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Following our Gallery Listening Sessions, Dr Jonathan Stafford writes about some different approaches to mapping sound.

Ken Russell’s 1968 film Song of Summer provides a compelling dramatisation of the unlikely partnership of one of Bradford’s most famous musical sons, the classical composer Frederick Delius, and Eric Fenby, an aspiring young musician from Scarborough. In the film’s opening shots Fenby can be seen exploring the Yorkshire countryside, describing the way in which the natural sounds of the region provided him with the musical education he had been unable to pursue formally.

This film raises some interesting questions for those of us interested in sound heritage: how do we understand the relationship between sound and place? Does Yorkshire have its own distinctive sound culture? What can we learn from listening attentively to the sounds around us?

Christopher Gable as Eric Fenby in Ken Russell's Song of Summer (1968)
Christopher Gable as Eric Fenby in Ken Russell’s Song of Summer (1968)

Over the summer the National Science and Media Museum held its first Gallery Listening Sessions, a series of events which offered members of the public the opportunity to collaborate with curators, artists and academics to explore just these kinds of questions. As well as being great fun, we learned a lot from the activities and opportunities to exchange ideas that these sessions provided.

Sound mapping activity at our Gallery Listening Sessions
Sound mapping activity at our Gallery Listening Sessions. Credit: James Mansell

One of our activities was creating a digital sound map, which has emerged as a popular tool for collecting audio heritage. These online maps tend to feature clickable ‘pins’ assigned to specific locations, most often allowing the user to listen to audio taken from that place. Sound maps have taken a wide range of forms and intentions, from documenting—and celebrating—the distinctive ‘soundscape’ of specific environments, as in the wealth of maps found on the Favourite Sounds platform; to bringing historical soundscapes to life, like The Roaring ‘Twenties sound map; or used as a means of preserving sound heritage, and of promoting more engaged listening, seen in the Montréal Sound Map. Above all, most sound maps share the goal of linking sound to place and offering opportunities for collaboration between heritage venues and their publics.

Exploring Yorkshire’s sound heritage

In our Gallery Listening Sessions we wanted to put the sound map to the test, exploring whether it would be useful as a way to get us all thinking about the ‘culture of sound’ that is now part of the National Science and Media Museum’s mission. Thanks to funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the University of Nottingham, we were able to provide participants with digital audio recorders to document the sounds of Bradford and beyond.

Our participants took to the mapping activities with enthusiasm, locating a wide range of sounds across the Yorkshire area: bird song, brass bands, train station announcements, neighbours’ music, children playing, sirens, regional accents, buskers, rivers, industrial noise, people chatting in the pub, sounds of streets, shopping centres, homes and more. We used these sounds to create a collaborative sound map of West Yorkshire and beyond, learning more about what kinds of sounds are unique to a place, and what sounds people think are worth preserving, and why.

Our collaborative online sound map
Our collaborative online sound map

But as one participant pointed out, it’s all very well making a sound map, but what do you do with it once it’s finished?

This is a good point—while sound maps can be fun to make, once that process has come to an end they often remain unused, with declining online visitor numbers and little sense of their ongoing purpose. The British Library, one of the most enthusiastic embracers of the sound map, provides a good example: their ‘Sounds of our Shores’ sound map, a 2015 project to gather the sound culture of Britain’s coastline, proved enormously popular with the public, but today the map is no longer functional.

In this sense, a comparison of the sound map with a sound walking exercise we did proved very instructive. Sound walks take many forms, but we were inspired by the artist Magda Stawarska-Beavan’s approach of recording with binaural microphones while walking through cities. For our group, the benefits of the sound walk highlighted the drawbacks of the map: the walk helped our participants to relate more closely to the sounds of their environment, while the map was deemed to be too abstract.

As a result of these findings, we want to think of ways we might use digital technologies to move beyond the limitations of the sound map, to explore more engaging ways of empowering listeners and exploring the past through sound. With the latest innovations, such as Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, Big Data, Digital Archives and much more providing limitless possibilities for engaging with our sound heritage, these are exciting times. But what form might such a mode of engagement look like? Or for that matter, sound like? These are questions we hope to explore in more detail in the future.

If you’re interested in having a go at mapping sound yourself, zee maps provides a simple platform for building your own sound map using digitally recorded audio files (you can even use your phone to record them).

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