The Sound of a City: A Study of the Phenomenon

by Maciej Smółka (Author)
©2023 Monographs 210 Pages
Series: New Americanists in Poland, Volume 16


The sound of a city is a cultural phenomenon based on the characteristic relationship between music and the cultural specificity of a given urban area. It occurs when artists from a region create music, which is so unique, it becomes indisputably linked with its place of origin in the public discourse. The link becomes so strong, the phenomenon’s name derives from the name of the city. There were numerous examples of such sounds in popular music history, including the Nashville Sound with its specific country music, the psychedelic rock of the San Francisco Sound, Prince’s the Minneapolis Sound, or the Seattle Sound is also known as grunge. This publication explains the terms in which we should research, analyze, interpret, and define the sound of a city.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction
  • The Importance of the Phenomenon
  • Research Goals
  • Theoretical Framework and Research Techniques
  • Study’s Structure
  • Current State of the Research
  • Part I: Popular Music and the Place
  • 1. Introduction to the Sound of a City
  • 1.1. The Idea
  • 1.1.1. What is the Sound of a City?
  • 1.1.2. The History of the Sounds of Cities
  • 1.1.3. The Importance of the Sounds of Cities
  • 1.2. The City
  • 1.2.1. What is a City?
  • 1.2.2. The Infrastructure
  • 1.2.3. The People
  • 1.2.4. The Artists
  • 1.3. The Sound
  • 1.3.1. What is the Sound?
  • 1.3.2. Which Sound is the Sound?
  • 1.3.3. The Evolution of the Sound
  • 2. Music and the Place
  • 2.1. Musical Geography
  • 2.1.1. What is Musical Geography?
  • 2.1.2. Why Musical Geography is Important?
  • 2.1.3. Music and Cultural Landscape
  • 2.2. Music and Local History
  • 2.2.1. Music and Locality
  • 2.2.2. Music as a Storytelling
  • 2.2.3. Music as a Descriptor of Reality
  • 2.2.4. Music as an Artistic Vision of a Place
  • 2.3. Music and Local Identity
  • 2.3.1. Music and Identities
  • 2.3.2. Music Defines/Defies Identity
  • 2.3.3. Music and Stereotypes
  • 2.3.4. Music, Identity and Place in Feedback
  • 2.4. Music and the Place from Other Perspectives
  • 2.4.1. The Need for Variety
  • 2.4.2. Ethnomusicology
  • 2.4.3. Sociomusicology
  • 2.4.4. Sound Studies
  • 2.4.5. Ecomusicology
  • 2.4.6. Urban Geography
  • Part II: Methodology
  • 3. Methodology
  • 3.1. Popular Music Studies
  • 3.1.1. Study of a Context
  • 3.1.2. Study of Artists and Audience
  • 3.2. Music Geography
  • 3.2.1. Analyzing Music in a Relation to a Place
  • 3.2.2. Music as an Element of the Geography
  • 3.3. Local History
  • 3.3.1. Historical Interpretation
  • 3.3.2. Study of the Local
  • 3.4. American Studies
  • 3.4.1. Cultural Analysis
  • 3.4.2. Music as a Part of American Culture, History and Landscape
  • 3.4.3. American Studies Approach
  • 3.5. Cultural Studies
  • 3.5.1. Cultural Studies Approaches
  • 3.5.2. Music, Local Identity and Stereotypes
  • 3.5.3. Music as an Element of a Local Culture
  • 3.6. Conducted Research
  • 3.6.1. Discourse Analysis
  • Part III: A Study of the Phenomenon
  • 4. The Concept of the Sound of a City
  • 4.1. The Sound and a Locality
  • 4.1.1. The Question of Authenticity
  • 4.1.2. The Idea of Home and Place of Origin
  • 4.1.3. The Myth of the Local
  • 4.2. The Sound and the People
  • 4.2.1. The Sound and a Local Identity
  • 4.2.2. The Sound and Its Audience
  • 4.2.3. The Sound and Infrastructure
  • 4.3. The Sound and Popularity
  • 4.3.1. The Sound and Its Creators
  • 4.3.2. The Sound and Media
  • 4.3.3. The Sound as a Commodity
  • 5. The Characteristics of the Sound of a City
  • 5.1. The Development of the Sound of a City
  • 5.1.1. The Role of an Artistic Community
  • 5.1.2. The Role of an Artistic Idea
  • 5.1.3. The Role of a Leader
  • 5.1.4. The Role of a City
  • 5.2. The Nature of the Sound of a City
  • 5.2.1. What Makes the Sound of a City Exist?
  • 5.2.2. The Sound of a City and Globalization
  • 5.2.3. The Sound of a City and Local Music Scenes
  • 5.2.4. The Sound of a City and Music Genre
  • 5.2.5. What is the Sound of a City?
  • 5.3. The Modern Times of the Sound of a City
  • 5.3.1. The Influence of the Sounds
  • 5.3.2. The Sounds in Contemporary Music
  • 5.3.3. The Future of the Sounds
  • Bibliography


