The sound world of central Helsinki differs
from that of other cities, because in the capital of Finland it is possible
to find places where it is quiet. Only a few kilometres from the city
centre, the din of the traffic fades into the background while you enjoy
the peace and harmony of nature in a forest.
Marjukka Peltonen M.A., 30, would take foreign visitors to
Helsinki into the forest. And she need not go far: less than five kilo-metres
from the very centre of the city, for instance in Ruskeasuo, nature’s
sounds surround the listener: birds singing, trees murmuring and soothing
silence. How exceptional in a city! And it is not far to go if you seek
the tranquillity of the wilderness. About twenty kilometres to the northwest,
in Nuuksio, Espoo, a truly silent soundscape awaits the listener.
Marjukka Peltonen is on maternity leave from her work in the Music
department of Helsinki’s Itäkeskus Library. She studied folk traditions
and folk music at the University of Tampere and, towards the end of
her studies, she focussed on studying soundscapes – her master’s thesis
was on the soundscapes of libraries.
Peltonen enjoyed studying the nocturnal soundscape of Helsinki. Although
she originally comes from Raahe, a small town in northern Finland, she
has lived in the Helsinki area for many years. “Before this research
project I had last studied the soundscape of a cowshed, so the jump
was quite something,” she says, with a laugh.
Soundscape research is quite a young discipline. Urban soundscapes
have been studied for instance in Manchester, Britain and Tampere, Finland.
Soundscape research differs from traditional noise abatement and acoustic
research in that it takes into account everything that can be heard
Pesonen finds studying the soundscapes of cities interesting, because
there is a great variety of sounds in a city and there are a lot of
listeners who all have their own way of relating to sounds. No wonder
there are many problems.
“All sounds have their own stories and contents and that decides which
sounds different people find pleasant or annoying. Some sounds are not
unambiguously welcome to some and unwelcome to others, they can mean
different things to different people.”
For example, traffic sounds cannot be classified only as unpleasant.
Peltonen tells of her 18 month old son, who loves the soundscape of
central Helsinki. “He turns his head this way and that. He listens eagerly
to the rattling of trams, the screeching of buses’ brakes and the low
rumbling of lorries.”
Prick up your ears!
The main part of Peltonen’s field work was carried out on a May night
in 1995. She and a group of friends kept a sound journal and recorded
sounds in three different places, the Old Church Park, on the steps
of the Finnish National Gallery by the Railway Square, and by the sea
at the Market Square. “The sounds of cars totally surprised us. I assumed
that in the small hours of early morning it would be much quieter and
that there would have been more sounds from people returning from a
night out. However, car sounds dominated all through the night. There
is surprisingly little talk and music in the Helsinki night.”
The nocturnal soundscape has changed during the last century: total
silence has turned into noisy nights. “During the first decades of industrialisation,
the loud noises of factories were even admired, they were seen as bringing
prosperity. Nobody thought about the fact that those loud machines would
damage the hearing of many a worker, as hearing protection or noise
abatement was unknown at the time,” Peltonen reminds us.
The sounds of work can still be heard in nocturnal Helsinki. There
is a steady but relatively low sound from the shipyard all through the
night. The soundscape research group noted down the howling of machinery
in the Old Church Park, one kilometre from the Hietalahti shipyards.
More boundaries are drawn between the public and private domains during
the night than during the day. Less noise is allowed during the night.
Sounds that are allowed during the day are prohibited during the night.
Every winter, countless people write Letters to the Editor complaining
about the racket the ploughing equipment makes during the night, but
during the daytime, snow removal is more than welcome – despite the
loud noises involved.
Although most Helsinki residents sleep during the night, the night-life
has, since the 1980s, gradually become livelier. Big cities never sleep,
but medium-sized Helsinki seems to doze off almost completely for a
little while in the early morning. The clever city birds see that their
chance has come at about 4 am and they begin their raucous concert.
Pedestrian precincts deaden noise
The soundscape of Helsinki is clearly urban, but it is characterised
by the lack of an unbroken pedestrian precinct. Traffic flows through
the city and its noise penetrates even offices and homes. When the heavy
traffic slows down, street cleaning and ploughing equipment take their
According to Peltonen, people who live in cities have learned to compete
with traffic noise and raise their voices indoors as well as outside.
