Please wear headphones
This audio-ethnography employs field-recordings that are best
engaged in the immersive context of isolated personal listening.

    The expansive nature of the MTA subway system presents a challenge to any earwitness who wishes to representatively capture its acoustic character. The MTA runs 6,325 individual train cars through 21 interconnected subway routes and a total of 468 stations (MTA [2] 2014). While the most thorough possible investigation would draw from recordings taken from each of these stations, cars, and routes, this investigation lacks the substantial resources and humanpower necessary to attempt such an undertaking, and therefore some reasonable parameters have been observed. This is not a scientific study, but a critical cultural analysis, attempting to engage both the typical auditory experience of MTA subway users, and the crucial confrontation and collaboration between a human mass and an institutional infrastructure, resulting in a unique soundscape and audio culture. Parameters have been designed in observance of these goals, therefore recording times and locations have been chosen in an attempt to maximize both the representative population within subway stations and cars, and the likelihood of capturing the encounter between the MTA’s infrastructure and the human audio culture. In other words, this inquiry is seeking crowds, not only because they represent a common experience of any given subway passenger, but because they test the extremes of human interaction and expression, as well as the MTA’s infrastructural strengths and limitations when confronted with a critical mass of commuter traffic.

All original recordings have been made using a Zoom H4N recorder, which is a battery powered handheld field-recorder designed for capturing high quality stereo audio. The bulk of recordings consulted for this inquiry were made between January and March of 2015 in locations determined according to ridership rates found in the the MTA’s 2013 Average Weekday Subway Ridership report, which represents the most recent ridership data made available by the MTA (MTA [1] 2014). Recordings were conducted in the ten busiest subway stations, and in train cars traveling to and from those stations. Since each of the ten busiest stations are located in the borough of Manhattan, in an attempt to conduct a more inclusive analysis, recordings were also taken in the busiest station of each outlying borough, and in train cars traveling to and from those stations, with the exception of Staten Island. Staten Island has been excluded from this analysis because its Staten Island Railroad (SIR) is not a constituent component of the interconnected MTA subway system, is run by a subsidiary governing body within the MTA, is therefore subject to separate rules and guidelines, and is excluded from the MTA subway system’s ridership statistics and other available data. The stations chosen for inclusion in this analysis are presented in Figures 1 and 2, along with available data representing their average weekday ridership in 2013.

Combined, these stations represent an average weekday ridership of 1,158,127 passengers, a figure that excludes the requisite staff and police who also bear earwitness to the subway. When compared to the nearly five and half million average weekday MTA passengers, these stations represent 21.19% of all weekday subway ridership (MTA [1] 2014). In other words, roughly one in five MTA passengers will travel through one of these thirteen stations on a given weekday. Recordings were taken at each of the stations during the peak operating hours of one weekday morning and evening per station. The MTA defines peak operating hours as between the hours of 6 and 10 AM, and 4 and 8 PM (MTA [3] 2014). Since the crowds of peak operating hours do not represent the complete MTA subway experience, off peak recordings have been conducted under more casual circumstances on subway lines in all four of the boroughs included in this investigation.

For the sake of a useful comparative analysis, recordings have also ben conducted in the two busiest stations of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) in Washington D.C., a system with marked differences with regard to its acoustic character, including sound dampening panels in stations, among other considerations. Originating in the 1960s, WMATA is a far newer transit system, allowing for the implementation of various acoustic engineering techniques that the MTA has not enacted in its infrastructural retrofitting of a system that originated 110 years ago. The stations selected for this analysis are Union Station with an average weekday ridership of 32,975 passengers in 2013, and Metro Center with and average weekday ridership of 28,039 passengers in 2013 (WMATA [2] 2014). A comparative analysis will help to evaluate the MTA’s infrastructural and institutional influence on the subway’s soundscape and audio culture. Like the MTA Recordings, recordings of the WMATA system were conducted on a weekday at station platforms, and inside of train cars traveling to and from the stations during peak hours, both during morning and evening commutes. Peak hours for these recordings are defined by the WMATA as between the hours of 5 to 9:30 AM, and between 3 and 7 PM (WMATA [1] 2014).

Additionally this analysis considers recordings made in April and May of 2014 that represent my own commute and routine travels within the MTA. These audio samples account for an individual’s earwitness perspective, and are intended to lend the work the credibility of my own lived experience. Much of the auditory experience of the subway is derived from the development of routine, the emerging intimacy between passengers, the spaces they inhabit, and the audio cues that operate there. Without the perspective of repeated encounters with specific spaces and their sounds, a valuable dimension would be missing from this analysis, and the credibility described by Schafer as belonging to one who writes of sounds intimately known would be difficult to achieve. Additionally, these recordings in which crowds have been left up to chance, rather than engaged by design, provide a counterpoint to the extremes of the peak operating scenario, and represent the MTA’s cultural and infrastructural keynote sounds under less taxing circumstances, revealing aspects of the MTA soundscape unavailable during peak conditions.

Cumulatively, this project has considered 220 individual recordings, representing over 15 hours of audio collected according to the methodologies described above. The recordings have been individually catalogued and annotated, including photographs and detailed descriptions of sonic phenomena for the reference of the author. From this robust sample, the recordings chosen for direct reference and analysis represent only a small fraction of the total collected and reviewed. The analysis that follows engages those recordings that are found to be most relevant to a detailed analysis of the MTA’s soundscape, audio culture, and sonic infrastructure.

  Subterranean Soundcapes © 2015 Jesse Mitchell Lindsey, all rights reserved.
MTA Train Emblems, Image courtesy Metropolitan Transportation Authority.