Interference Journal Retired

Audible Everyday Practices as Listening Education

By Nicola Di Croce


How might the recognition of sonic awareness (and its subsequent development) affect and inform the public policy design? It is assumed that the lack of sonic awareness possessed by the citizens who constitute communities currently affects the knowledge controlled by the main stakeholders who establish the guidelines that determine the experience of sonic environment. By exploring the intersection between sound studies and public policy design we believe it is possible to reveal how audible everyday practices might help us to explore otherwise intractable urban issues and enhance the role played by citizens’ acoustic awareness within the design of contemporary cities. This investigation allows the design of alternative maps of city uses, abuses and conflicts, and could help to identify the decline of specific traditional knowledges. Furthermore, audible everyday practices could enact listening education, making collectivities realise their responsibilities in the composition of sonic environment.


Public policies; design; listening education; sonic environment; sonic awareness; everyday practices; sound culture


“Safeguarding intangible cultural heritage is about the transfer of knowledge, skills and meaning. It focuses on the processes involved in transmitting or communicating these elements from generation to generation, rather than on the production of their concrete manifestations, such as dance performances, songs, musical instruments or crafts. The communities which have and practise intangible cultural heritage are the people best placed to identify and safeguard it. However, outsiders can help with its safeguarding. For instance, they can support communities in collecting and recording information regarding elements of their intangible cultural heritage, or transmit knowledge about the intangible cultural heritage through more formal channels such as education in schools, colleges and universities.” (UNESCO S/A, Questions and Answers, 3. My italics)

UNESCO refers to intangible cultural heritage as the production of the awareness of citizens and communities who recognise themselves within certain elements of their culture, and who are encouraged to safeguard or transform those elements. The logic of this perspective is that without a prior identification derived from the public itself, no one else can define what is, and what is not, a cultural heritage. According to the position adopted by UNESCO and its subsequent interpretation, considering a peculiar sonic environment as heritage becomes a problematic operation unless there is palpable evidence that it is has been inter-subjectively identified as such. That is to say that the primarily “unconscious” way that soundscapes are typically experienced by citizens does not generate the attentive, sentient perception – that I am calling awareness – which is necessary for identification and its corollary of preservation. Therefore the different levels of awareness (including a potential lack of awareness), forms of representation, and attributions of value, shape an under determination of the sonic environment in terms of citizen consciousness, and render it vulnerable to being “composed” instead by external stakeholders. If we wish to adopt the UNESCO definition of intangible cultural heritage – and it is a definition which comes with a certain symbolic legitimacy – then its implementation depends upon the instantiation of a shared inter-subjective acknowledgment of the intangible elements which actually shape our everyday environment. It is at this juncture that it becomes important to explore the relationship between sonic studies and public policy design as the place from which to achieve – from our “point of view” – a better understanding of particular urban issues.
If policy design could be read as the instrument used by the political sphere to attempt a social and spatial transformation then, by extension, the process of “regulation” can be understood as the efforts to control the effects that policies have on the system of everyday practices carried out by collectivities and individuals. It is our contention that by analysing everyday practices from an acoustic perspective we might develop a new way of explaining urban issues which would otherwise remain “inaudible” to the polity. This paper aims to show how the sonic environment and public policies are interdependent, and how listening could effectively become a design tool if integrated with policy design and with the development of an acoustically-informed public.
To a large extent, by shifting the analytical scale to that of the policy design level of understanding we can reveal some of the regulatory guidelines that frame the experience of the acoustic environment. It is important to listen beyond an exclusive focus on the quantitative regulation enshrined in noise pollution policies (however important these may be) and draw into the analysis such devices as the licences issued by a municipality to various traders as qualitative regulation: both effectively shape the soundscape of a neighbourhood and determine its temporal variations. Thinking about the control of the sonic environment in this expanded way involves acknowledging wider forms of regulation that may indirectly affect the frequency and amplitude of sonic events such as restrictions on traffic flow, land use zoning, limitations on the operating hours of transport systems, entertainment and leisure venues.

