A first approach of sonic effect

by Jean-François Augoyard + juL McOisans

The urban sound environment can be the object of two operations: either the description, or the intervention. To do it, there is not lack of analog or digital quantitative tools. Nevertheless, the metrology is not always effective in situ; Thereby, the open spaces and the small closed spaces are today measurable neither in the whole of their components, nor with all the desirable sharpness. Moreover, in situ the human dimension of the acoustic phenomena escapes partially the quantitative evaluation.

Two questions thus are to be put.

1-Are there qualitative tools specifically adapted to the analysis of the sound environment and what is their operational value?

2-Can we define qualitative tools which are usable complementarily to the quantitative tools?

Two fundamental notions were invented during the last century: the sound object (Pierre Schaeffer) and the soundscape (R.Murray Schafer). Precious in pedagogy or for the very fine analysis of a precise sound phenomenon, the first is of a too heavy use at the scale of an architectural or urban complex. The second, also fundamental to reveal the compositional and landscaped dimensions of the

sound, leans on an attractive but too discriminatory esthetics for a trivial approach of the daily situations.

Between these two approaches was needed a tool allowing to work on the intermediate level, the level of

concrete configurations between three components of any sound situation: acoustic sources, constructed space and sound perception.

This tool is the sonic effect which the interdisciplinary properties, the perfectibility, and the capacity to cross the analysis and the action upon the environment, were widely experienced and confirmed in our laboratory (Cresson) since the 80s.

This lecture will lean on sequences of listening and collection of reactions.

download the pdf of the conference

Translation :

One of the founding works of the team. Sonic effects – everyday sounds

He made the choice of speaking French, as the majority of people attending are speaking French. The presentation (projected) will be in English and I (Sophie) am here.

Let’s start at the beginning. Just listen.

What is your general impression of that recording/urban soundscape? In terms of structure?

à Change between the outside space and a more confined one.

à Difference in the intensity – reduction, very loud sounds, very quiet ones, almost nothing, etc.

Let’s listen a second time. Structure, at what time, emerging shapes/sounds?

à More natural sounds at the beginning – then cars – then sort of envelop

à Water (rain, fountain?)

à Engine sounds (different ones), human voices, footsteps

à Space “sounds”

One structure: loud intensity, weaker intensities – very quickly.

We start from a fountain, walk across a place, then into a street. Relatively narrow scheme. In acoustics: I-shaped street. The main differences are: when the recorder turns his back to the sound, and when we enter the street, we feel like we’re in a more confined space. The difference is 5/10 m into the street. Very important phenomenon.

It doesn’t match with the visual scheme. The audible difference happens at that point.

In terms of sounds: continuous sound, then drop in intensity. If the slope had been slower, it would have been less harsh.

Variation: we raise the intensity and lower it back down.

Questions – we can address this phenomenon in different ways:

Is it just acoustics? Differences in intensity, treble, less high notes – change in reverberation. Not just that – otherwise, there would be no space.

We have a spatial structure: square, then narrow street. These phenomena: passage into an I-shaped street: narrow rectangle. If you studied acoustics a little, sounds bounce, just like a ball. Big ball for the deep sounds, small ball for the high-pitched sounds.

In a narrow street, we lose energy, less space for the sounds to bounce. Market place in the background. Space shapes these sonic models.

Interviews with the dwellers around that space. “We go from noise to silence” Just as if it was suddenly silent, things were quieter.

Semantic dimension. “We leave the square, we leave a big public space, we are back home.” Idea of a sonic/sound door/gate. This is this phenomenon: drastic change in the acoustic quality.

“Entering the street.”

Organisation of territories: social/anthropological dimension. From public to private.`

If you want to study the sound geography of a city, this phenomenon is paramount. Way to structure space. You can raise awareness in the sounds of the city in this way.

Perception rule: structure the space in which I am/live. Otherwise, it’s like a fog.

Public, semi-public, private.

How do we call this phenomenon? We can call it in many different ways: instead, we listened to what people told us. “It’s like a fracture, a hole, a fall, (fall in perceptual tonicity), feeling of dropping into a hole.” Those are the most frequent experiences we heard about.

Cutting effect. (most general way to express this, based on the testimonies from the residents/dwellers).

