Post- Magazine

the streets are alive [lifestyle]

a guide to blending and balancing in the urban soundscape

What sound do your shoes make when they hit the pavement?

Revving engines, the echoes of passing conversations, and the incessant honking at wandering pedestrians—on Thayer Street and even the Quiet Green, everything’s sounding off. These everyday sounds are part of a dissonant symphony we have free tickets to every day, an improvised performance we find ourselves in whenever we step outside. As mundane as the sound of tires rolling on the pavement is, there’s nuance in noticing. As often as we’re exposed to these sounds, how often do we hear them?


“I don’t know what to do when I leave my room and my AirPods are dead,” an editor of post- shared with me as we discussed this article. “I’m at a loss without my ten minutes of AirPod time.” I, too, am guilty of walking everywhere with wired headphones dangling from my ears, even if they’re not playing anything. It’s easier to block everything out sometimes, to focus on my breath and the sound of my footsteps. I don’t think it's a crime to walk around in headphones, but what do we miss out on when we tune out the sounds of the streets? Maybe the city offers a different playlist, one that requires just as much engagement as your Spotify Daily Mix. What does the song of the streets sound like, and how can we understand it?

To answer this question, I’m drawing on my limited music theory training from high school marching band. We learned about the balance pyramid—a triangle divided into four unequal parts stacked on top of one another. The balance pyramid isn’t to suggest hierarchy, but rather balance and proportion. It organizes and locates each part within the band to form a nice rounded sound. A brief lesson on the physics of sound waves: lower-pitched tones have wider wavelengths. The balance pyramid helps us find the sweet spot where the wavelengths align, creating harmony and literally sonic vibrations. At the base of the pyramid is the bass. The bass line quite literally grounds the triangle and provides the structure for the rest of the sounds to balance on top of. It’s the deep, resonant pool that everything else swims around in. Jack Antonoff talks about the power of the bass in this live recording at Radio City Music Hall in 2023. A deep buzzing is filling the room: “Do you hear that low sound that feels like it's hugging you?” Sound can glue—it can envelop you. 

Next are tenor and alto. Our band director was prone to metaphor, so to borrow from Mr. Felver, it’s the ice cream in the sundae—the creamy goodness within, the content, the whole of the thing. The order that the balance pyramid sets up asks each group to listen to the entirety of the band, giving special attention to play quietly enough as to hear below them and louder than what comes above. Again, the alto and tenor voices must listen to the deep resonance of the bass. To toot my own horn for a moment, I famously had great tone on the bass clarinet. When the band was losing our balance, Mr. Felver would bring us back to the deep bass line I was playing, and ask that the sound of the band centers itself around my bass clarinet. Walking the urban soundscape requires the same levels of attention. What sounds are grounding me in this moment? And what are the sounds that float above me, on the top of the pyramid?

The sopranos make up the top of the pyramid and play the melody—that musical line stuck in your head. On your walk to class, it might be the fleeting sounds that come in quickly just to disappear, the sounds that rest on top of the balance pyramid of noise you’ve identified around you. The melody is the content of the conversations passing you by, the turning spokes of bicycle wheels, or bird chirps flying overhead. Mr. Felver asks me to listen in. Can you play quietly enough to hear them? And how does the melody fit within the bass line? Like that ice cream sundae, the point is that every sound has its (equally important!) place. 

But maybe the sounds of the street don’t work together in harmony. The music drifting out of Caliente’s and Tribos can sound a little dissonant sometimes. The cars lined up on Thayer honk in an endless feedback loop. Then there’s the terrifying, thundering footfalls of a group of high schoolers walking down the street. When sounds become too much, and the urge to plug our headphones back in overcomes us, perhaps understanding how each sound does or does not fit in its place can be a way to grapple with the world around us. A “bad” sound is never isolated. Locating it within the world of sounds around you, reminds us of the larger picture—of sounds deep and constant that ground us in the present moment. Understanding the balance pyramid means understanding your footfalls and your heartbeat work in concert with even the discordant sounds. The group of high schoolers will pass. Your heart will keep beating. A singular voice returned to its context takes its place among a symphony of sounds.


“In order to blend and balance in band, you must listen to your section and the entire band and make adjustments in real-time.” I found that quote on a 5th grade band website (thank you Mrs. Goldstein!). On my way to class today, I tried to do just that. In front of me, the finance bro hums a dull drone on the phone: “venture capital market start-up.” He drags his Vans on the sidewalk a little as he walks. Across the street, a woman carries a box full of bouquet centerpieces, their glasses clinking. A couple passes by, and I listen to how their conversation crescendos as they near, and fades away as they pass me. A siren wails in the distance. Today I took the time to listen, and the sounds were a little kinder to me. For the rest of my walk to class, I took my steps in time with the unheard rhythm of petals falling on the grass. 

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