2. Related Work


The soundwalk method can be used in various ways to gain insights into a person’s experiences of their soundscapes. These experiences are closely tied to memories of sounds, which (co-)construct a person’s sense of place. This is related to acoustemology, a term that couples “acoustic” and “epistemology” and refers to a way of “sonic knowing” (Feld 1996).


We extend the application of the soundwalk method to studies whose aim is to eventually develop an interaction design. According to Hildegard Westerkamp, a soundwalk is “any excursion whose main purpose is listening to the environment” (Westerkamp 1974). Soundwalks can be used to map out sounds in an environment and connect these sounds to a person’s prior experiences with them (Westerkamp 2011). Soundwalks typically involve tours in an environment; such tours are either self-guided or guided by a researcher and include walking around while listening to current sounds and recalling sounds previously heard in that place (Uimonen 2011). This results in thick descriptions of sounds – as tied to a place through the expressed experience of the listeners – that designers can then use to develop new technological concepts and interventions (Baharin, Rintel and Viller 2013).


Soundwalking thus focuses particularly on a reprioritization of listening through walks that are conducted silently and slowly with the aim of transforming each participant’s sensitivity towards a soundscape. John Drever describes one main goal of soundwalking as “…a process of de-sensitization and consequently re-sensitization, in order to catch a glimpse […] of the ‘invisible, silent and unspoken’ of the everyday” (Drever 2009: 4). In a recent account of the value of soundwalking, Westerkamp puts the method into the context of increasingly mediated lifestyles. Headphone technologies have changed listening behaviors. Some of her students even suggest that they are unable to focus on their study materials without listening to music. This is part of a larger debate on soundwalks, as they have often been located in pedestrian outdoor environments but also take place in environments that are increasingly being filled with reproduced sounds through speakers (Behrendt 2014: 249). According to Westerkamp, sound technologies have not been particularly helpful in enabling people to become better listeners. Instead, they allow people to fill their environments with designed sound, which often masks immediate sounds, thus creating a sense of disconnectedness from the immediate sonic environment (Westerkamp 2011). That being said, technology has also affected how soundwalks can be designed and carried out, and this has led to other varieties. For example, Heikki Uimonen mentions “recorded listening walks” under the premise that participants who are asked to record their sonic environment also become more involved with it. This premise is based on anthropological research stating that research about sound should also be carried out in sound. Uimonen states that a variation of this method includes a facilitator as well as a listener (Uimonen 2011). Jean-Francois Augoyard describes a method for “qualitative listening in motion” where the walk also entails a recorded interview. The interviewee chooses the route and comments on what they hear. This type of soundwalking focuses on capturing data regarding listening habits while interfering with them as little as possible.

Carrying out soundwalks with people living in the environment requires considering their expectations for the soundscape (Bruce and Davies 2014). Soundscape competence describes the tacit knowledge that people have about how sound behaves in a certain environment, and how this affects their expectations (Truax 2001). This knowledge can be activated by for example engaging participants in soundwalking.

Hanif Baharin, Sean Rintel, and Stephen Viller (2013) describe how application of the soundwalk method led them to principles for designing a technology probe. The goal of the study was to form a knowledge basis that would guide the development of audio technologies that could effectively support the socialization of elderly people living alone. Participants were asked to document a list of sounds they heard during their daily routine and make recordings of those sounds. According to Baharin et al., the function and value of the soundwalk lies in shifting the role of the participant from reactive to reflective.

Gerard Oleksik, David Frohlich, Lorna M. Brown, and Abigail Sellen (2008) presented another design-oriented study that included soundwalks in homes. The study aimed to offer new insights into how domestic sounds are experienced and managed. They initiated the study with walkthroughs of the participants’ homes, asking the participants to imagine daily life in each room, thereby connecting the sounds to particular narratives and a social context. The entire study consisted of two home visits and an intermediate period in which participants recorded sounds. This uncovered four potential applications for technology to intervene in the domestic soundscape: 1) sensing and relaying sounds, 2) adjusting sound levels to match a certain activity, 3) monitoring sound levels, and 4) unobtrusive sound recording. Engagement with participants was concluded after the second interview and a workshop exploring new concepts that would fit with the four applications. Both Baharin et al. and Oleksik et al. found that participants linked sounds to narratives that typically took place in daily routines, a result that indicates the importance of temporality – and specifically not just focusing on one particular day – in these studies.

The researches summarized above reveal that soundwalks can be used to create sonic awareness and engagement in various ways. In our study we have used soundwalks as a prompt for engaging participants in discussions and reflections regarding technological interventions into their domestic soundscapes. This positions our study in a space between the approaches described above, both supporting participants’ engagement with their soundscape as well as describing the sounds of those soundscapes. However, while movement is key to the soundwalk experience, it was restricted due to the limited area of typical homes. As further clarified in Section 4, we refer to our approach as soundwalking, despite the physical restrictions, due to the fact that walking through their homes was central to the participants’ engagement.