As It Happens

What does a pandemic sound like? Artist maps audio from people's daily lives

British sound artist Stuart Fowkes is trying to capture how pandemic is audibly changing our world through the #StayHomeSounds project.

Birds chirping, balcony music and applause for health-care workers among the sounds captured during COVID-19

Mulhouse Symphonic Orchestra violinist Jessy Koch performs on her balcony as each day to support health workers in Mulhouse, eastern France. (Sebastien Bozon/AFP via Getty Images)


During the COVID-19 lockdowns around the world, there is an absence of traffic and less noise in the streets. But the head of a global sound project says the world is anything but silent.

British sound artist Stuart Fowkes is trying to capture how the pandemic is audibly changing our world through the #StayHomeSounds project, which documents crowdsourced sound clips from people's daily lives around the globe. 

"I think probably everyone listening has noticed a few things that are a little bit different about the way that their neighbourhood kind of sounds at the moment," Fowkes told As It Happens Carol Off.

"Whether that's something simple like there are fewer cars around, less traffic, to the fact that you can hear maybe more birdsong or different wildlife from before ... those are some of the simple changes."

Fowkes is mapping the clips on his website Cities and Memory, allowing people to see where they were recorded, along with the stories behind them. 

Animal life altered as humans take shelter to avoid COVID-19

3 years ago
Duration 2:26
Newly quiet spaces allow wildlife to gently probe boundaries in cities around the world.

The sounds of nature are particularly clearer as so much of our ordinary hectic lives have quieted, and so many people are staying home, he said.

It's not that these sounds weren't always there, Fowkes says, but rather we just weren't able to hear them. 

"We've got, for example, sounds of bees in the trees in central London — which you absolutely wouldn't be able to hear because they're kind of operating in the same sort of frequency range as car noise," he said. 

But the sounds aren't just nature amplified. In the wake of this worldwide event, there are also new sounds that tell the stories of what's happening. 

"You've got people applauding, people cheering, church bells ringing, people playing musical instruments  — all as a tribute to front-line health workers, which obviously is not a sound any of us thought we'd be hearing even as recently as a month ago," he said. 

Scenes from around the world as people applaud health-care workers

4 years ago
Duration 0:45
Applause breaks out in places across the globe in appreciation of health-care workers fighting against the coronavirus.

It's those sounds that Fowkes says hit particularly hard.

"I find them quite emotional to listen to," he said.  "[I get] kind of a lump in my throat as I listen to that because it's just a very pure expression of how people are feeling." 

Another sound on the map is a recording of an isolated Flemish woman in Finland reading The Friendly Giant to children. 

And there are educational clips, like an anti-coronavirus song being played on the radio in Senegal. 

That song was aired in the hopes that it would "stick in people's minds a little more and they'll take the message away, for example, how to wash your hands for 20 seconds," Fowkes said.

"So it's kind of music as an educational tool."

While Cities and Memory has been active for five years, Fowkes says now more than ever, the project has an important meaning and connects people, whether they be in New York, Argentina, Italy or Canada. 

"We're all going through this together and we're all kind of experiencing, you know, not exactly the same thing, but we're all experiencing the same pandemic," he said.

"And I'm hoping that it will kind of bring a little bit of a feeling of togetherness by sharing these sounds and sharing these stories."

Written by Alexandra Kazia. Interview produced by Morgan Passi. 


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