Music always comes from somewhere. It can be traced to a particular place and time, which determines both how it sounds and how it can be interpreted. Therefore, music is not only a product of a given person, an artist, but also of a place where it was created; of musician’s cultural background linked to a specific location.1 This idea can fundamentally alter the way, in which we hear and analyze music, since besides the musical text, there is also its context, influencing its character.2 Sometimes even, this context may be a starting point of a study, which attempts to determine why music sounds the way it does. And what if a place was the factor as important as the artist, or if music created, played, and listened to also influences cultures of regions of their origin?

Posing such questions, leads to acknowledging the fact that such a connection is crucial to treat music as a complex entity, which conveys a lot more than just beautiful harmonies or poetic lyrics – it also tells a story about a culture, a place and its residents. In other words, popular music is a device that, apart from being a simple entertainment, conveys strong messages, which reflect the state of our world, try to change it, defy it, confirm it, or comment on it. To learn about popular music is to learn about the surrounding world and people living in it.

The main subject of this study – the sound of a city – is a cultural phenomenon based on this fascinating relationship in feedback. Its main idea revolves around a given urban area having developed such a distinctive music, which, in result, is connected only to this singular place. A city that has its own sound; an art, which is characteristic, because it comes from this place, and from nowhere else.3 There were multiple attempts to define the phenomenon from various perspectives, but this project concludes that it can be understood, as stated in the Section 5.2.5, as

“a cultural phenomenon, manifested by a set of locally, spatially, and culturally determined musical subgenres, developed by an artistic community following a common artistic idea under the leadership of a person or an institution, put into the context of the specificity of a city of its origin, while the phenomenon’s creation is determined by various practices of internal and external popularization, commodification, and identification.”4

A variety of examples of such phenomena was seen in the history of popular music from the extremely influential Nashville Sound with the unforgettable voice of Patsy Cline, to the 1960’s psychedelic revolutions of the San Francisco Sound provided by Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, to the grunge rebellion of the Seattle Sound, which made Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden voices of a whole generation of teenagers. But there were also others, scattered throughout the world, including the Minneapolis Sound, the Miami Sound, the Manchester Sound, the Bristol Sound, the Dunedin Sound or even its variations such as Goa Trance from India, or Yass from Polish Tri-city region.

The Importance of the Phenomenon

The sound of a city represents a fascinating relationship between art, geography, and identity. It also showcases that popular music is, in fact, everywhere5, and it influences our lives on a daily basis. Even if we are not conscious listeners, and treat music as a background noise, it enhances our experience of surrounding reality. However, if we tend to actively enjoy music – pay attention to sounds, lyrics, graphic design of album covers, or even read interviews and go to live concerts, we may observe that music is often deeply rooted in the place from where it originates. Consequently, this so-called place-specific music has an ability to influence our view of a given place, or, conversely, a place may influence our view of music. Such songs as Theme From New York, New York by Frank Sinatra, Viva Las Vegas by Elvis Presley, or even albums like Californication by Red Hot Chili Peppers, Michigan by Sufjan Stevens or good kid m.A.A.d city by Kendrick Lamar are great illustrations of art being in close relation to a place it depicts, promotes, (re)creates, comments on, or is based on.

The phenomenon I am interested in consists of music based on such processes, but additionally emphasizes a connection of music to a particular urban region, with which it is in close relation in terms of identity, image, promotion, etc. The music influences the view of a city, but also the city itself influences the music and the way, in which the music is perceived. It is even possible to say that the sound of a city creates a situation when the city becomes the music, and the music becomes the city since both become so intertwined.6 This is why Nashville is often named as the Music City, Seattle is usually linked to the 1990s grunge, or San Francisco with its psychedelic events of the 1960s counterculture. Therefore, the sound of a city must be treated as an extremely important cultural phenomenon worthy of an in-depth study such as this.

