Our ears constantly feed us information crucial to our survival on both intuitive and intellectual levels, informing us of events in our environment which we cannot see and, through spoken language, providing us with the knowledge we need to function. Nevertheless, many people still feel hearing not a very crucial sense, perhaps on the same level as the sense of smell, but not nearly as important as vision.

Yet we know that the impact of the sonic on what we perceive as the reality in our environment is as powerful, and sometimes more so, than the visual. In the sound track of a movie, visual scenes can be made to depict completely opposite scenarios, evoking contrasting emotions, by simply switching the sound effects on the audio track. In this case sound is the truth and modifies what we are seeing. It would be surprising if this were not the case in real life also.

The eye and ear are a special class of sensors in modern man because we use both for communication through language. The question of one being superior to the other is a false one. It's the old apples and pears story: an apple makes a very poor pear, and a pear makes a very poor apple. The eye does things which the ear can't do; the ear does things which the eye can't do. In addition, visual and aural perception are complementary systems. It is not a question of one being better than the other; they fit together.

Still, I often find myself in discussions with people who insist that the eye is superior to the ear. I am tempted to smile during these discussions for all the while my inter-locutor is deriding the ear, he doesn't realize that it would be impossible for him even to make his argument if he were without it.

The functioning of our aural mind is largely unconscious. This does not mean it is any less powerful, or sensitive to its environment.


Even though it is not my primary activity, I have felt a concern for the role that sound plays generally in our society for a number of years. In 1974, I took what was thought to be a radical position with an editorial in the New York Times which condemned naive ideas about sound in the environment. I was reacting to a pamphlet called "Noise Makes You Sick", published by the Depart-ment of Air Resources of New York's Environmental Protection Agency. In exaggerated pseudo medical terms it condemned all sound as bad, saying in effect that hearing hurts you.

I countered with "Noise Propaganda Makes Noise" and finished it off with: "Obviously we need to be able to rest from sound just as we do from visual stimulation, we need aural as well as visual privacy, but silencing our public environment is the acoustic equivalent of painting it black. Certainly just as our eyes are for seeing, our ears are for hearing"(2.

Even by their own definition of noise as "any unwanted sound", this propaganda itself was making noise. By making all sound unwanted, it made noise where there was none before.

Although their argument was not very well thought out and their facts exaggerated, it is amazing how pervasive this idea remains - lodged in the back of most people's minds along with many other contradictions is a vague idea that sound is bad for you. The physically damaging sounds in our environment are few and known. If we are convinced sound is injuring us in some way psychologically, though, of course it can.

That hearing is not thought of generally as an important sense is contradicted by this resentment of sound itself, especially among city dwellers. Most of this resentment comes from the fact that we don't have the same control over our sound environment as we do over our visual one; we can easily shut out the world visually, but not sonically.

This lack of control is a result of a general lack of awareness in the architectural community about sound - architects think much more about the way a building looks than how sound works in it. This, coupled with the fact that sound isolation costs money just like its visual counterpart, and there is a larger profit margin in building without this invisible component, leads to a lot of acoustically transparent construction. The buyer usually doesn't find out about it until it's too late - not many go out listening for an apartment.

All this is not the fault of sound, and it's not sound that should bear their resentment.

Another contradictory thought that usually travels along with the idea that sound is bad for you is that the sounds of nature are good for you - civilization makes bad sounds and nature makes good ones.

The sound barriers built along the modern super-highway are a good example of this confused state of mind. At a certain distance, it is impossible to hear the difference between the sound of a super highway and the sound of a waterfall. They sound the same, yet we spend millions to build acoustic barriers against the one and millions to build a house close enough to hear the other.

On the other hand for those living close to the super highway, the difference is very clear and the highway sound intrusive. But perhaps it should be; the ear may be telling us something with its incessant reminder - the air here is exceptionally unhealthy to breathe. Perhaps these barriers are not such a good idea at all: another green idea exploited, in this case to raise the property values of land which shouldn't be lived on in the first place.

In both these cases it is not sound which annoys us, but the message it carries. We easily recognize the things we hear just as we do those we see, but usually less consciously. Sound is constantly giving us messages, some of which we do not wish to hear; but let's not blame the messenger for the message.

A large amount of the talk in the past about the sounds of our everyday environment has been focused on going back to nature or the good old days of the past, when things were natural and quiet; and if there are man-made sounds that are good, it's only the good old ones. As we can see from the above, the results of these ideas may not be as innocent as they seem.

