Soundscapes of Pune City

Exploring the relationship between sound, place, and culture


By Justin Scarimbolo

Korean rock ballads ring out to the accompaniment of frothing milk in an air conditioned café; A rumbling garbage truck mounted with loudspeakers directs residents to separate their organic waste; Brass bandsmen hired by the tax collector play before a defaulter’s house, shaming him into paying his dues; The national anthem calls a community into being before every film in every theater in the city. 

As a long-time, foreign resident of Pune, I am often struck by the sounds I encounter in my daily life. What catches my ear about these sounds, beyond their sheer volume, frequency, and diversity, is the way they speak to and about the place in which they occur. The Korean music heard within the confines of a cooled and wired cafe registers the growing number of South Koreans living in the city, spurred on, in part, by the influx of companies such as Hyundai, Samsung, and LG. The municipal garbage truck that comes thundering into my housing society every morning announces its arrival with a recording of blown conch shell or shank, a Hindu ritual instrument, thus demonstrating the dominant religious community’s ability to create “sacred noise” without censure (Schaffer 1994:76).

From casual reflections on the relationship between sound, community, and social power grew the idea for a course that would bring my students and me out into the city to listen to and document its soundscapes. Inspired by the recordings of immigrant life in New York City made by Tony Schwartz in the 1950s, I wondered how my students could explore the intersections of sound, place, and culture using their city, Pune, as a classroom. Drawing on the work of Steven Feld and other anthropologists of sound, I wanted students to illuminate ways in which sound shapes our understanding of place, and place shapes our understanding of sound. How does sound, which includes but is not limited to music, echo, amplify, drown out, clash with and otherwise make audible peoples’ everyday engagement with the larger forces that structure society?


The posts featured on this site were developed over two iterations of a semester-long course I conducted at the Symbiosis School of Liberal Arts (SSLA) in Pune. All contributors were undergraduate students at the time they completed their work. The majority of them were in their very first semester of college. Each post presents a mini ethnography of a particular site of sound in the city. Data was generated from several field-based assignments, each focused on a different fieldwork methodology (participant-observation, life history interview, and soundscape recording). An ethnographic text, several photos, and a map accompany a 3-4 minute soundscape recording. Students conducted fieldwork independently. Texts were produced collaboratively; students submitted original drafts, which I redrafted and then returned for further revision.

Posts on group field trips are also included. The locations of these trips corresponded as closely as possible to the locations covered in our reading. Thus, a trip to the Noise, Vibration, and Harshness laboratory at the Tata Motors plant followed our reading of “Testing, Designing, and Marketing of Sound in the European Car Industry” by Cleophas and Bijsterveld (2012). A visit to Sahyadri Hospital followed our reading of Tom Rice’s (2013) chapter on the soundscapes of hospitals in London and Scotland. The intention was to forge connections between readings and shared experiences. As readings focused on places, experiences, and categories that were largely located in the West, our trips also provided opportunities to provincialize ideas about sound by trying them out in the Indian context. Finally, field trips were models for fieldwork practice. Students learned recording techniques, prepared interview questions, took field notes, and later prepared journal entries, selections from which are included in the posts.


Although focused on sound, the ethnographies presented here are not constructed sonically. They are not “sonic ethnographies,” as Gershon (2012) has defined them, or examples of doing ethnography “in and through sound,” as Feld has advocated (Feld and Brenneis 2004:464). Instead, they rely largely on text. Texts describe what can be heard on the recordings, provide a context for understanding those sounds, and attempt to theorize a connection with place and culture. The recordings to which texts refer are unedited excerpts of longer, temporally continuous field recordings—not soundscape compositions that join, layer, and process sound recorded at different times or in different places (see Makagon and Neumann 2009:27–32). Of course, field recordings are also “compositions”; they frame particular sounds in particular ways while leaving other sounds out. In that sense, the recordings presented here remain faithful to the subjective, relational, and compositional nature of the original recorded moment.

A decisive factor in taking this approach was the limitations of our support, resources, and expertise. Recordings were made on one of three Zoom H1 recorders shared between 15 students. Photos were captured on whatever smart phones that students (or their friends) happened to have. We fumbled our way through free versions of wordpress, soundcloud, and online sound editors without any technical support, media center, lab, or workstations. Recordings were played back over crackling speakers in echoing classrooms. Labor was largely supported by ardor. The point is not to bemoan these limitations, but to disclose how they influenced our mode of inquiry and the form of our presentation. Given these constraints, sound could only supplement text, not supplant it.


As conventional as these ethnographies may seem, especially when compared, for example, with the work of Hildegard Westerkamp and others associated with the World Soundscape Project, they still manage to induce some kind of immersive, sensorial experience. They still hold potential for producing an encounter with the particularity and indexicality of the sonic spaces explored herein. You are invited to experience these posts for yourself, to add your own voice to them in the comments section, and to use them in your own creative works with attribution.


Several colleagues at other institutions shared ideas and resources that helped steer this project along intellectually. They include: Anna Schultz, Associate Professor of Music at Stanford University; David Novak, Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology at the University of California Santa Barbara; Shalini Ayyagari, Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Pittsburg; Matt Rahaim, Associate Professor of Musicology/ Ethnomusicology at the University of Minnesota; and Aditi Deo, Visiting Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research.

A number of websites served as models for this blog. They include: Sonic Japan; Pioneer Valley Soundscapes; the “Audio Portraits” section of MIT’s Community Innovators Lab (CoLab) Radio; Soundlandscapes’ Blog; Sound Ethnography Project; Cornell Sound Map; Musical Ethnography of the Bay Area; and Music Cultures of Washington, D.C.

Anita Patankar, Director of SSLA, encouraged this project in many ways, including sanctioning the purchase of recording equipment and granting transport and leave for field trips.

Sources Cited

Cleophas, Eefje and Karin Bijsterveld. 2012. “Selling Sound: Testing, Designing, and Marketing Sound in the European Car Industry.” In The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies, edited by Trevor Pinch and Karin Bijsterveld, 102–124. New York: Oxford University Press.

Feld, Steven and Donald Brenneis. 2004. “Doing Anthropology in Sound,” American Ethnologist 31(4):461–74.

Gershon, Walter. 2012. “Sonic Ethnography as Method and in Practice: Urban Students, Sounds and Making Sense of Science.” Anthropology News May, 5, 12.

Makagon, Daniel and Mark Neumann. 2009. Recording Culture: Audio Documentary and the Ethnographic Experience. Los Angeles: Sage.

Rice, Tom. 2013. “Broadcasting the Body: The Public Made Private in Hospital Soundscapes.” In Music, Sound and Space: Transformations of Public and Private Experience, edited by Georgina Born, 169–185. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Schafer, R. Muray. 1994. The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. Rochester, Vermont: Destiny Books. First published in 1977.


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