The city sleeps in on Sundays. Walking down North Ave towards Piedmont Ave in the early hours of the morning, I got a chance to see it drowsily wake up. As I crossed the bridge over the I-85, I realized the sound of the cars speeding down the highway acts as a wall between the city of Atlanta and Georgia Tech. Once the drowning noise of the cars’ wheels rolling down the pavement was gone, I began to reconsider if walking alone to Publix was such a safe idea.
The observations I made while attempting to stay safe walking alone in the city serve as the evidence to the following claim: “When a user perceives a situation as potentially dangerous, the most important sounds are those obtained while causally listening for threats to the user’s wellbeing.”
First, the type of listening that becomes most relevant while walking down the street is causal listening. The objective of the user is to identify potential sources of danger, so causal listening is the most effective at allowing the user to obtain information about where a sound is coming from. In this situation, the fidelity of the sound is prioritized over its intelligibility. Understanding what a stranger is saying is not as important in this scenario as using the phonographic model of listening to be able to place the stranger in the spatiotemporal map surrounding the user.
As the user walks down the street, a sort of hyper sensibility to sound is experienced as a response to fear. The user feels threatened and his or her body responds by being alert to the surroundings. North Ave.’s keynote sounds are the mechanical hum of the cars passing by, the crickets on the green areas beside the sidewalks, the hum of construction workers and their power tools, and most importantly: the loud thud of footsteps on the sidewalk. Just as with the voice of a stranger, the fidelity of the sound of their footsteps approaching is imperative for placing them in the user’s mental map of his or her surroundings. Being able to create this spatiotemporally specific mental map is of utmost importance for the user to feel alert and safe.
Stopping by the gas station for some coffee before work may seem like a relatively insignificant portion of your day. It becomes easy to walk into the gas station and ignore the “Welcome!” shouted your way as you step inside. For the most part, your biggest focus goes towards two sounds: that of your hot coffee pouring into your mug, and the ding of the register signaling the end of your transaction. Any other sounds are classified as “irrelevant” and your brain throws them away immediately. As a customer, your experience at the gas station is recorded in your brain using the intelligibility approach.
However, an entirely new soundscape emerges when you are on the opposite side of the register. As an employee, you must be as aware as possible of every sound made by everything inside and outside of the store. The seemingly insignificant “Welcome!” is now a way to alert all employees that a customer has entered the store. Every sound now becomes a signal, demanding mostly causal listening.
I work for a gas station chain called Quiktrip and I use the fidelity approach when analyzing the organized chaos at my job. Even the smallest noises must be paid attention to. For example, if a customer walks to the soda pop area and their footsteps now sound sticky, then I must quickly grab the mop and clean the sticky area. If I’m busy mopping the floor and all of a sudden the rate of the register dinging becomes faster, then I know that the line of customers has gotten bigger and I must help my coworker at the register. If I’m at the register and I hear something drop or spill at the back of the store, then I must listen to figure out what caused the drop to know exactly what to clean up. Empty cups make a quick “tap” when they fall; however, a cup full of icy coke makes a splash and is commonly followed by a loud gasp. Depending on what actually fell will determine whether or not I need to grab the mop before coming to clean the accident.
The importance of this spectrum of sounds can be summarized with two words: customer service. It’s the purpose of my job and I am paid very well to do it. The different sounds create an environment of important signals rather than a hierarchy of sounds that do and don’t matter. I refer to the soundscape as organized chaos because the sounds almost merge into a smooth rhythm- a cycle even. Listen, respond, listen, respond, listen, respond…
The Curran Parking Deck is one of my least favorite places on campus, and as such, my mission is to get in and out as quickly as possible. From inside a car, the lulling droll of the car engine’s purring is heard while the clear and high pitched clicking of the blinkers ring out in a steady tempo over the air conditioner’s low whistling. From outside the car, the volume of the car engines are transformed into thunderous roars, and a steady stream of gritty, crackling noises are audible as the tires crawl over the ground. The echoes of my footsteps resonate loudly, and the faint buzz of flickering overhead lights fills the restful silence in between these keynote sounds.
The most important goals in this environment are dependent on one’s location. When I’m driving my car, I’m actively looking for a parking space while being cautious of pedestrians. Therefore, I must hear selectively and only prioritize the sounds that indicate approaching cars or people. I end up turning my radio down as any other sounds become dangerously distractive. The acousmatic beeping of a locking car is a signal that indicates I’ll have to travel further to find a place to park. Once I’ve left my car, my focus shifts to leaving quickly and safely. It is important for me to hear with fidelity in order to gain a wholesome understanding of everything that comprises my surroundings. Causal listening also comes into play as the sources of all sounds must be assessed as to whether or not they are a threat. The same sound of the locking car now acts as a signal with a different meaning. It indicates the presence of another person exiting their vehicle, and I judge the distance between us by listening to the volume of the sounds created by their jingling keys and footsteps. In the end, sounds created by vehicles and people are the most prominent features of the Curran Parking Deck’s soundscape and the most critical factors to successful parking.