sounds. The recorders were placed in knitted wind socks and pinned to the children’s coats, as previous experiments had taught me that if children hold the recorder themselves all you gain at the end is the sound of a child exploring a new object. Several of the children used their bodies instinctively like a boom stick, leaning towards the sound source if it could be recognised and standing still when they heard something of interest.

The third workshop was the most difficult, as the sounds that were captured in the playground were played back to the children, asking them to shout out when they heard a sound that they recognised. However, as they were very young, it was difficult to keep their attention on the task.

The series of three workshops led to the centre wanting to purchase recorders and run a yearly project with children capturing and listening to their sound environment, their own miniature archive of sound. Other practical applications may involve working with community groups: lending out recorders and providing internet access and space for people to engage with sound projects. Projects similar to these are being run by researchers around the world. The Da Vinci high school project in Canada is part of a larger social practice research initiative based at Guelph University. This project encouraged students to explore and record sounds from their environment, and these sound are then uploaded to the project website.

Secondly, the network of people making sound recordings currently on the maps contains the potential, in their skills and experience, of reaching out to others, forming a support group and encouraging new participants. The strength of soundmaps to unite practitioners, researchers and soundscape hobbyists is immense. The online soundmap successfully produces a network of people with both access to technology and the skills to produce sound recordings. If those participants shared their passion and skills with those in their community or local areas, the growth and breadth of online soundmaps could shift significantly. There have been several projects in the past that have encouraged those unfamiliar with sonic theories or soundscape practice to begin to capture, listen and discuss their own sounds, such as the aforementioned Da Vinci Project. Other work that is community-centric in approach includes Wagstaff’s (2002) work in Lewis and Harris Scotland, which encouraged local residents to record and create their own sonic portraits. This skills-sharing approach can also be seen in the creation of the Inukjuak Soundmap, where sound artist Nimalan Yoganathan ran recording workshops for Inuit youths aged 13-16 and gave them recorders to capture moments of their sound environment. Similarly, my own work in Liverpool has encouraged residents to take recorders to capture sounds from their environment and then use editing programmes to create montages as a means of analysing the recordings.

Suggestions of practical solutions do not challenge the impersonal culture of the map methodology. For the soundmap to be effective for future researchers from all fields, the personal relationship of the sound to the contributor must also be understood. I am in no way suggesting that sound is not enough but rather, that sound gains further significance when it is heard and reflected on by the listener. The online sound map could give space for such reflections, either by written narrative or by aural description.

The possibilities of online soundmaps are immense. Their potential as a resource and archive has changed both the public and academic perceptions of everyday sound. However, we must not become blinded by the possibilities and excitement of this new technology but rather continue to look critically at the results and methodologies in order to allow the concept of the soundmap to fulfil its potential.



Basque Country Soundmap- http://www.soinumapa.net/

Da Vinvi project- http://soundescapes.improvcommunity.ca/index.php/information

Montreal Soundmap- http://www.montrealsoundmap.com/?lang=en

New Orleans Soundmap- http://www.opensoundneworleans.com/core

New York Sound Seeker Soundmap- http://www.soundseeker.org/

Seoul Sound@Media map- http://som.saii.or.kr/campaign)

Trevor Cox’s Soundmap- http://www.sonicwonders.org/?page_id=1

UK Soundmap- http://sounds.bl.uk/uksoundmap/fusionmap.aspx

Vienna Soundmap Audiokarte- http://www.audiokarte.at/

Other online resources:






Jacqueline Waldock is a PhD candidate at the University of Liverpool’s Department of Music undertaking research on Liverpool’s sound environment. She is also a soundscape composer. In 2007 she collaborated with volcanologists from SCRIPPS and the University of Liverpool on a series of seismic-based sonic art pieces, and she has recently exhibited new works as part of the Sound and Power series at the UK’s Foundation for Art and Technology (2011).

1. In this paper I will refer to these online maps as ‘soundmaps’. In some instances the creator of the map has referred to the maps as ‘sound maps’, two separate words. Within direct quotes, I retain this separation of the term. Also, some of the maps contain the words in their title, such as the ‘Montreal Sound Map’ these will also remain as separate words.

2. I have placed the word authentic within single quotations, as the term has been the centre of debate for many years in musicology and other disciplines. Taruskin famously debates the term in his book Text and Act (1995), and Taylor and Barker debate the concept of authenticity in popular music in their work Faking it (2007).

3. This is true to a lesser extent in the Basque Country Soundmap.

4. This is taken from information supplied via email from the Montreal, British and Salford (Sounds Around You) map editors. Max Stein (Montreal Soundmap), Ian Rawes (UK Soundmap) and Charlie Mydlarz (Salford-based Sounds Around You).

5. Information supplied by Ian Rawes of the UK Soundmap.

6. Information supplied by sourced from the Sounds Around You map.

7. Further theoretical deconstruction of the public/private can be seen in Thibaud’s chapter ‘The Sonic Composition of the City’ in The Auditory Culture Reader (eds. Bull and Back, 2003)

8. A Compulsory Purchase Order is a power given to local authorities in England to buy private land that is not for sale by the owner. This power is often used to buy houses that need to be demolished for new roads, etc. However, M and B’s street has had a CPO placed upon because the council considers the houses ‘not conducive to modern living’ and the authorities are using the CPO to force people to sell to them.

9. The New York soundmap is the exception to requiring internet connection to upload sounds. They allow people to submit on CD or MiniDisc by post.


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Schafer, Raymond Murray (1977). The Tuning of the World. New York: Knopf. Reprinted (1994) as Our Sonic Environment and the Soundscape: The Tuning of the World. Vermont: Destiny Books.

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