“If sound is understood not only as a phenomenological instrument but also as a communicative tool, the concrete integration of the acoustic in the urban development can be as interesting as the capability of sound to explicitly point out certain situations and conditions, to expand or to manipulate perceptual spaces. […] This expanded discussion reinforces the potential of the spatial and communicative properties of sound as a tool and means of urban practice.” (Pagels; Stabenow; 2008, in Tuned City; pp 97-98)

Beneath the quantitative and qualitative regulations – those directed explicitly towards the control of sound and those which exert an indirect control – there remains a system of habits performed by inhabitants who can be understood as either conforming to or “resisting” the policy decisions supposedly taken on their behalf. These performed habits might well be what is constituted by the traditional everyday practices and peculiar ways of making use of public space. As an example, by listening to a Mediterranean city marketplace we could easily reveal how the street cries performed by traders to better sell their goods establish an extraordinary sonic atmosphere. This everyday practice manifesting through the sellers’ voices effectively produces the acoustic ambiance of these places.

“Yet less attention has been paid to another range of tactic operations, namely the practises of sound making. Like pedestrian acts, sonic utterances perform a double operation of adapting to and transforming the environment. Football fans, vendors and rioters all know the importance of being audible. Indeed, sound making is a powerful means to demonstrate presence and take possession of urban space during concerts, sport events or late at night in the city.” (Kreutzfeldt, 2012; p 62)

Returning to my earlier account of intangible cultural heritage, even though we may rue the fact that the once everyday practice of vocalising street traders is fading from acoustic prominence, since there is currently no shared inter-subjective acknowledgment of their relevance in composing the traditional soundscape of the inner city (Said, 2015), we cannot consider street cries in a Mediterranean city as a cultural heritage to be preserved – at least in the terms established by UNESCO. Sounds studies and its methodologies might equip us with the resources to locate the value that might be apportioned to the disappearing cries and singing cues carried on by street traders; by drawing upon public policy design, we might be able to understand their disappearance as an urban issue to which the implementation of specific urban policies might be the response. Once the disappearing street cries are comprehended in this way, a dynamic matrix of policies and issues are revealed as potentially active contributors to their demise: housing policies, licence policies as well as issues of depopulation and gentrification would be certainly become candidates for being taken into consideration and hopefully reframed from a policy design point of view. As identified earlier, the institutional perspective is only one dimension since identifying street cries as an intangible heritage would have to involve a community first identifying the importance of traders’ vocalisations and secondly engaging in strategies of preservation of this daily practice. Thus informal actions from below – Kreutzfeldt’s “tactic operations” – as well as institutional initiatives from above may both originate from the same recognition of an urban issue revealed through acoustic awareness. This example shows what could be the political potential of sound studies in revealing a certain kind of audible urban issue, and how such an analysis could potentially reframe both the public and institutional understanding.


As the listening stage is essential for the development of sonic awareness, how to proceed from the listening practice to a sonic awareness?

If we assume that a social environment is the product of a complex mesh of everyday practices and routines (Crosta, 2010); and if we consider public policy design as the institutional instrument created to regulate this system of habits, we could read then – and possibly uncover – the audible dimension of specific everyday practices.
Everyday practices deal with cultural representations, traditional expressions, local knowledge which individuals and collectivities identify as their daily social and spatial belongings. Since some such practices strongly manifest themselves through sound, they become – consciously or unconsciously – a pervading contributor to the sonic environment. As Brandon LaBelle understands this phenomenon, “an auditory paradigm is tacitly embedded within the contemporary condition and offers a compelling structure for elaborating what is already in play”. (LaBelle, 2010 intr. xviii) Following this argument through, if audible everyday practices can be properly defined as the ways that collectivities make use of public space, then listening to them will enable the policies which contribute to the composition of the sonic environment to be revealed.

The listening practice can propose interpretations and causal connections between the sonic environment and self-identity, and can ultimately develop the capability to investigate the logic of power from a wider sensory horizon than that permitted by any purely visual approach. Thus, listening practice turns into a representational and self-representational tool which could directly stimulate the transformation of the field of relations that governs practices, policies, people and perceptions: the environment.
Nevertheless, the development of an expanded and attentive listening practice can enhance our ability to uncover the hidden sonic traces, which are scattered throughout public spaces. It allows us to additionally grasp the sonic cues – i.e. the hidden sonic traces such as the street traders’ cries – which are disappearing behind urban transformations.