I am consistently astounded at our aural naiveté in contrast to the rest of our culture. Fortunately the world of visual art provides us with an analogy to get us out of this trap; for centuries painters have let us see that natural landscape is not the only subject matter. There are many interesting things to hear in a city just as there are many to see. We will not come to grips with the real problems of sound in contemporary society with nostalgia.


So what can be done? To begin with, we can articulate the issues in an intelligent way and try to clear away misconceptions, resolve some of the contradictions, and give the general public an accurate idea of what sound is and means to us and thus the arguments to allow them to challenge the status quo.

We can also take more direct action. In the 1980's I took on the problems of emergency vehicle sirens in cities. The project's focuses were: how to make sounds that were locatable in an urban environment so people would know what to do when they heard one, sounds that would allow two drivers of emergency vehicles to hear each other when their sirens were on so they wouldn't run into each other, and to make sounds we could live more easily with - which would have authority without being authoritarian3.

The goal was utilitarian - to apply a unique knowledge of technique acquired in the process of building sound works to what I saw as a serious problem. I was surprised therefore when I found my colleagues in the fields of culture interpreting it as a work, and horrified when they went on to call it the ultimate "Urban Symphony" - as if once you are an artist or composer you are condemned for life, and every sound you make is art. I do not think I am composing when I am frying an egg, just because it makes sound.

One of the unforeseen results of the siren project was that, in the process of convincing people of the necessity of a better set of signals for these vehicles, I probably encountered every misconception about sound known to man. The one that was always present, though, was that the sounds of our man-made sound environment were unavoidable - an unspoken conviction that there were no alternatives; we could not change them.

On the contrary, the sounds of our man-made sound environment are usually simply byproducts - the results of not caring whether something makes a sound or not, and, if it does, not caring what it sounds like.

Why then do we assume any given sound is inevitable? It could be because until recently we have not had the knowledge or means to shape sound. We have only been able to capture sound with a recording for the last sixty years; before that a sound was gone before we could grasp and examine it. It is understandable then that we have the feeling that sound is untouchable and immutable. Today of course, we can not only capture sound but we have the means to examine it and even see it in a multitude of ways. We can also form it, and the things that produce it, in practically any way we want.

If we go back to the super highway again we see that the approach to silencing the highway was not to change the sound, but to build barriers against it - that changing the sound itself was not thought of. Instead of building barriers against it, why didn't they look at what was causing the sound? Hasn't anybody ever thought of designing a tire that makes less noise? Good traction and noise don't necessarily go together.

One of the things that encouraged me to go on with the siren project was the opportunity to provide an example that even some of the worst sounds we accept and live with are not inevitable. Sound does things, and we can do something with sound.


We don't have to take our sound environment as it comes. As specialists in the field we should begin to bear some of the responsibility and certainly take some direct action in determining what kinds of sounds the rest of the world has to bear.

There are some serious dangers inherent in this endeavor, however, as the misinterpretation of the siren project shows. It is quite natural for the people now beginning to work in the field of aural design to originate in the field of music; it is the source of our most sophisticated knowledge about how people react to sound, regardless of whether it can be quantified or not. But there is a danger here of not being able to separate insights that that knowledge provides, from the art - thinking that we can apply music itself to the sound signals of everyday life. Quoting musical phrases, whether in the popular style or the avant garde, to announce the arrival of elevators, and make us more patient when someone puts us on hold on the telephone, simply perpetuates the mistake of muzak(4. Taste in music is highly personal; one person's music will always be another's muzak.

Likewise, the use of the issues of sound in the environment as an excuse for other kinds of artistic manifestations either visual or sonic weakens both the issues and the art. Art is not a very effective vehicle for correcting social ills; it has a much higher purpose in our culture. Often artists who use it as such, use it as a safe substitute when they have nothing to say - hiding behind the issue, they think they are safe because they cannot be attacked without also attacking the issue. A political caricature or cartoon in a newspaper can be a very effective means for change. The same issue stated as a word in the center of a canvas does nothing except make its "creator" and viewers feel smug.

We should resist the temptation to exploit the issues of these real and practical problems of sound in our everyday world as a vehicle for artistic expression or, worse, careerism. If we don't, we will end up with a world full of "designer" sound instead of one which functions from sound design.
My odyssey with police cars and fire trucks lasted on and off for twelve years. I feel I have more than fulfilled my active part. But I would like to leave those who will endeavor in the future in the field of aural design, the following food for thought - three examples of things which, with work, could change considerably the way the world might sound in the future. Each is a different class of folly.

The first is the acoustic accident.

