Five Senses for Travel: Sound

Musician performing in Ottawa, Canada
Violinist performing in Ottawa for a Contra-Dance.

Travel has a soundtrack built into it. A composition of sounds that plays in the background of the scenery you pass through. Whether it’s the sound of waves crashing on a shoreline,  soft cooing from pigeons, the creaking of tall trees in the wind, the incomprehensible cacophony of a busy cafe, or something even more tangible, like music coming from a busker on a street corner. Background noise may not always have the melody of a beautiful song, it might even be closer to silence than noise, but everywhere you travel there is a soundscape.

Pigeons in Aberdeen, Scotland
A pair of love-struck pigeons in Aberdeen, Scotland.

Maybe it’s the loud hum of cicadas buzzing from somewhere in a grove of tamarisk or olive trees, like a heated mirage under the Cretan midday sun — a perfect personification of Greek summers, a hum that fades in and out like the tide. The first time I heard cicadas I didn’t know what they were. They start one at a time until there is a chorus of them, growing louder and louder, until they cut out abruptly and start all over again a few minutes later. They sounded a bit like large transmission towers with energy reverberating along the wire. Now, Greece is forever ingrained in my memory with the accompanying sound of cicadas.

An olive grove in Crete, Greece.
An olive grove in Crete.

Sometimes the sounds are like a niggling sensation at the back of your mind, slowly creeping up on you until you take notice. When I was hiking in the Alps I kept hearing bells, overlapping sounds of clanking metal, and I couldn’t pin the source down. Hiking up Wank Mountain I heard them as though they were right above me, but passed the sound without ever seeing anything. It was only when I hiked back down at dusk that I crossed paths with a herd of cows grazing along the trail, like strange evening apparitions among the ferns.

Hiking and cows in the German Alps.
Cows in the German Alps.

Music is always a lovely surprise to uncover in a city. I’ve been surprised by flash mobs, in Paris and New Orleans, entire orchestral or jazz bands springing up out of city crowds. Other times, I’ve been caught off guard in the most unexpected ways. Galleries are usually a place of quiet, but when I was visiting the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, I heard the sonorous tremors of an organ. Apparently, it’s quite normal for their resident organist to put on a show just around lunch time.

I also love encountering buskers on the street. In York, when I visited the cathedral to climb the 275 steps to the very top of the York Minster tower, I was surprised to hear the romantic tune of Green Sleeves floating up from somewhere down below in the maze of tiny old Medieval streets. I later found the source of the sound, a musician standing in front of a toy shop, playing the accordion.

I’ve touched on scent and taste when it comes to travel, but sound is just as integral to the experience of travel. It can really bring all the other senses together. When I visited Sutro Baths in San Francisco, the sound of crashing waves and the far off haunting blare of foghorns blown by passing ships really made the ruins something otherworldly. Sutro Baths used to be private pool complexes and bathhouses in the late 19th century, but now sit like a ghost story on the coastline.

When we travel, we’re used to paying attention to music, or maybe indulging in some eavesdropping at a crowded venue, but there is so much more that goes by entirely unnoticed. I’ve always loved just sitting somewhere and soaking up the atmosphere and everything that goes with it. When I think of summer thunderstorms in Ukraine, I think of the way the thunder rattles the window panes in my grandma’s old house, or the way the rain hits the metal roof rushing down through the rain pipes and onto the pavement in a torrential waterfall. Lightening wouldn’t be as impressive without the thunder. Sound is in the landscape, if you just tune your ear to it.

Lightning arching over the sky, Ukraine.
Lightning arching over the sky, Ukraine.



  1. I loved this! Sounds and music has always been important part of travel for me. Every city has its own kind of sound. 🙂

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