Historical Soundscapes (c.1200-c.1800): an online digital platform

Paisajes Sonoros Históricos / Historical Soundscapes is a website designed to explore historical urban soundscapes aided by the outreach potential made possible through new technologies. This innovative approach will allow users to recreate music of the past in historical locations through the use of online interactive maps with digital resources (documents, videos, sounds, etc.). The setting-up of the platform took over eighteen months, between May 2014 and September 2015. The web page was opened on 21 September 2015, immediately prior to its academic presentation at the ICREA International Workshop ‘Hearing the city: Musical Experience as Portal to Urban Soundscapes’, held in Barcelona 24–26 September.

Since Raymond Murray Schafer coined the soundscape neologism that he developed in his book Tuning of the World (1977), reprinted in 1993 with a new title taken from the fundamental concept of that essay, The Soundscape, this term has permeated countless studies, in all its aspects, related with sound. Whether they want it or not, those who try to adhere to its original Schaferian concept or to redefine it and adapt it to their own needs, the term has resisted all attempts at restraint, and has been used hundreds of times in academic works, as in our case, in its more general meaning to evoke the connection between sound and space. As noted, if we observe its strict etymology, regardless of the restrictive use postulated by Schafer, the word ‘soundscape’ combines the idea of sound and space, which implies, on the one hand, the notion of hearing, and therefore of listener as decoding agent of its meaning; on the other hand, that of sonic globality, extendable to a specific territory of more or less precise dimensions that, in addition, we can delimit chronologically and culturally, thus giving it a historical perspective.

In the first phase of the project, our main aim has been to create a digital platform to map the soundscapes of the cities of Granada and Seville as a paradigm that is adaptable to any urban centre over different historical periods. The contents of the platform can be directly accessed from the home page via the historic maps of the cities currently being developed —Granada and Seville— on which the places where the events took place are geolocated. In recent years, the social sciences and cultural studies have become riddled with the new trend of ‘mapping’ and thousands of academic texts have this word in their titles, although it is sometimes used in a very simplistic way, without real analysis. Almost in parallel, a widespread popular engagement with the local mapping of culture online has inexorably percolated into our daily search activity, embracing the most wide-ranging interests. Existing projects have tended to focus on the present or recent past, particularly in the field of music and acoustemology, making the historical chronology —medieval and early modern— of this platform one of its most important innovations. It is worth briefly analysing the principal historic maps that we use for the project. The map of the city of Granada, drawn by Ambrosio de Vico, was commissioned by Archbishop Pedro de Castro and accords well with the prevailing Counter-Reformation spirit of the time. It tacitly aimed to present the streets of Granada as an extended religious space in keeping with the spirit of Baroque ceremonial, and thus the sacred buildings are represented in much greater detail than those of municipal institutions or private residences. Exact dates for either the drawing or the first engraving are unknown, but the drafting by the architect Ambrosio de Vico can be dated to between 1590 and 1612, with some further details added when Francisco Helyan was about to produce the copper plates towards 1612–13. Since the timeline of our platform goes up to about 1800, Vico’s map presented the problem that the accuracy of the drawing of the streets and buildings became obsolete the greater the time distance from the date of its making. In order to correct this, we decided to add a second historic map produced towards the end of the period: Francisco Dalmau’s Mapa topográfico de la ciudad de Granada (1796). Dalmau achieved excellent results with his map, even though he drafted it without any previous experience in map-drawing, and it is the first city plan realized according to topographical criteria. In the case of Seville, the earliest detailed map of the city was ordered by its local administrator, Pablo de Olavide, in 1771 and completed in a rigorously scientific manner by the engineer Francisco Manuel Coello and the engraver José Amat. It reflects very precisely the urban fabric of the city, and combines the representation of blocks, orchards and roads with the more or less schematic elevation of religious and municipal buildings, and even included what today is termed street furniture. The historic maps by Vico and Coello drew on the resource of mapping the buildings and other important and distinctive aspects of the urban geography of both cities that are artistically represented, while Dalmau presents only the planimetry. All the maps enable a visual and spatial analysis of the city, especially when supplemented by the other images included in the material associated with the events, whether topographical or architectural in nature. The main determining factors stem from the degree of abstraction and the errors or inaccuracies of representation, establishing a clear contrast between the propagandist nature of Vico’s approach and the enlightened and scientific spirit that inspired the eighteenth-century maps.