Six fields of interpretation to understand what’s happening: physics (acoustic signal), space psychology (space/form), perception, interactions (this phenomenon can be an instrument to organise everyday life (study on sounds of everyday life, and how they model life between people and interactions) – importance in sonic actions. We hear sounds, but we also produce them. We are major sound actors. In the 1980s, research on the effects of sounds. In the end, the others are the evil ones, with all their sounds. But what about the other side? Who makes the evil sounds? Not evil. They are normal, regular, ordinary people. We are all makers of sounds (very important).

First material to study sounds: oneself + the others.

Fifth field: representation, community, culture.  Last field: norms. Norms in a regulatory way (law, European laws, etc.), but also “custom” norms: we are used to do it like that (jurisprudence). Also level of habits: small communities, small habits. Three levels of norms. They apply to sounds.

“Speak louder, less loud, etc.”

Studying a sonic phenomenon – we have a wide array of fields to study sounds with. Electroacoustics, sociology, anthropology, re-activated listening (articles/chapters on this method – from CRESSON What we can learn from people), ethnography, drawing, outlining, sketching, etc.

Beginnings of CRESSON: work between one researcher in humanities (like JF Augoyard), one acoustician, one/two students in architecture. Fieldwork in a joint way. What can we learn from the other?

Do we just have a big square and a narrow street, and that’s it? Can we find this cutting effect in other places? We can predict (with plans, models, research) the existence of the cutting effect.

Great capacity to shape territory and social rules. Listen.

Large boulevard – lots of traffic – Friday at lunchtime, high peak for traffic and affluence. Along the boulevards, there are buildings with double doors. Very important

As soon as people are in the lobby, they are “home”.

Feeling of being at home, thanks to the door, that lingers until the moment they enter to their actual home/apartment. Upstairs in the apartment, you can still hear the boulevard. “See, as soon as I entered the building, it’s really quiet in here.” But it’s not. But the reminder of the double doors is enough to imagine that we can’t hear the boulevard anymore.

Universal phenomenon? Example of a machine that’s running. Then, all of a sudden: stop. “Oh, that used to work. Oh, it was running before.” Turning off the radio: something happens. Slight difference that notes a change in space and time.

Some music uses that cutting effect. Ex: Fawzi Saheb (refused any recording except on radio). Very interesting: he plays, then stops for 5/6 seconds, then starts again. You have time to process the music, then it starts again. In many genres, this effect is used, at different levels.

Anthropological meaning – Very interesting/beautiful foreword by Michel Foucault (Le rêve et l’existence). Verticality, laterality, depth. Feeling that a sonic tonicity exists, then it drops. It then translates into the psycho-motor scheme. Idea of echo (far/close) (cf. Bach)

We organise a musical landscape that way.

Listen – Macbeth, Verdi. (Drama from the start)

The cutting effect is

  • A general shape, scheme. Sounds hold and grip – particular power. It is defined by some rules.
  • Collective experience
  • Event that is always interpreted – desire to re-express, singularity, impregnation of sounds in everyone’s everyday life. If you do sound education, do not let children say “it’s a bell, it’s a cow”. Make them listen to sounds they can’t recognise. “What do you hear?” “It hurts my ears, etc.” à Re-express sounds in their own way. We tend to overlook our own experience, the way we feel it. Not just music, but also the everyday sounds.
  • Paradigm between physical world and in-situ reality, between analysis and practice. Example of Torino: work on sonic effects – work on a musical piece with 5/6 cutting effects (for example). He realised that we already have a sonic experience before even creating music. A student in music school already has some sort of musical knowledge/background. They are already aware of effects (maybe just not by name). Musicians are not just people who think with notes, effects and so on.

Sound does not exist without effect(s). As soon as we are in everyday/ordinary life, there are always effects around sounds. That’s why starting from sonic effects is very open. Sonic effects represent a paradigm/conceptual model. Not a closed effect, we can add to it, or specify. There is something like a centre, and what is around it can evolve.

We cannot talk about an effect in a concrete way – examples are great for that.

Sonic effect:

  • Interdisciplinary tool: starting point for the CRESSON, in order to process interactions between:
    • Acoustic sources
    • Layout/built surroundings
    • Sonic perceptions
    • Sonic actions

Cresson, at the beginning: team of four. Schemes, diagrams, drawings, interviews. The main thread/synthesis: concept of sonic effect.

