Skip to content Skip to main navigation Skip to footer

Samuel Horlor

Yunnan University

Street Music in China

Recorded musical sounds forge a sense that musicians and listeners share a spatial relationship – sometimes intimate and sometimes more distant – much like the qualities with which street performers and crowds may interact in space. The rich variety of music forms heard on the city streets of contemporary Kunming in China gives vivid illustration that spatial relationships on these overlapping levels are a major factor in how people experience music in public places.

The streets, parks and squares of Kunming, the capital of south-west China’s Yunnan province, are alive with musical activity. Buskers are out playing for their dreams, retirees carve out quiet spots to enjoy practicing their instruments, and amateur theatrical groups draw in large crowds.

Everyone involved – including all those who stop to listen and engage, and all who pass by in apparent indifference – exist in a bubble of personal space. These hidden bubbles shape how people crowd together to take part or disperse, how they linger or move through a space, and even how they ignore or try to block out the music.

But the spatial dimensions of how people relate are also present in the very sounds heard on the streets. The singer of a pop ballad played out from speakers at a shop threshold seems to whisper in the ear of a passer-by – the intimate details of a voice recorded close up may encourage a potential customer to step inside today.

How, then, do the spatial relationships expressed in musical sounds on Kunming’s streets intertwine with people gathering, interacting and moving as they make and engage with music in public? This research puts the use of personal space and its different layers of meaning at the very centre of understanding how Kunming’s street sounds are experienced.