Sounds of the City: Tuning in Downtown's Ambient Soundscape

It's weird how the mind works. For example, every day we're assailed by sights, smells, sounds and more. Yet we're able to filter out so much of it. And the more there is, the more there is to ignore. That seems especially true in the center of downtown where the senses are bombarded from all around. But over time, for those of us who live here, so much of it just becomes a backdrop. You still see those sights and hear those sounds. But it gets to the point that you have to make some effort to really perceive them.

This was brought to my attention again on New Year's Day. I had some friends over for a small get-together and one of them remarked about the "weird" sounds of the alley outside my place. I didn't hear them. But later, as I walked out into the evening, I listened for what she had heard. Tuning out the low-level roar of I-40 and the James White Parkway, I picked out the alley's articulations. A host of television sportscasters, their TV-speaker voices coming from the gaps in loft windows, formed an excited cacophony from above. As the rooftops shed the last of the day's cold rain into towering downspouts, each one resonated differently, some trickling with the remainder of the roof's collection, some bellowing. One particularly large metal one drummed a steady thump with each heavy drop. Together it was like an odd pipe organ. The results splashed lightly onto the concrete, each contribution joining the steady flow that descended toward the storm drain where, combed by the grate, it created a echoing cascade of streams as it splashed underground. It was weird.

I got to thinking about the other sounds I don't usually think about. Like car alarms. I'm old enough to remember when car alarms first came around. And I think people of the last century may have actually noticed them. But now when that annoying, percussive honking starts, hardly anyone even turns around to look. Well, not until the owner shows up and it stops. Then they get a look. Not long ago I saw a VW exiting a parking garage with its alarm plaintively beeping, and a sheepish driver who wanted desperately to be invisible.

I recalled that earlier on that first day of the year, I had heard another sound that thankfully isn't very common. The fire alarm in the building next door had tripped and the alley echoed a steady beep, beep, beep. On the few occasions I've heard this sound, the first thing to come to mind is a short sense of relief that it isn't emanating from the building I'm in. But having been evacuated more than once due to nearby fires, it is nevertheless an alert that merits attention and provokes anticipation. Sure enough, within a couple of minutes, I could hear the familiar sirens rolling down Summit Hill. Sirens are another thing you get used to hearing daily downtown. And, almost as easily as the ambient sounds of the alley, they usually get filtered out of my consciousness. It's only on a rare occasion that the revving howl ceases and you hear one wind down slowly to silence nearby that you really take notice. Fortunately, on this New Year's Day, within a few minutes of that sound, the beeping stopped, and the peaceful drone of the city returned.

I call it peaceful because to me, in a way it is. I've called it the Symphony of the City. It's the clash of dozens of disparate sounds into a dissonant drone that rises and falls like a tide from day to night. I don't know that I've ever heard downtown in total silence. But a couple of times a year—usually Thanksgiving and Christmas mornings—it gets close. Otherwise, you can always hear the steady whirr from the roadways. And whether north, near the Old City where I live, or south, toward the waterfront, the crescendo of train wheels on tracks, the ringing bells of their crossings, and the breathy bellow of the engine's horns rise and fall with each passing. It sets a tone. And upon that come the notes and melodies that create the movements. The mornings bring delivery trucks, their rolling metal doors and pull-out ramps, the garbage trucks with their warning beepers and the crashing bins. The day picks up the tempo with the passing trolleys and their pneumatic brakes, and the one-sided telephone conversations of passers-by on the street. Evening brings the laughter of tight knots of visitors, giddily making their way to and from various nightspots, and the low rumble of a city service truck, patrolling the alley.

It's the score—the soundtrack—that's always there. And, unless I listen for it, I don't hear it all. Weird, huh?