They had regular meetings (Thursdays?) for a few hours, where they brought one sonic effect. Working on sounds: do whatever you want (risk and chance). Regular meetings for many years, on sonic effects – each one spoke about it, to understand. 16/18 major sonic effects. Some were entered into a repository.

90 effects in the repository/directory. They can be tackled from the field, from the work currently underway etc.

Translation in 2005 (many changes)

Collective way of working.


  • Elementary effects.

They always have an acoustic definition, even if they have many more uses and definitions. Filtration, delay, reverberation, etc. Listen.

Successive changes. Time and treble

In a corridor – exchange between mother and children. Reverberation. Scene from the everyday life. Children are playing and fighting – the mother used the same reverberation code and grab the sonic power. Then, she discovers the recorder and adapts her volume (exactly what was to be done to be understood) Intuitive process.

The reverberation belongs to the spiritual/sacred environment. We can’t imagine a religious place (like a church) without that effect. Singing in the shower, too. (or singing in general)

Important/significant effect, that also has an important psychological scope. Construction of personality (cf. mirrors) – sort of parallel in the sound world. Construction of the ego with that effect.

  • Composition effects

Question of space

Effects: drone (like in the room), urban drone, cutting effect, ubiquity)

At the end, each researcher wrote the definition of one effect (in the directory).

Different types of ubiquity.

Telephone effect: transformed voices, etc.

Masking effect – created by a physical limit, sound mask, physical rules, different approaches for that effect. Listen.

The voices speak right into the microphone, and yet they can’t hear one another. Some masking effects are really interesting – some scenes have actors who have to say something intimate or hard to say. Positive use of the mask too, that’s possible. Parasite effect (but in a positive way).

  • Mnemo-perceptive effects

Memory and perception at the same time, connected to memory and culture. Cocktail effect. Defined in acoustics. Just voices in general, some speak louder than other, as everyone speaks louder and louder, the volume goes up and up, at the expanse of intelligibility.

But there are thresholds. Some sort of competition between everyone. We can still hear voices. But if everyone goes louder again, and no one can understand anything anymore.

No complete intensity, some are higher/louder then disappear. Image of the sea – mirroring effect, but it disappears quickly. Fleeting.

  • Psychomotor effects

Specified actions. Niche, attraction, phonotonic effects… (music can help to focus, to be less tired, to be less sad, etc.)

On a market, it’s wintertime. Competition of voices and winter sounds. Some sellers can still be heard – position (over the overall sound), treble (high voices). The high-pitch of a watch is made to be heard over anything.

Some babies wait until everyone else has stopped shouting to start shouting. Trick to use the right moment to be heard.

  • Semantic effects

Sharawadji: intimately linked to personal life. Category of Chinese aesthetics (cf. Sublime – sea, mountains, crushing/overwhelming phenomena). The Chinese developed another category – ordinary things that accidentally become magnificent, for a fleeting moment, before disappearing back into the ordinary.

One night, a drunk man started singing something so beautiful that they could have cried. But then it was gone. Sharawadji effect.

Uses of sonic effects.


Question 1: Quand le groupe de recherche s’est formé, de quels domaines venaient les chercheurs ?

Architectes, géographes, sociologues, acousticiens, musicologues. Lui était philosophe et professeur à la base, puis doctorat en urbanisme. Curieux de toutes les autres disciplines.

Question 2: On sonic uses. We can use them to design architectural space. What kind of projects?

Answer: Pascal and Grégoire might explain that. Many effects are used. Some doors are sometimes left open so that mothers can hear their children crying at night, for example. The organisation of space includes that.

Cf. O. Balaÿ. Propagation of sounds throughout houses. Organisation of the household, in an intuitive or voluntary way. Every time we build something, there is a series of ambiance data that is already available.

Same thing for public space. We can enter in that world from complains, or acoustics, etc. Projects with sound recommendations. Every time an urban project starts, we look at the field/site, and we question people. Originality of the AAU lab and Cresson – commented walk, see people’s expectations, etc.

Question of budget (and sonic comfort is not tackled)

Passive properties of ambiances – how will sounds propagate? Reasons for the CRESSON’s existence

Question/Remark 3: Arabic architecture, with cupolas and so on. The question of sound is included in the construction. The concept of the use is taken into account – in terms of ambiance, too.

Back in the day, in night clubs: “but you can’t hear one another! – to say what?”

Question 4: Earlier, you mentioned a catalogue. What about some sort of musical education?

