Citybeat: Why music and urban design are linked

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Senior Urban Designer

Throughout time, there have been many songs that reminisce about city life or natural landscapes. I recently heard Joni Mitchell's hit Big Yellow Taxi on the radio, and it made me realize that the environmental concern in the song is still very much relevant today. Mitchell’s trip to Hawaii inspired her 1970 hit. She expressed her feelings on how urbanization and commercialism had disrupted nature’s beauty. What I find remarkable is how strongly the lyrics in this song resonate concerning planning decisions in today's cities:

They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique
And a swinging hot spot
Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
'Till it's gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

They took all the trees
And put them in a tree museum
And they charged all the people
A dollar and a half to see 'em
Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
'Till it's gone
They paved paradise
And they put up a parking lot

It is cool that we can learn what is wrong with our cities through the works of musicians. I believe that music can not only enhance our experience of spaces and deepen our connections with places but can also be a source of urban design inspiration, a narrative medium and socio-economic infrastructure in city planning. I will discuss these aspects by linking them to three common elements in music: Rhythm, Melody and Harmony.

I. Rhythm

“Urban rhythms are everywhere in human activity and life in urban places. They take concrete forms, interact and mingle adjusting to each other, and together they characterize everyday social-spatial environment. These are recurrent and cyclical repetitions in the form of activities, events, sequences of objects, patterns or shadows, to name just a few, which one perceives and experiences, and with which one interacts in urban places.”                                                                                                                                                   

Filipa Matos’s paper (including the above quote) associates the sense of place to our walking experience in everyday situations. We have all tuned into our rhythms while walking in the city and encountering a multitude of activities and observations of streets and buildings. Applying rhythms as a design tool in urban design can enrich the urban experience and create meaningful layers and narratives for cities, as seen historically through classical compositions against the backdrop of architectural vernaculars, e.g. Tchaikovsky in Saint Petersburg, Vivaldi in Venice or Bossa Nova in Rio de Janeiro. After all, architecture is rudimentary similar to music because both fields have compositions, structures and rhythms. Many architects and sound designers have explored the analogical relationship between music/sound design and architecture, and through emerging innovative themes such as musical space and sonic architecture.

During my architectural thesis, I came across works by the architect Steven Holl, who led studios into research about the relationship between music and architecture. According to Holl, “Music, like architecture, is an immersive experience—it surrounds you. One can turn away from a painting or a work of sculpture, while music and architecture engulf the body in space.” The Chapel of St. Ignatius, one of Holl’s works, remains one of my favourites because he designed it to reflect the sacredness of the space, using a musical model and external community and spiritual influences for specific interior orientations. By applying a metaphorical and fluid orchestration of light and shadow, the designer provides us with a romantic experience and an awareness of the social and cultural contexts. In this case, we experience urban rhythm through the manipulation of the chapel’s interior space and lighting.

II. Melody

We can formally define melody as “a linear succession of musical tones that the listener perceives as a single entity.” Relatively speaking, if you think of your favourite song, you are likely to be thinking of the singer’s vocal style or a memorable trumpet solo that you would associate with the tune. If the melody brings about the distinctive overall feeling that touches the heart, then the whole purpose or message that the mind perceives is the lyrics. I described Big Yellow Taxi as a lyrical example to express Mitchell’s personal critique of urbanization on her first trip to Hawaii.

We can hear an instrumental example of city-life in Aaron Copland's Music for a Great City. He composed the song in the 1960s, creating a four-movement descriptive symphony that expresses the dynamism of a modern city (New York) and the various experiential settings through different types of instruments. In an article about the works of Copland, Richard Freed describes:

“The first movement, Skyline, opens with a broad introduction for full orchestra, followed by a percussion solo to introduce the jazz-oriented theme presented by brass, piano and pizzicato strings. For the second movement, Night Thoughts, I reduced the full-orchestra scoring to chamber music for orchestra, for what might be called a series of free contrapuntal variations.

The reality of big-city life returns in the third-movement scherzo, Subway Jam, which, as one might suspect, includes a great deal of brass and percussion. The final movement, Toward the Bridge, presents contrasting ideas, some jazz-inspired, that build to a big climax, followed by a coda with material from the introduction to the first movement." 

With an average duration of 25:21 minutes, the entire piece can be quite long and intense, but it represents a typology of music that describes the urban character and pulse of city life.

Outside of the music industry, there areal so ways of expressing musical individualism in urban and natural environments. Piano stairs are an international sensation and beautiful addition to our public spaces. According to CMUSE, “Studies have shown that when faced with the choice between climbing stairs or riding the escalator, subway commuters choose to take the stairs 66 per cent more if they’re piano stairs.” Be it installed to reproduce the sound of a real classical piano in Italy, or as simple as painting on an existing one in Chile. Piano stairs turn walking into a fun and musical experience for people to enjoy.

III. Harmony

If rhythm and melody are analogies of the physical design of memorable, meaningful places, then harmony is that which collectively supports these places to thrive. Music can ensure the well-being and even become socio-economic drivers for the city. The term Music Cities is not a new one but has widely become the political vernacular in many cities around the world through strategic policies and frameworks that advocates access to spaces and places for venues and music businesses.

A Music City, by its simplest definition, is a place with a vibrant music economy There is growing recognition among governments and other stakeholders that Music Cities can deliver significant economic, employment, cultural and social benefits.”

The report by Music Canada describes our national music policy, which represents just one of the many countries/cities that recognize music as an essential infrastructure to a sound city (no pun intended). It does not even stop there. In 2004, UNESCO established theCreative Cities Network (UCCN) to promote international collaboration among cities that combines creative and sustainable development, along with social integration and cultural diversification. This global network provides a global platform for cities to develop and promote their music industry in correlation with the progress of their urban planning. 

The concept of music urbanism may not be very much a part of how we plan or design our built environment. However, I believe that music can be a unique medium to understand better how our cities are evolving and play a vital role in creating better cities.

What music best describes your city?

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