By exploring the intersection between sound studies and public policy design we can reveal how the development of sonic awareness could shift both poetically and politically the government and of course the governmentality (Foucault, 1986) of contemporary territories. The development of sonic awareness could also promote a sense of empowerment, energised by a radical impulse to self government: by inculcating listening practices that contribute to a sonic awareness, in particular: environmental, milieu and landscape listening. As citizen becomes involved in making acoustic sense of their environment; the apparently intractable urban issues are no longer passively absorbed and instead there is the possibility for an active participation in their identification and evaluation. Such intractable issues – like the dying out of the tradition of street cries – should be faced through a more sensitive institutional understanding; a sonically aware public should primarily inform this.
The fostering of listening maturity, the safeguarding of everyday practices, the identification of cultural heritages; all these are the desirable outcomes of sonic awareness. Just as sonic awareness depends upon the prior attainment of listening practices, once sonic awareness has soaked into collectivities a further step could be taken with the establishment of sonic communities. The definition of “acoustic community” introduced by Barry Truax contributes significantly to this step:

“[…] acoustic community means that acoustic cues and signals constantly keep the community in touch with what is going on from day to day within it. Such a system is “information rich” in terms of sound, and therefore sound plays a significant role in defining the community spatially, temporally in terms of daily and seasonal cycles, as well as socially and culturally in terms of shared activities, rituals and dominant institutions. The community is linked and defined by its sounds.” (Truax, 1984; p 58)

Given these assumptions, sonic communities would be gathered by groups of sonically aware citizens who share a perspective about how to deal with “sonic commons” far beyond a passive acceptance of the status quo.

We can find assistance in shifting our focus on the notion of sonic awareness from the individual to the collective – and, in parallel, draw out a definition of “identity” – through deploying an expression formulated by Bruce Odland and Sam Auinger (who operate as the artistic project O+A): the “sonic common”. For them, the “sonic common” equates to “any space where people share an acoustic environment and can hear the result of each other’s activities, both intentional and unintentional.” (Auinger & Odland, 2009; p 64) From O+A’s perspective the responsibility for sonic environments – whether conscious (“intentional”) or unconscious (“unintentional”) – resides with citizens who create and simultaneously accept the status quo, understood as a combination of desirable and undesirable sounds from the everyday life. The current sonic environment, experienced everyday by individuals, is indeed the result of all the compromises – as well as the general agreements – accepted by a society in order to carry on their social life. This notion of the sonic commons may encourage the recontexualisation of problems related to the different uses of public spaces, especially through reframing those conflicts which emerge from the overlapping of everyday practices. (Pecqueux, 2013)
Since sonic awareness has to deal also with a “common” sense of the place, it is important to move beyond O + A’s “intentional and unintentional” sonic common to an acknowledged and shared sonic common which reflects the inter-subjective level of understanding that I previously identified as being proposed by UNESCO’s approach to intangible cultural heritage. My argument is that the creation of this acknowledged and shared sonic common necessarily depends upon the prior development of sonic awareness. Understood from this perspective, we can now appreciate that sonic awareness is an ability that emerges through its exercise: it is an incisive skill for uncovering the ephemeral and powerful codes hidden within sonic environment. Thus we could say that sonic awareness and intangible cultural heritage require the realisation of the potentials embedded in listening practices, potentials that, in this case, are directed towards the invisible system of connections between inhabitants and their environment.
In the light of these considerations we can say that taking care of audible everyday practices represents an excellent opportunity to establish a dialogue between sonic studies and participatory, as well as policy, design. Sonic awareness would involve citizens and collectivities making use of sonic knowledge as a device for monitoring the quality of public space: this is how listening might become a policy design tool.