The terrible two stroke:

I remember having a startling "revelation" some time in the mid-seventies. I was passed in the street by a very loud unmuffled motor bike and realized that this ugly mechanical flatulence was one of the most pervasive sounds on the globe.

It seems innocuous, this motorini of the third world; but this sound (made by the most elementary of all engines, the two stroke) reaches into an amazingly diverse range of environments: from the city to virgin forests with the chain saw, onto lakes and pristine beaches in the form of the outboard motor and the water sled, into the uninhabited wilderness with the trail bike and the snowmobile, and even into the lush suburbia of America with the power lawn mower and the leaf blower. Getting rid of it would change the way a lot of places in the world sound.

The second is an example of ill-considered design:

The truck back-up alarm:(5

Here is a case that is basically a good idea - a sound that is projected automatically when a truck is put into reverse gear to warn pedestrians who may be in the driver's blind spot that the truck is about to back up. The problem is in the way it has been executed. Although this sound is only useful directly behind the truck for a distance of a meter or two, this high beep sound is capable of piercing ears for several blocks.

The simple-minded thinking of the person who designed it is obvious. He probably pulled his Helmholtz (which he hadn't looked at since his college physics course) off the shelf and looked up the ear's frequency response. The curve clearly shows that the most sensitive area of the ear is around 1000 Hz. Eureka! We will make it a 1000 Hz sine tone at 110 dB, then it will be very safe!

What overkill! Every time I hear a truck back up I have an image of an idiot trying to kill flies with a hammer. With only a little thought and experimentation he could have found a sound solution that would stand out from traffic noise and be confined to an area only where it is useful.

The last is the misapplication of sound itself

The auto alarm game:

I have watched the development of this one over the last fifteen years.

Here's how it works. The auto audio merchant sets up a store (now there are even franchises) selling car hi-fis and alarms. A customer comes in. With polished techno gobbledygook the salesman manages to get him to buy a sound system powerful enough for a small football stadium for the inside of his car. His store also sells auto theft alarms, but he doesn't also try to sell him one of these.

A week later the customer comes back in tears. Someone stole the whole thing (hopefully to use as a public address system for a small football stadium), and he wants to buy a new one. No problem, they just happen to have a duplicate in stock; but this time... "You know, I have this super loud alarm siren (guaranteed to wake the dead), it'll scare the hell out of anybody who tries to steal it the next time, and you'll hear it no matter where you are". Now it's clear why the salesman didn't try selling him the alarm the first time; this way he sells two hi-fi monsters and the alarm sells itself the second time around.

So here he is - everything back just the way it was. He decides to go to the disco for the night. He finds a nice quiet residential street to park where he thinks nobody will try to steal his sonic beauty again, sets the alarm, locks up and heads for 120 dB heaven. About midnight some old duffer with too many beers parking behind him accidentally touches his bumper. All hell breaks loose. The poor guy nearly dies of a heart attack, and the rest of the neighborhood has insomnia until 5 a.m., when the owner comes out of the disco. After six hours of 120 dB house music he can't even hear it anymore, so he walks down to the next disco and dances for a few more hours. The rest of the neighborhood can still hear it, but they think it's unavoidable.

Now the car alarm has become a status symbol, especially the kind that go off for a few seconds when you unlock the door; that way everybody turns around and looks. It's wonderful when it scares the owner so much that he panics and can't find the button to turn it off.

This device is of little use in protecting property; a silent alarm which informs police is much more effective than a screaming siren, and allows a chance of apprehending the thief. No one, including the police, does anything when they see a car with flashing lights making a loud deliberately nasty sound on the street. It's just annoying.

Why is this person allowed to make his problem ours? Pass a law against it!


Sound is not something most people think about, but the fact that we are unaware of it has nothing to do with its importance to us. It does mean, though, that it is difficult to build a case for its importance in our lives. It could also mean that much of the time we are unaware of what's really bothering us.

  1. This contribution was written by M.Neuhaus as a reaction to the issues of "sound ecology" raised in the "Zeitgleich" symposium.
  2. Published in the New York Times on December 6, 1974.
  3. In 1991 Neuhaus was awarded the first patent for a sound as a result of his siren project; see 'Sirene - Aural Design' (Dutch and English), Kunst and Museum Journaal, volume 4 number 6, 1993, Amsterdam; and 'Siren' (German) and 'Listen' (German), Welt auf tönernen Füßen, Schriftenreihe Forum/Band 2, Göttingen 1994.
  4. 'Muzak' is the generic term for background music in the US.
  5. Such a signal is a legal requirement for heavy trucks in North America.