Helsinki residents do not necessarily even notice that they are talking
in a loud voice; they have the ability to close their ears to the urban
soundscape. Peltonen thinks that more limitations should be imposed
on traffic noise, as they already are on other sounds.
“If Helsinki had a large pedestrian precinct in the centre of the city,
sounds made by people would be more dominant than they are now. The
city would then be more humane. For example, in the northern Finnish
city of Oulu, whose centre is pedestrianised, buskers really come into
their own. They do not have to compete with traffic, but with the noises
from other people.”
The surface materials of the streets and buildings affect the quality
of sounds. Cobbled streets, which abound in central Helsinki, are unbelievably
noisy. High stone buildings, tightly packed together along narrow streets,
also reflect sound.
Nocturnal soundscapes are also affected by the changing seasons. There
are more people strolling around in the light summer nights of Finland,
when people spend more time outdoors, than there are during the dark
winter months. In winter, the snow softens sounds even more.
Festivals belong to the city centre
A classification employed by soundscape researchers devides sounds
into those of the people in power and those of the people not in power.
The sounds of those in power represent money and influence and limits
are seldom imposed on them. On the other hand, strict limits are imposed
on the sounds of those not in power.
Originally, the sounds of power were produced by religion; sounds related
to religious activities were holy. For instance, church bells could
be heard from one village to another and it was not considered disturbing
at all. During industria-lisation, factories took on the same role:
people quite simply idealised the loud sounds emanating from the factories.
Now different limits are imposed on sounds caused by industry.
“Right now, traffic is in power. Only recently there was an attempt
to block traffic noise behind noise barriers. However, even these are
built on traffic’s terms,” Marjukka Peltonen sums up.
Music events, which draw a lot of mainly young people, represent the
sounds of the powerless in the city centre. “In a way, it’s the done
thing to complain about young people’s partying. The disturbance is
not the noise, it is who is celebrating.”
Peltonen thinks that sounds from festivals and celebrations belong
to the city centre. People are a lot stricter about all kinds of sounds
in the suburbs. Traffic noise is not tolerated in the suburbs, but people
who live in the centre are expected to also be more tolerant towards
sounds from celebrating and other people. The centre is a more public
space than the suburbs.
“It makes me sad, when people complain about the noise from music events.
As I see it, public celebrations belong to the centre – and celebrations
are always accompanied by noise.” Up to a point Peltonen, too, approves
of limits, for example, so that loud music would not damage the hearing
of the listeners. However, she thinks that it is a shame that moderately
noisy concerts have to end early.
“The key word here is tolerance. Always, when somebody gets angry about
a sound, the annoyance is not caused by the sound itself, but the feeling
that the sound should not be there.” According to Peltonen, organisers
of events counteract this by offering a wide variety of different acts
and, by doing so, try to attract as wide an audience from different
age groups as possible. When everybody feels like they are part of the
celebration, even loud noises are tolerated better.
“I would argue that if you cannot sleep because of music from an outdoor
concert, the main reason is annoyance. If you take the thing calmly
and with acceptance, you can sleep in that noise and have your own peace.”
Beauty is in the ear of the listener
Marjukka Peltonen thinks that Helsinki’s nocturnal soundscape is at
its most beautiful in the Old Church Park, where birds are holding their
concerts and even human voices are distinguishable. The most wonderful
soundscape Peltonen has ever met was in Switzerland, where she lived
for about six months in Ces, a small village in the Alps. There is no
road passable to cars leading up to the village high above sea level.
Instead, the last part is covered by foot along mountain paths.
“The soundscape was just unbelievable. I could hear the aeroplanes
high above, but there was no other traffic noise. I could see down to
the motorway and the railroad from a precipice at the edge of the village,
but I could not distinguish any noise. The soundscape in that Alpine
village was produced completely by the people and the surrounding nature.”
Peltonen thinks back warmly to the cows, chickens, sheep and goats
of the village. When the goats grazed, each had a bell around its neck.
The cows grazed outside the village and they were found in the nearby
forest by following the tinkling of their bells. “It was really beautiful
and rare to hear!” the researcher says.