Since, as I have argued, sonic awareness has been located at a critical juncture, it is important to clarify how it relates to the role played by the multiplicity of listeners. In fact, as every listener has his own sonic world, we should not aim for an absolute definition of sonic heritage, rather we should examine in depth the relations that individuals establish with the sonic environment. From the extended research “European Acoustic Heritage” (Kytö, Remy, Uimonen, 2012) and from the essential studies of Pascal Amphoux it is possible to arrive at a classification of the three main listening modalities:

Environmental listening: which concerns the acoustic qualities of a space,
i.e. a sonic order that is objective, accessible and controllable.
Milieu listening, concerning the sonic comfort,
i.e. a sonic order that is amalgamated, natural and vivid, and which arises from the structure of a place and people’s activity.
Landscape listening (soundscape) concerns the perceived quality of sound,
i.e. a sonic dimension that evokes aesthetic and sensitive responses to sounds.
(Amphoux, 2012; Hellström, 2011)

In brief, the physical sound signals, the perceived and the representative dimensions of sound, are all part of our sonic experience. As the first deals with quantitative measurements, the other two are open to subjective and cultural interpretations and would thus represent the main focus of any inquiry into acoustic heritage. Milieu listening and landscape listening are, indeed, a powerful “bridge” to access the relation between inhabitants and sonic identity (Senesi, 2010). This is because the notions of milieu and landscape listening are dealing with a qualitative understanding of sonic environment, therefore they could effectively support institutional attempts to limit urban noise through acoustic zoning, by introducing a “soundscape approach”.
In other words, a soundscape approach should effectively implement a noise control approach by proposing to politicians, policy makers and acoustic designers, soundscape planning as a new tool for the management of the acoustic environment (Lex Brown, 2012).

Since we are not seeking noise control policies to mask “unwanted sounds” but rather orientating our efforts to ensure that “unwanted sound” does not mask “wanted” sound, we can listen to daily practices as the traces through which to read urban dynamics and recognize the vitality, or indeed the debility, of specific uses of public space. It is in this context that we recall Amphoux’s listening modalities which each generate a corresponding “action attitude”:

Diagnosis of the environment:
This is a defensive attitude and consists of protecting the sonic environment from acoustic pollution; to normalize, to regulate, to control, to build noise barriers, to divert cars streams, to reduce traffic.
Managing the milieu:
This is an offensive attitude since it aims at consolidating the sonic milieu, i.e. strengthening the amalgamated and vivid dimension of a certain place, but also informing the inhabitants about sonic comfort.
Creation of the landscape (soundscape):
This is a creative attitude, in the sense that it consists of composing the land-soundscape. Urban sonic sound designers (similar to a lighting designer) can manage this task but it is necessary to promote such operations to stimulate consciousness of the acoustic space and to develop greater public awareness (European Acoustic Heritage, 2012; Amphoux 2012).

These criteria disclose how it is only through a developed sonic awareness that the tripartite appreciation of the environment can be derived: its diagnosis, its management and its creative composition. My ambition is the investigation of the dynamic – and, of course, the audible relationship – between policies and collectivities; which is to say the examination of how everyday practices basically shape the sonic environment; and how sonic awareness could intervene to shape public policies. Since acoustic traces are constantly embedded in urban dynamics, adopting the proposed approach has the potential to finally fulfil the aspirations that Amphoux calls managing the milieu and creating the landscape. Simultaneously – as a prior condition – a shared understanding of the sonic environment within public spaces could emerge. I am convinced that sonic studies could effectively establish a durable dialogue with public policy design; encouraging the empowerment of communities for the fulfilment of the ability to self government.


If we argue that sonic awareness can effectively develop a collective empowerment, then one question that follows asks how can such awareness be stimulated? One factor that offers itself as a potential stimulant is that of “sound education” and its introduction as an innovative device across the different scales of institutional, individual and public. Where a demand for an inquiry into the sound cues that reverberate the urban contemporary is urgently required for a policy level of understanding (so that resources can be provided) then a sound education would provide this. The process of sound education becomes essential both for citizens and institutions and it may be that previous successful projects involving artistic practitioners catalysing communities and institutions can inspire future efforts (Flügge, 2014).

In shifting from music education to sound education – and finally to sonic education – we could better understand the role played by everyday sonic experience in developing a participatory attitude within collectivities. There is already a pedagogy of listening informed by music education which could be adapted to listening practices in order to turn the aesthetic experience of the everyday life sounds into a more participatory process. (Tinkle, 2015) Sound education becomes then the tool to uncover sonic identity and sonic heritage by developing sonic awareness within citizens and communities. Listening is transformed into a device for empowerment while the safeguarding of an everyday practice may act both on a social and a sonic level of understanding. A sound pedagogy without real sound pedagogues – whether from the artistic, the academic or the institutional field – is in fact the target of many participatory projects which give “priority to transforming auditory perception” (Ultra-red, 2012; p 2)

