Forget Sightseeing — Let's Go Soundseeing

Forget Sightseeing — Let's Go Soundseeing

By Diane Hope


Because all too often we miss the simple moments in life.

By Diane Hope

Diane Hope is a British audio producer, sound recordist and journalist currently based in Arizona. A former environmental research scientist, she now makes immersive audio features and writes about sound.

A hellish squawking fills the air — a combination of demented guttural croaks and quacks, like Donald Duck with a bad hangover. If dragons existed they’d probably sound something like this. But you’d never expect to find them here, a stone’s throw from the giant feet of Shanghai’s Oriental Pearl Tower, in a pocket park.

Tourists throng Pudong’s iconic monument to new China, but just a short walk away, I’ve got the place to myself. Standing carefully in the shelter of a small pagoda — the pathways are covered in bird shit, which rains down with regularity — I enjoy the cackling, pterodactyl-like cacophony floating from the trees. This is a colony of nesting night herons. Getting close to them in the countryside can be tricky, but here they’ve become habituated to humans. 

Searching out audio oddities, like Shanghai’s pseudo dragons, can add a whole new dimension to familiar travel destinations. An evening stroll along the Bund can be much more spectacular than the neon bling flashing from massed skyscrapers across the Huangpu river. Close your eyes and listen to the lush backing track of throaty freighters, chugging barges and the slap of oily water against stone.

There’s free all-you-can-hear audio dim sum from which you can sample China’s musical traditions.

Seeking out iconic sounds is also fabulous for discovering new and quirky destinations. But search for sonic travel online and you’re more likely to find an ad for the latest electric travel toothbrush. Only a few countries — Finland and Japan among them — have national campaigns to promote places that demand appreciation for their sonic uniqueness. Which is strange considering that human hearing covers a 10-octave range, compared with a one-octave equivalent for vision.

Why is travel still so often just “sightseeing”? According to acoustics professor Trevor Cox, one reason is the lack of information about cool and exotic soundscapes. “YouTube can be useful in finding interesting sounds,” he says, but “the sound is almost always badly recorded.” In one of the rare books on the topic, Sonic Wonderland, Cox catalogs and explains a host of exotic noises across the globe: whispering galleries, a stalactite organ, musical roads, singing sand dunes, seals that wail like alien angels and Mesoamerican pyramids that chirp like birds. “We’ve forgotten how to listen” is how Sound Business author Julian Treasure explains it.

Delving deeper into the sonic strata of Shanghai with my translator Dong XiangBin — aka Robin, a student at the Shanghai Institute of Visual Art — we bypass multistory shopping malls and head to the modest Wanshang bird and insect market. Robin grew up in the city, but, he admits, he’s never been to Wanshang before. When we step inside, we’re plunged into air pulsating with calls from hundreds of songbirds and thousands of crickets. Then we’re on to Lu Xun Park, where any day of the week there’s free all-you-can-hear audio dim sum from which you can sample China’s musical traditions, with a novice noodling on a saxophone here, and an accomplished erhu player there. If you’re lucky, a sheng — an ancient wind instrument that looks like its player is taking a hit off a bong embellished with bicycle horns — may produce weird, wavering chords, creating an odd blend with the bubbling birdsong floating from bulbuls perched in the trees.

Next, it’s on to the historic Peace Hotel to catch a set from a famously old jazz band (average age: 80). To avoid the hefty cover charge, we linger in the palatial lobby, where the tunes drift in like sonic smoke along vast art deco hallways, evoking the city’s opium-fueled 1920s heyday. Walking back to my lodgings, the buzzing electric bikes and scooters don’t sound like noise anymore — they’ve morphed into a constantly evolving multitrack mix. As we cross a pedestrian bridge over the Yan’an freeway with rush-hour traffic above and below, tires make loud double thuds on joints in the overpass inches above our heads. It’s like a giant pulse. “We’ve found the city’s heartbeat!” I yell to Robin, who listens for a few seconds before giving me a high-five.

Months after I’ve left Shanghai, Robin tells me that he pays a lot more attention to the sounds around him now. “When I have time I find a place to sit,” he says. “I close my eyes and just listen.”