Sounding out
the City

The bells and whistles of sonic cohabitation

Wendy Zhao, Features Editor

Dylan Hennessy is a part-time busker. Once, when performing at the intersection of Ste. Catherine and Crescent, with about 200 people gathered around him, fireworks started, and he even crowd surfed.

“It was like something out of a movie,” Hennessy told The McGill Tribune.

That same night, someone came and sat in Hennessy’s guitar case, flipped him off, and got booed by the crowd. Hennessy says he occasionally encounters hostility from unhoused people while busking. He began to negotiate with anyone he noticed inhabiting the space surrounding his desired performance spots by asking for permission to use the location or offering to give them a share of his earnings at the end of the night.

“People seem to want to fight me,” Hennessy said. “And that’s no slight against them. It’s like I would imagine that if I was them, I would feel like someone is in my home and they’re disrupting me [….] They would like some fucking peace and quiet probably.”

With so many noises colliding in most urban settings, quiet is an overlooked luxury: Sounds of industry and transportation lower the value of real estate, making marginalized groups more likely to live near train tracks, highways, and airports. Unhoused people are frequently targeted by businesses with high-frequency noise devices, while those in prison are punished by correctional authorities with either deafening noise or a painful deprivation of it. Long-term exposure to loud noise takes a toll on the body. Studies show that people who live or work in loud environments are particularly susceptible to a host of physical, cognitive, and emotional health problems, including heart disease, high blood pressure, and low birth weight.

Though noise pollution disproportionately affects the disenfranchised, noise ordinances have historically acted as the mouthpiece of a city’s most privileged dwellers. The first comprehensive noise bylaw in North America was passed in the 1930s in New York during the Great Depression, where media and cultural historian Lillian Radovac notes that mayor Fiorello La Guardia saw noise as a “symptom and even a cause of urban disorder.” At a time of economic recession, the anti-noise campaign marshalled the city’s resources to stabilize social stratifications and constrain dissatisfied—and noisy—protesters. Ironically, the raucous din of industrial production and new-age machine inventions at the time was seen by anti-noise advocates as incongruent with a civilized society. The desire for silence came to privilege an upper-class image of intellectual labour, one contained in the carpeted and insulated modern office, floating in a high-rise. Noise was “murdering rational thought” , anti-noise advocate and McGill physics professor H.E. Reilley told Montrealers on the radio in 1931.


So, noise has never been just about noise. Under noise ordinances, non-official voices and stigmatized bodies are increasingly sanctioned in public space, changing how our civic spaces sound. Before the crackdown on Montreal street vendors in the 1960s because they were assumed to be unhygienic, you could hear the songs of people advertising their food products, each to their own tune. Longtime street performers in Old Montreal could once decide where and when to perform, but now feel that they are being displaced by increased busking regulations and the city’s preference for designated entertainment venues like Quartier des Spectacles. Noise bylaws are just one of many municipal bylaws used to ticket the unhoused for simply existing in shared spaces.

Even if there were enough resources to adequately address every noise complaint in Montreal—there aren’t, the SPVM has only one manager in charge of noise—the interpersonal nature of sound makes it so this regulatory approach targets individual citizens rather than systemic problems. At best, they’re a band-aid solution and, at worst, an exacerbator of social divides.

For years, the Plateau neighbourhood has been the site of noise disagreements between venue owners and a newer group of residents, consisting of those living in short-term rentals and condominiums marketed for their very proximity to culture and nightlife.

“You’re talking about a housing stock that was built for working class people,” Jonathan Sterne, McGill professor of communication studies and editor of The Sound Studies Reader, said. “Not a lot of insulation or noise insulation, and very dense. So people with certain kinds of middle class expectations about privacy and quiet are suddenly in these busy, bustling areas.”

Hefty noise fines have shut down shows and entire businesses. When the bar Turbo Haus had to end a show early because an Airbnb resident called in a noise complaint, they were baffled: “Let that sink in. We’re. On. Fucking. St. Denis.” Their post is one among many in the Facebook group “Save the Plateau", where the neighbourhood’s venue owners advocate to keep track of the continuous loss of beloved independent establishments they feel are key to the neighbourhood's identity.

“If you look at [the] history [of noise complaints], they’re almost always targeted around race and class,” Sterne said. “And it becomes a kind of weapon in gentrification as wealthier and often, though not always, whiter residents move into neighbourhoods and then want to take control of them […..] You get very little traction if you make a noise complaint in the suburbs about the neighbour’s leaf blower.”

Class-based and racialized perceptions of noise are studied mainly in New York City, where 311 and 911 calls are increasing in gentrifying areas such as Flatbush, Bushwick, and Crown Heights, leading to over-policing. A 2016 University of Chicago study used New York 311 data to argue that calls about neighbours making noise, drinking in public, or blocking the driveway are more frequent at the boundaries between two ethnoracially homogeneous communities, where perceptions of safety and disturbance may differ.

For Montrealers, the suggested contact for residents’ complaints differ by borough. Some neighbourhoods, like Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, direct all complaints to the local police station. Others, like Ville-Marie, ask residents to call either 311 (a number for non-emergency services) or 911, depending on the type of noise. The 311 number, however, is only available from 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., leaving the police to manage all nighttime disturbances in the city.