Answer: Repository. That we would need to know by heart.

Question 5: Sonic effects as molecules, almost isolated. Often, a phenomenon can be described by many effects.

Answer: Yes, of course. Time too short to go in details, but yes, definitely. The perception moment matters and predominates. Sound “magma” – someone can go over/above it.

No sound without effect, but effects in many different forms/shapes. The repository allows to name phenomena of our sonic experience, regardless of who we are.

Question 6: to name the phenomena, did you use people’s words?

Answer: yes, for the main effects (16/18) – based on the interviews. Otherwise, it would have been something made by the researchers, without that added layer. Very important to include.

Question 7: Est-il possible d’étendre la liste des effets ?

Answer : C’est votre travail. Ce sont des effets principaux. Chacun a ses particularités. Le but est de ne pas les confondre. Un effet = un paradigme.

Question 8: The question of the human ear. Some sounds can become ordinary. The effect loses some of its power – is that true? Repetition.

Answer: In an academic setting, we can repeat. But that’s okay, because there’s always something to listen to. Importance of the sonic memory. Listening only once, and then ask: “what did you hear?” Practice your memory skills. Categorising is good, but you can’t just do that.

At CRESSON, one student wrote her thesis on smells. Training in chemistry to understand + internship to become a perfume-maker. At the beginning, you can only recognise three rose scents. After 3 weeks, around 30, etc.

We can never hear the same sound twice. It’s always different.

Sound is first and foremost time. You can’t perceive without temporality. For sound, you always have to listen, and listen again, and again, and again, and again…

The instantaneous listening is always a little delayed.

Physiology: hearing delay – around 20s from the moment it happens and the moment we hear it.

Question 9: the repository was designed based on what they heard in the 80s. It is a punctual moment. Are the effects linked to historical aspects?

Answer: Some effects might disappear, might be less used. In the book, some are linked to the phonograph – still relevant today? It might be, in some music tracks, some sounds are re-introduced.

Question 10: One sound: working on a computer, when a phone is about to sound. What kind of effect? What happens?

Answer (Pascal Amphoux): Very relevant and good question. Question of universals. If they are not universals, then they are not effects. Sounds disappear. But technically, effects are universal. They are never bound to one sole field, domain, etc. The main (16/18) effects might never disappear (should not). Some effects were subject to discussion for years, just to see if they were relevant, actual effects.

(JF A.): the concept of effect. It’s not the effect from a cause. Slightly different – Doppler effect: on the road, a car drives past. The sound is higher and louder when the car is closer. But physically, the car is constant. Relativity.

Compression of acoustic waves when the car comes closer, decompression when it drives away.

Effects are always connected to a context. The effects also has meaning in other fields (an effect can be anxiety-inducing, etc.).

Effects have an effect.

Question 11: What about the dissemination of effects?

Answer: For the restitution, it’s about “what happened”. Re-activated listening. Recording, then going back to the people to make them listen. “Someone’s coming to my place. Listen, they jumped the small step. I know who it is.” You can recognise sounds.

Dissemination of the book. Lucky to be in an architecture school – otherwise, there was always something that bugged someone with the research.

What’s the use? For architects and urban planners. But in reality, the book is read by designers, artists, landscape designers, musicians, etc.

Question 12: Worshops with students in architecture. Really hard to introduce sounds in the curriculums and minds. How can we do that?

Answer: Architects are trained in many things. Habits and uses in the curriculums make it hard to introduce this aspect. Traditions?

We had an acoustician at the lab. The sound regulations were respected before, but now some don’t care and prefer going to court to deal with the problems. Controversial issue. Question of education.

PA: those fields are considered as defensive acoustics (linked to norms). But as long as no one experiments with it, they can’t really realise the reality. Architects are often disappointed, because it’s not applied acoustics. (i.e. designing and applying acoustics)

But the researchers never applied any of the effects they mentioned. But it completely transformed the way they now tackle their study sites. Vocabulary of effects changes the perceptions. Now we have a vocabulary to say something.

Great for analysis, great for designing. (We have it for visual aspects, and we need it for sound).

The thesis on smells mentioned earlier – based on sounds. Olfactory effects that was explained throughout the thesis. Without time, no sound study.

New paradigm on space. On the way. Is it a way to reconsider visual space? Can we reconsider it, and in a different way? Good way to articulate other aspects.

Translation by Sophie Provost

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