Behind the noise: New York City

This blog post is part of the investigation: 

When I arrived in New York at the end of August to begin my field research on graduate programs in quantitative finance, I was struck by the overall level noise of the city. I knew that New York was loud – I had lived there for six years – but I had just how many individual sounds contribute to the the white noise of the city's streets.

As I explored the Lower Manhattan streets outside of the building where I conducted most of my fieldwork, I strained to parse what I was hearing. Delivery trucks, muddled conversations of passers-by, sirens, cell phone ring tones, these were easier to distinguish. But what about that low, audible-yet-uncharacterizable hum coming from... the buildings? Or was it a more of a drone? And why was it still there – and even seem louder – at 9:30 in the evening?

The inside of the office building where the graduate program in finance was housed was, by contrast, very quiet. In the common area, I heard the sound of laptop keys, pens, highlighters, (calm) conversations about homework and (energetic) social interactions. The students usually had the TV in the common area switched to CNBC, a financial news program. The news was at times merely background noise – when no one was in the room, when students were talking amongst themselves – while at others a focal point – for students taking a lunch break.

Every time I stepped outside of the building, I was struck again by how loud it was. What was the sound of the city? Were the sounds worth distinguishing, or were they more meaningful through their combined effect? At what point does sound become background noise?