From the start of the project we have aimed to ensure that the platform is also of interest to para-academic and more broadly cultural spheres. In this respect, it seemed essential to include the Google map for both cities to allow any user, whether local or non-local, to find easily the localizations that are geo-positioned on all maps. In addition, the gallery of maps available to the user, who can change from one map to another simply by clicking on the icon situated in the top right-hand corner of each, are supplemented by detailed floorplans of the cathedrals of both cities and their adjoining buildings. For Seville, there are two floorplans to represent both the earlier mudéjar cathedral precinct in the old Almohade mosque and the gothic building. This new cartographical element enables events to be located precisely inside these buildings and to highlight the de-centralization of the acoustic phenomenon that is widely disseminated throughout the site.

Throughout the first year of the platform’s existence we have completed our first short-term goal: to add the thematic self-guided urban itineraries (which can be found on the home page). These itineraries are intended to direct users through a thematic, physical or virtual, tour in which spaces and sound experiences are interconnected within the perimeter of the urban fabric of Granada and Seville, and which are based on the sound events that have previously been incorporated into the platform. The first of these offers a musical itinerary through Seville in the time of Miguel de Cervantes, and this has served to create and test the template that includes all the elements necessary to the creation of these itineraries. We have devoted two itineraries to the organs of the city of Granada that, in the future, will be completed with a third, which allow users to explore the rich heritage of the extant and lost instruments. Also in Granada, the route of the procession of Corpus Christi is another example of an itinerary of heritage interest.
Last March, we incorporated a new itinerary: ‘The soundscape of Seville in the years of the first trip around the world (1519-1522)’. By following the routes that Historical Soundscapes offers and by visiting the events related to the mapped places, we intend to introduce users to the soundtrack of the city in which a venture that would become a milestone in the history of navigation was prepared and completed. A soundtrack including sounds, noises, popular melodies and art music that flooded the urban fabric of Seville, within its walls and in the port neighbourhoods outside of it, such as El Arenal and Triana, is presented. For this itinerary, we have reconstructed two characteristic examples of bell-ringing: the ringing in of the dawn and the Angelus bell. We have also recreated the soundscape of a Sevillian palace in an audio of 15 minutes.

Currently (12-06-2019), the platform has 990 events in 610 locations, in Granada and Seville. The places field in the database enables the addition of new cities to the platform, which is in effect limitless, and allows all the labels already activated to be used for any cities that may be added. These labels can be filtered according to whether they are relevant or not to a specific city. In the second phase of this project, we are working in the new tab ‘interconnected cities’, where it will be possible to incorporate events mapped in OpenSteetMap without limitations to a specific city but keeping our chronological coordinates c.1200-c.1800, since these afford one of our main hallmarks.

We are also working on the analysis of the platform’s impact since quality and impact are two indispensable parameters in the assessment of any Digital Humanities project. The audience overview obtained from Google Analytics, a freemium web analytics service offered by Google that tracks and reports website traffic, shows that users from 2.510 cities in 113 countries have visited 132.100 different pages accessible in Historical Soundscapes thus revealing the wide international reach of the project.

The contents of Historical Soundscapes aim to be inclusive and help achieve a better understanding of urban culture, establishing an aesthetic and intellectual dialogue with sensorial aural history through an interdisciplinary approach that brings together urban musicology with areas including cultural history and art history, among others. Historical Soundscapes is working hard to provide a useful and innovative tool for the relevant city’s educational institutions (from primary to tertiary levels), museums and tourist boards, and thus taking new steps in the direction of an effective and realistic way to transfer knowledge that can help to reduce the gap between academic research and public knowledge.




Project Team:
Juan Ruiz Jiménez, musicologist.
Ignacio José Lizarán Rus, computer engineer.


Further Reading:
Ruiz Jiménez, Juan and Lizarán Rus, Ignacio José, “Historical Soundscapes (c.1200-c.1800): An On-line Digital Platform” in Hearing the City in Early Modern Europe, edited by Tess Knighton and Ascensión Mazuela Anguita (Turnhout: Brepols, 2018), 355-371.


Feature image: Ambrosio Vico: Plataforma de Vico – City map of Granada, 1610 (Detail: Garden of the Jesuits convent, now botanical Garden) Public Domain Mark

Posted in
Scroll to Top