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A quiet moment in the Old Church Park, in central Helsinki, early in the morning. Birds take over the soundscape.

    City of silence

    Nina Korhonen


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 around us.

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 place.

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.