In July, two noise complaints led 15 police officers to intrude upon a fundraiser for a Grenadian festival hosted in Lachine. Caribbean music was playing, while people were chatting and dancing. Despite there being no signs of conflict, members of the RCMP and the SPVM’s armed-violence squad arrived, putting a halt to the return of the community event after a two-year hiatus. The ridiculously excessive police presence was a clear sign to the largely Black attendees that they were being racially profiled. In the same month, several police cars converged upon a lemonade stand set up by two boys trying to raise money for multiple sclerosis research. A single noise complaint had been filed against the young vendors for their use of a megaphone to advertise.

Soundscape researcher Edda Bild believes that local approaches are better long-term remedies to noise conflicts than top-down interventions are. Bild is a part of the Sounds in the City team at McGill, a partnership with the City of Montreal and other experts that aims to improve Montreal’s urban noise and soundscape management.

“To just have these [...] connections between the neighbourhood and some of the sound emitters can be more efficient than necessarily calling the central police,” Bild said. “For them to send someone here is an interim intermediary solution.” Getting the state involved allows those calling in to deal with the situation passively—complainers can earn their silence without the ordeal of confronting another individual. Not to mention this regulatory system only fuels the SPVM’s exorbitant budget, which received a $45 million dollar increase earlier this year.

Noise bylaws can’t account for this crucial point—depending on who you are, who is listening, and where you stand, what counts as a disturbance is heavily subjective and contested.

Rather than trying to silence any and all noise, many urban planners and soundscape researchers emphasize a different approach: While reducing people’s exposure to harmful noise pollution, they want to simultaneously preserve and implement the sounds and expressions vital to the city’s communities.

“When we’re talking about sound, we’re trying to really talk about sound as a resource, as something that can actually be used to make things better,” Bild said. “Sound can be used to encourage a community to participate someplace [....] People can congregate around different sound art forms, different forms of music, [and] sonic expressions that are a manifestation of culture and identity.”

In the case of the famous casserole protests of 2012, loud, jarring, noise itself was the unifying statement. Every day around 8 p.m., neighbourhoods across Montreal and Quebec would start clanging pots and pans out on the streets. The nightly drumming of kitchenware began in protest against the Quebec government’s institution of Bill 78, which declared any spontaneous gathering over 50 to be illegal. The draconian law attempted to quell the students who, for months, had been protesting tuition increases of over 70 per cent.

Sound amplifies the presence of a crowd, making it an age-old tool for protest. Then-Montreal mayor Gérard Tremblay could hear the casserole clanging rising from the protest’s epicentres (the Plateau and Mile-End) all the way over in his Outremont home: “They can stay on their balconies to make noise,” he complained. “No need to go onto the street, to walk around and paralyze Montreal.”


Beyond the protest’s important cause, the ability to go out into the streets and participate gave people the sense that they were a part of a whole. This collective clanging to a shared rhythm allowed anybody to participate.“It’s a way to feel collective experience without needing a shared language, without needing to share opinions or other kinds of cultural experience,” Sterne said. Not only students, but the elderly, working adults, families, and children were spotted on the streets. In a letter to the editors of Le Devoir discussing the protests, one person rejoiced: “The neighbourhood will be less and less alien. This is a true political victory!”

This cohesion is why, though Hennessy also performs at venues, he’s drawn to the crowds that form the old-fashioned way—one by one, glued together by awe or curiosity.

“If you’re going to a venue or you’re going to a restaurant where you expect you might hear live music, it’s a little bit different,” Hennessy said. “For [a crowd] to just emerge out of nothing is kind of special [….] Everyone that’s around participating in that voluntary community knows that too. And they’re all looking at each other like, you guys are watching this, what’s going on here?”

After all, the noise that people make is often, though not always, the sound of people gathered, of resistance, festival, ritual, of melting into crowd, and closing in on the structures of everyday life—community in one form or another.

Bild and other experts in her field are tasked with a seemingly impossible feat. Like any type of cohabitation, sonic cohabitation is incredibly complex. It seems crucial, though, that the instinctive solution is not shutting everything out, achieving quiet, and stifling the people behind the shouts and hollers in the process.

These days, when Spotify has a playlist for every activity of my day, it can be easy to tune out of the space around me. That’s not to say that having more control over our personal soundscapes is a bad thing.We all deserve healthy sonic environments. Music makes a long commute or the tolls of construction more bearable, and though the sounds of nature are less accessible in real life, I can beckon its relaxing sounds into my ear with a single download. And for those with misophonia, a hypersensitivity to certain sounds, earbuds make moving through public space more manageable. I, too, have my eye on a white noise machine that makes one Amazon reviewer “feel as if someone were hugging her.”

Occasionally listening in on the space around you, however, is also a fun activity—and not only for the joys of urban voyeurism. As a student, I’m usually one of the new residents in a neighbourhood, my presence also often a sign of increasing gentrification. There are always different voices to make out, new sonic borders to become adjusted to. In its disrespect of physical boundaries, it seems that sound is like a connective tissue binding the city’s inhabitants, forcing us to be aware of each other’s rhythms and lives.

When my roommate and I moved into our last apartment, it was our first time living outside of the McGill “bubble.” The shrieks of children would come to us around dinnertime, followed by the disciplining tone of their parents’ voices. We shared another wall with a neighbour who would watch Marvel movies around dawn, evidenced by the expressive fight scenes that leaked into our dreams. On Sunday mornings, an elderly duo would practice the same song in the park across from us, one on saxophone, the other singing along. I also hear stories from friends, of a neighbour who would make love to gremlin noises, another who sings karaoke alone. Unconsciously, we were learning about the people we live with, near and far.

Illustrations by Shireen Aamir, Design Editor