Mapping city sounds

A map of streets in Liverpool city centre with numbered locations overlaid

© Brett Lashua, courtesy of the Institute of Popular Music

What can maps tell us about the musical life of cities?

According to the writer Peter Turchi (2004: 11), "To ask for a map is to say 'tell me a story'." Some maps provide a starting point for stories about musicians and their lives and musical activities within a particular city. Visitors to Dublin, for example, can follow the Rock 'n' Stroll tour guide. The guide maps out sites that played a significant part in the career development of bands such as U2, the Corrs and Westlife, such as the studios in which their music was recorded.

These and other kinds of music maps can often be accessed via the internet. They include geographical maps featuring:

  • The routes and journeys of particular musicians
  • Musical sounds that are popular in different parts of the world at any one time
  • Sites featured in song lyrics
  • A guide to contemporary music venues, such as local clubs, or to the musical past
  • The location of record shops and other music businesses

Developments in digital mapping technology have enabled a more dynamic and interactive approach to such mapping and the incorporation of sound and moving image.

In these and other ways, maps provide more than just a guide to a city's music attractions. They are a way of organising and presenting information about music. In some places this information is already given a shape by tour guides - as trails for example.

Shape is an important idea here - what maps can tell us about the musical life of cities is that there can be trails, pathways or other patterns in the way that music is made and enjoyed. For example, venues and other music-related businesses can cluster together, or different types of music can be separated from each other by boundaries. They may help to illustrate the musical character of particular city neighbourhoods or the diversity of local musical sounds and activities. Comparing maps from different historical eras may also tell us something about changes that have taken place either to music or to the city itself.

The musical life of a city can therefore be mapped, and maps can help to bring the present and the past to life. At the same time however, maps can also flatten and deaden music activity and mislead us. For example, if a certain type of music-making is concentrated in one area then representing this on a map can cover up and conceal other types of music going on there. Also music and places change, sometimes rapidly, and a map has a tendency to freeze them in time. In the same way, musicians are also 'frozen' by pinning them down to a small corner of a city, when the reality will always be that musicians are mobile and play in many different places and under very different circumstances. Musicians and the musical sounds they produce therefore spill over the edges of the map.

Follow the links below to find out more about musical mapping and see examples of music maps from Liverpool.