Listening to urban soundscapes: Physiological validity of perceptual dimensions


  • Both Irwin and Hall contributed equally to this work. The positive soundscapes project was funded through a multidisciplinary EPSRC grant (EP/E011624/1). John Foster and Kay Head assisted in collecting the physiological data. The authors give special thanks to Ron Coxon at the Sir Peter Mansfield Magnetic Resonance Imaging Centre, University of Nottingham, for his initial assistance with the software for generating the appropriate summary measures from the heart rate data. Some of the fMRI results were presented as preliminary reports at the Experimental Psychology Society meeting, York, UK in July 2009 and the 38th International Congress and Exposition on Noise Control Engineering (Internoise), Ottowa, Canada in August 2009.

Address correspondence to: Deborah A. Hall, Division of Psychology, Nottingham Trent University, Burton Street, Nottingham, NG1 4BU, UK. E-mail:


Predominantly, the impact of environmental noise is measured using sound level, ignoring the influence of other factors on subjective experience. The present study tested physiological responses to natural urban soundscapes, using functional magnetic resonance imaging and vector cardiogram. City-based recordings were matched in overall sound level (71 decibel A-weighted scale), but differed on ratings of pleasantness and vibrancy. Listening to soundscapes evoked significant activity in a number of auditory brain regions. Compared with soundscapes that evoked no (neutral) emotional response, those evoking a pleasant or unpleasant emotional response engaged an additional neural circuit including the right amygdala. Ratings of vibrancy had little effect overall, and brain responses were more sensitive to pleasantness than was heart rate. A novel finding is that urban soundscapes with similar loudness can have dramatically different effects on the brain's response to the environment.