Research Goals

My main research goal is to analyze how music is being associated with a city, and vice versa, which results with the sound of a city cultural phenomenon. I am mostly concerned with a question whether there should be a given set of factors, which enables the sound of a city to be developed. I focused on the four of them, pinpointing the specificities of the phenomenon: (a) a group of cooperating musicians, (b) having a similar artistic vision of their music, (c) and having a leader or a leading institution, (d) all of whom are creating music, which reflects the cultural specificity of a city of their origin. In order to verify this proposal, there is a need to include multiple auxiliary hypotheses, which are stated as follow. Firstly, music created by the artists comes from a cultural heritage of their city, which manifests in the songs and albums they release. Secondly, the city itself has a tremendous impact on how the sound of a city is shaped – it provides infrastructure like clubs, studios; it creates a specific geographic environment with neighborhoods of various cultural characteristics; it is marked with numerous barriers like highways, rivers, lakes, which may influence how people function in it; it also has a specific local politics and policies, which can have an impact on how music is created, recorded or perceived. Thirdly, popularity is a key element in the development of the sound of a city, which is linked to the commodification of the music and its promotion as a representative image of a city. Fourthly, the sound of a city cannot be treated as a music style, genre, or a local music scene, because it is too complex to be scaled down to the sonic output. Fifthly, it is impossible to base the definition of the sound of a city phenomenon solely on music, because it is necessary to include a variety of cultural, historical, social, or geographical elements.

I asked a variety of research questions to verify the aforementioned hypotheses, concerning the relation between geography and music, the role of music in constructing urban identities, or the influence of cultural history on the artistic output. They were as follow: (a) how can we understand the sound of a city?; (b) is the sound of a city a phenomenon prone to change or rather stable throughout time?; (c) and if it can change throughout time, how the sound of a city evolves?; (d) what is the role of a leader in the process of developing the sound of a city?; (e) what is the role of media in its development?; (f) does the sound of a city has an influence on internal and external identity of a city and its citizens?; (g) what is the role of authenticity in the sound of a city?; (h) what is the role of commodification in the creation, popularization and sustaining the popularity of the sound of a city?; (i) what is the difference between the sound of a city and a local music scene?; (j) what is the difference between the sound of a city and music genre?

The analysis led by those questions resulted in the better understanding of a relation between artists and their cities. Furthermore, answering them made it possible to attempt creating a complex cultural definition of the sound of a city phenomenon, which could be used in further analyses of other similar case studies.

Theoretical Framework and Research Techniques

Since the sound of a city was treated as a cultural phenomenon, the theoretical base of this book is rooted in the cultural studies and cultural approach of popular music analysis. Thus, the context of art was treated as the main aspect of the study, while the musical text was studied only as an additional, auxiliary element.7 Such an approach was supported by the principals proposed by one of the founders of contemporary popular music studies, Philip Tagg, which are: (a) interdisciplinarity, (a) interprofessionalism, and (c) interculturalism. It means that it is crucial to (a) use of a variety of disciplines to analyze a given problem, (b) while including specialists from different occupations (not only academics, but also musicians, producers, or members of music industry) in the process of research, and (c) acknowledging the various cultural backgrounds of both the subject of analysis and the person conducting the study.8

Besides these general rules, I have based my research on a few other approaches. The first one included the theoretical framework of music geography, which enabled an analysis of the sound of a city in contexts of migration, demographics, or natural environment, among others. I have used published works of numerous renowned authors in the field, the most important being John Connell, Chris Gibson, Lily Kong, and Sara Cohen, all of whom popularized this kind of music study, providing appropriate tools and approach.

However, I have not limited myself solely to music geography since the sound of music required a broader research. In order to fully acknowledge the relationship between localities and music played in the city, I have used elements of local history approach, which provided me with an analytical perspective on human experience in context of particular place and time on a smaller scale. Moreover, the topic of localities relates to an issue of local identities, so greatly connected with the core idea of the city having its own sound and being associated with it.

The study itself consists of the theoretical analysis of the concept of the sound of a city, but using a set of examples as pointed out in the Section 2.1.2. Each example of the phenomenon was used to broaden an analysis to a general research of the sound of a city, attempting to create its definition. Such an approach enabled me to look at the idea of the sound of a city from various perspectives, creating an in-depth picture of this phenomenon, supporting its better understanding.9 However, the main example, which was the starting point to my work is the Minneapolis Sound, to which I devoted my doctoral dissertation. My extensive research conducted on that case, provided the basis of a more general, theoretical approach as presented in this book.

