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Berlin 24/7: The sound of Berlin

Gero Schließ db
February 18, 2018

Many people have an idea what Berlin looks like. But how does it sound? DW columnist Gero Schliess had a listen.

Skyline Berlin
Image: picture-alliance/R. Schlesinger

Close your eyes. Imagine a stroll through your city, with your eyes closed, but open ears.

That's what I did in Berlin to find out how the German capital sounds.

I hear a "clack, clack, clack" sound on the pavement. Right away, I think of elegant ladies in high heels. But Berlin isn't Paris. Here, the wheels of trolley suitcases make the clacking sound. People here are forever pulling trolley cases.

About 150,000 people from all over the world move to Berlin every year. Berliners love to travel, too, and let's not forget the millions of tourists that flock to the German capital every year. 

The clacking sound of the trolley wheels is typical for Berlin. Nowhere is the sound as omnipresent as it is here, not in Cologne, Munich, New York or Moscow.

Of course, all these people do more than pull trolleys — they communicate. That is another sound typical for Berlin: multi-lingual chatter that turns Berlin into Babylon, be it in trendy cafes in Prenzlauer Berg, night clubs or the many startups, where English often is the lingua franca. Languages vary from one neighborhood to the next: Prenzlauer Berg is dominated by English and Spanish, while you tend to hear more Arabic and Turkish in Neukölln.

Strategic noise map

The Berlin state government recently published a "strategic noise map" that takes a closer look at traffic noise. Streets and squares marked dark red are particularly noisy. Cars are the biggest contributors to noise in Berlin, followed by subways, trains and planes.

Noise pollution is a threat to people's health, too. OK, you might shrug and say, every city has traffic noise. True, but it's really bad in Berlin.

More than 400,000 Berliners complain of sleep disturbances due to traffic noise. To make things worse, Berliners — cheeky and forward as they are — tend to drive their cars more aggressively than people in say, Freiburg or Bad Tölz, on the capital's 1,360 kilometers of streets.

Gero Schliess
DW columnist Gero Schliess

 Noise pollution is a deadly problem, and the city doesn't lift a finger except for printing pretty noise maps.

Party sounds are not to everyone's liking

The residents who live in the neighborhood of the hip Soho House club — according to the city's noise map, this is a dark red zone — feel abandoned by the city and the police in their fight against the Soho guests' nightly parties. Loud music and the clink of bottles keep them awake. It's no consolation that it just might be George Clooney or Madonna out there — the stars are occasional guests at the trendy club. It's still loud, and complaints have so far been useless.

Thank goodness! The booming bass, the shrieking exalted party people — that, too, is part of the sound of Berlin. I'd say they are heavenly sounds, but the neighborhood sees and hears them as a reason to go to court.

In some parts of town, judges have come down hard on clubs, turning former party miles like Prenzlauer Berg into quiet bedroom suburbs.

Berlin's state government has set up a €1-million ($1.24-million) fund to help night clubs pay for extra noise insulation measures. Hopefully, that will placate their residential neighbors.

Berlin Philharmonic musicians
One of our columnist's favorite "sounds of Berlin": the Berlin Philharmonic orchestraImage: Monika Rittershaus

Taken to court because the music was too loud: that's a problem the Berlin Philharmonic has never had. As far as I am concerned, they produce a wealth of wonderful sounds, as Thomas Mann puts it in his 1924 novel, "The Magic Mountain."

Berlin's Magic Mountain is the Philharmonic with its marvelous acoustics that time and again regales the audience with fantastic, unique moments. A sound for eternity, it was the loveliest audio spin-off from my tour through Berlin.

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