To this end artistic collectives like Ultra-Red have developed – through what they define as a militant sound practice – extremely interesting research into sonic space and social repercussions. Through their many projects they have analysed the political conflicts that are reflected in the sonic environment, proposing a participatory sound research strategy created for enhancing a debate within local communities on themes like marginality, education and housing policies, as well as gender and discrimination issues within public space. Methodological experimentation is crucial; participation is indeed the constant process of a collectivity which comes to self-awareness through its engagement with the sonic environment as a tool for social and urban knowledge (Ultra-red, 2014).
This sensorial reframing can now become a useful strategy for a political level of understanding, by shifting from finding who has the right to educate, to the process of listening itself, to a participatory process of mutual and self-teaching. Sonic identity is involved here in the creation of a sonic aware public that becomes able to recognize audible everyday practices as identifying elements of a peculiar sonic environment. However, the paradox of education must be acknowledged in this. On the one hand, there is the positive step in giving a community the tools which will allow them to identify and safeguard a cultural sonic element. On the other hand, any mediated process is affected by the logic of asymmetrical “power”. Such a risk particularly involves marginal stakeholders who do not have the tools to self-represent themselves; or who are simply unconscious of the attachment of peculiar elements of sonic environment. In this context, one of my first objectives would involve working together with those coming from different social backgrounds in order to build up a shared sonic awareness (while remaining conscious of the risk of asymmetries). Sound could become then a vehicle to regenerate the sense of the place, which is often disappearing within contemporary contexts. Moreover it could re-humanize public space by determining its contents starting from its inhabitants (Baläy, 2004), and restore the sense of belonging, not as a product of an exclusionary racism, but rather as a close connection between territory and community.


How has participation already been approached through sound, and what are the outputs that it has been able to achieve?

By defining the role of an urban acoustic planner, the artist Sven Anderson was able to simultaneously challenge and provoke an institution by working from the inside of the Dublin municipal government; in the process Anderson began a long dialogue around the possible outputs that an urban sound art project could achieve. From the context of Anderson’s activities, the urban acoustic planner can become active in impelling a municipal government organisation to reframe the debate on urban issues through emphasising a sonic perspective; his work shows how the urban acoustic planner can propose real interventions, which can be manifest concretely as permanent installation projects. The artist – as a composer, as Murray Schafer might have said – thus adopts a political role; he or she becomes involved in the representation of a community or of a specific issue and could effectively stimulate public debate (Anderson, 2014). Even though the process through which this is achieved may not exactly be considered participatory within the threshold of symmetrical community proposed above. On another scale, and pursuing a different aim, Peter Cusack’s “Favourite Sounds” project (another artist’s invention / intervention) stresses the personal system of values through which each citizen approaches the sonic environment they encounter in their everyday. Instead of asking “Which are the sounds that you most dislike within your environment?” the focus on the “favourite sound” revealed a surprising level of awareness to their urban soundscape. By collecting all the answers Cusack is able to draw an identity map which shows slightly different perceptions as the project shifts its geographical locus from one city to the next, from London to Manchester, Beijing, Prague, Berlin, Chicago and onwards (Maag, 2013). Cusack’s is a sensitive attempt to represent personal feelings and build through them a collection of sensations which reflect everyday practices and through this reflection offers an opportunity to inform further urban development. Deployed in such a way, sound mapping is raised to a methodology capable of instigating an interaction – albeit a virtual one – that might support the creation of a public around a specific sonic knowledge.

“The social dimension of sound mapping – whether through online interactions, or through in-person interactions with artists, designers, or other contributors in the context of listening walks, collective recording sessions, participative artworks, and so on – provides a basis for integrating sound mapping into various kinds of shared experiences of city life” (Ouzonian, 2014, in The Acoustic City; p 168).