When it comes to a particular method I have used, I have decided a critical discourse analysis would be the most suitable one, since it made it possible to research a complex set of factors and illustrations of the sound of a city. Moreover, I have used the discourse analysis as a method, which is not limited to literary texts, but to cultural practices as well. Therefore, I was able to critically analyze sound’s evolution and its representations, music spatiality, its commemorations, commodification, or its popularization techniques. All those elements were studied, considering their meanings and possible consequences of these actions and cultural texts. Even though discourse analysis depends on language analysis, I have interpreted music practices as language, too, researching actions and representations of the sound of a city as elements possible to be studied in such a way.10

Study’s Structure

My research resulted in a study, consisting of five chapters divided into three main parts. The first one (Chapters 1–2) is an overview of theoretical framework of the research, the second one (Chapter 3) discusses the methodology used to analyze this particular phenomenon of the sound of a city, and the third one (Chapters 4–5) is an analysis of the concept and the characteristics of the sound of a city phenomenon, culminating in the proposal of its definition.

The first chapter overviews the sound of a city as a cultural phenomenon with its existing definitions and depictions of its examples, It also provides the basic terminology, which will be used throughout the book – an understanding of the term “sound” and “city”.

The second chapter highlights the nuances in the relation between music and the place, basing musical geography. It discusses the relation between music and local history, but also music and local identity, addressing the issue of the mutual influence of these aspects of urban realities. In addition, a number of other perspectives are being discussed, emphasizing the need of variety of approaches in case of such a complex phenomenon like the sound of a city. It is important to note that this chapter, especially the Section 2.3.2. is based on or directly quotes my article entitled Nuta po nucie, published in an academic journal Kultura Popularna in 2017.11

The third chapter focuses on methodology itself, and the variety of approaches I have accepted, while studying the topic of the sound of a city. It discusses theoretical framework of popular music studies, music geography, local history, American studies, and cultural studies in relation to the main subject of the study. Moreover, the chapter describes the conducted research and the tools used, especially the discourse analysis, concluding the first main part of the book, focused on the theory in relation to the analyzed phenomenon.

The fourth chapter begins the last part of the study, which focuses on the analysis of the phenomenon. The concept of the sound of a city is the main subject of this chapter, posing questions about three main relations, shaping our understanding of it – between sound and locality, sound and people, and sound and popularity. It shows which factors may influence how we think of the sound of a city, and what role they play.

Finally, the fifth chapter answers the main hypothesis, concerning the four factors, which must be taken into consideration when the sound of a city is being developed. This study segues into a broader discussion of other factors, which enable the phenomenon to exist, be sustained and recognized. This, in turn, leads to a creation of the definition of the sound of a city, basing on all prior observations and analyses. Lastly, the chapter is concluded with a general overview of the phenomenon in contemporary world – its influence, its role in contemporary music industry, and its possible future.

Current State of the Research

My research on the sound of a city is a continuation of the long-standing popular music studies field, originally started by journalists in the late 1950s with their insightful context-based articles about specificity of music in magazines like Billboard or Rolling Stone. The field was later then transformed into scholarly analyses in the mid-1970s and institutionalized in the form of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music (IASPM) in 1981, and Popular Music academic journal in the same year.

History of music geography is rather similar, with its modest beginnings in the late 1960s with Peter Nash’s Music Regions and Regional Music article, published in The Deccan Geographer in 1968.12 Throughout the years, the field was developed in numerous publications and special issues of such magazines as Journal of Cultural Geography (e.g. 1997, vol. 16; 1998, vol. 18), Progress in Human Geography (e.g. 1995, vol. 19; 1997, vol. 21), Journal of Geography (e.g. 1971, vol. 70; 1974, vol. 73(4); 2010, vol. 109(5)), GeoJournal (e.g. 2006, vol. 65), which focused solely on this matter. What is important, music geography also brought a set of books and collected editions, proving its relevance in the late 20th and early 21st century. One could look at such examples as Popular Music and Youth Culture: Music, Identity and Place (Bennett, 2000), or Sound, Society and the Geography of Popular Music (Johansson and Bell, eds., 2009).13


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2023 (June)
Relationship between music and the culture Sound of a city Popular music history
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2023. 210 pp., 7 tables.

Biographical notes

Maciej Smółka (Author)

Maciej Smółka holds a PhD in culture and religion studies from Jagiellonian University and is a scholar specializing in popular music, popular culture and American studies. His studies concern music localities and identities, the music industry, and the specificities of contemporary popular culture.


Title: The Sound of a City: A Study of the Phenomenon
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