In 2009 the architect Antonella Radicchi developed a sound map for the city of Florence. The map has grown year by year thanks to the contribution of many citizens and has since become incorporated as part of the Open Data of the municipality (Radicchi, 2012). This example shows the institutional acknowledgement of a “virtual” community, which moves through a collaborative map, towards a certain kind of sonic awareness. From these premises such a community could then work towards the safeguarding of a peculiar sonic environment that has been revealed through the collaborative cartography; in this instance, however, this next step is yet to come. The recent spreading of sound maps confirms how they are indeed useful tools, but if their outputs are analysed closely, they also debunk the myth of the democratization of knowledge since only those who chose to participate attain the responsibility of decision (and there remains the question of the cartographer themselves and the asymmetry that they, like the sound pedagogue of the earlier examples, risk retaining). Such a logic, apparently coherent with UNESCO’s position on intangible cultural heritage, again disadvantages marginal stakeholders – who do not yet have the tools to intervene in a public debate – and this needs to be addressed.

“The soundscape composer and theorist Jacqueline Waldock has also questioned whether sound maps are able to effectively realize their aims, and reminds us of the hierarchies, fractures, and divisions that can arise even when a project is well-intentioned. Waldock reiterates my question of unequal access when she demands ‘will [sound] maps exclude the sounding words 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?’ In term of the latter question, Waldock is especially concerned that sound maps reproduce dominant divisions of “gender, domestic and public, private and collective, poor and well-resourced”. (Ouzonian, 2014,The Acoustic City; p 171 op cit. Waldock, 2011)

Participatory maps, have attempted since their inception to overcome the risk of asymmetry that I have been identifying.
From agricultural development to the recognition of communities’ rights to access, control, and use basic resources such as water or forests, the aim is indeed to let a map become an empowerment tool for marginal stakeholders, following political and strategic processes
where there are few other chances to confront delicate issues. Public engagement then becomes necessary and requires an unexplored way of archiving different media and data. It is my contention that sound mapping can derive inspiration from the strategic lessons of participatory mapping and incorporate its methods in order to prevent the social exclusion identified by Waldock amongst others.

“Participatory mapping – also called community-based mapping – is a general term used to define a set of approaches and techniques that combines the tools of modern cartography with participatory methods to represent the spatial knowledge of local communities. It is based on the premise that local inhabitants possess expert knowledge of their local environments which can be expressed in a geographical framework which is easily understandable and universally recognised. Participatory maps often represent a socially or culturally distinct understanding of landscape and include information that is excluded from mainstream or official maps. Maps created by local communities represent the place in which they live, showing those elements that communities themselves perceive as important such as customary land boundaries, traditional natural resource management practices, sacred areas, and so on.” (Mapping for rights)

This paper argues that there is a need to adapt or alter the conventional approach to sound mapping, while recognising that their purpose, to allow researchers access to otherwise inaccessible soundscapes, is important. What is missing is a method or protocol that allows for a translation of sonic events into urban design strategies, which will shape public policy. Further, this paper advances that the ideas proposed by Auyogard and Torgue (2006) of unmasking auditory events within the social, architectural, physical etc., be utilised through a more collectively engaged approach to design. What is needed is the promotion of a design aptitude: shifting from production of an inert archive to an active process where each significant node becomes the focus for exchange of comments and discussion; moving from the sound map towards a collection of concrete propositions.

A repertoire of innovative sonic methodologies have been scoped out in this paper – such as listening practices, sonic education, the sonic commons, the urban acoustic planner, sound maps – and this array of strategies can provoke sonic awareness. Amplifying these methodologies can go hand-in-hand with a stimulation of a public debate over the sonic environment but what remains ultimately necessary, from my perspective, is to transform awareness into tactical propositions; to connect, in effect, the work of sound studies with action-oriented public policy design. Only by developing these propositions can the dynamics of fragile urban issues revealed through sound enter into logics of the institution. On the one hand, policy-making could be implemented by an institutional acknowledgment on sonic environment – that is to say on audible everyday practices. On the other hand, self-government can only be achieved by an aware public.





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Nicola Di Croce is an architect, a musician and a PhD in Regional Planning and Public Policies at the University of Venice, with a research on marginal sonic environments and everyday practices. He has been visiting doctoral student both at Recomposing the City Research Center, Belfast Queen’s University, and at CRESSON, Grenoble University. He is the curator of the Italian Soundscape Archive collective (Archivio Italiano Paesaggi Sonori) and an active researcher within sonic studies and planning fields. His most recent publication is the essay “Geografie sonore”, published on Linaria Edizioni, Rome 2016.

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