University of Nottingham

Popular musicscapes and the characterisation of the urban environment

Project outline

Focusing on Liverpool, this project examined the relationship between popular music and the urban environment (built and sonic). It considered the influence of music-making on the character of the urban environment and on how that environment is used, experienced, interpreted and represented, and in turn the influence of the urban environment on music-making.

The project was based on a partnership with English Heritage (Characterisation Team) and National Museums Liverpool, and also involved extensive collaboration with Urbeatz, a Liverpool-based youth, media and urban culture company.

A singer songwriter's map singer_songwriters_map_1


The project has highlighted the agency of musicians in the creation of musicscapes that characterise cities and urban environments, and the influence on that process of musical style. Yet it has also revealed how musicians' interaction with these environments is in turn shaped and constrained by the organisation and regulation of urban space within a wider political economy, music-making being both constrained and enabled by processes of urban regeneration. Particular achievements include: participation in a major exhibition, a public showcase, a one-day symposium and contributions to various academic seminars and conferences.

Research took the following forms; archival investigation; ethnographic research with groups of musicians involved with rock, pop and hip hop music (including studio and performance-based research and walking interviews); showing maps to musicians to prompt discussion and share stories about music sites and experiences, and asking musicians to draw maps to represent their music-making in the city.

The everyday routes of musicians were traced along with real and imagined sites connected to their music-making, including physical sites connected to music learning, rehearsal, performance and recording, and sites represented through music. Researchers were then able to reflect on the spatial, geometric patterns that emerged from these maps and the questions they provoked about the relationship between music-making and material urban environments.

A one-day symposium held at the University of Liverpool in June 2007, 'Music, characterisation and the urban environment' brought together academics from various disciplines as well as museum staff, heritage managers and sonic artists.

Access to the University of Liverpool's recording studios allowed Dr Lashua to use his extensive experience and expertise as a studio engineer/producer to offer recording sessions to musicians participating in the project, and to conduct ethnographic research as a participant in the process of music composition, performance and recording, gaining an insider's perspective on the music-making process. Project respondents have in many cases agreed to perform as guest session players during other participant's recording sessions. All of the additional instrumentation was tracked by project respondents who previously had not met one another.

Outputs from the project were part of a major exhibition on Liverpool popular music entitled 'The Beat Goes On'. The exhibition was launched at the World Museum Liverpool in July 2008 as part of the city's Capital of Culture celebrations, and ran until November 2009. It was based on a collaboration between the Institute of Popular Music and National Museums Liverpool. 'Mapping the Beat' was a pilot interactive installation, featuring six digital multi-media maps of Liverpool musicscapes incorporating images, text and sound files drawn from the project. The exhibition attracted a broad and diverse audience and a total of 478,188 visitors. 'The Beat Goes On-Line' is an on-line resource  produced by the Institute of Popular Music to support the 'The Beat Goes On' exhibition. Research data from the project was used for various pages throughout the resource and the resource includes a sub-section on music and mapping directly related to the project.

On July 13th 2009 a public showcase event was held at Bar Hannah in Liverpool. The event involved live music performances from musicians who had participated in the project, and amongst the audience were representatives from the project partners and delegates from the 15th biennial conference of the International Association for the study of Popular Music.

Kof - a Liverpool-based hip hop musician, with Brett Lashua on drums performed at:

  • Liverpool Sound City showcase (20 May 2009) at Alma de Cuba.
  • HUB festival (23 May 2009), headlining.
  • Liverpool University Guild  (28 May 2009), opening for Kid British.
  • Barfly (18 June 2009), headlining.
  • Glastonbury Festival (26 June 2009), BBC Introducing stage 
  • The Social, London (14 July 2009), BBC Introducing with Huw Stephens showcase.

Music downloads are available from the project website.

Research findings from the project have also been disseminated at conferences/seminars to scholars specialising in interdisciplinary studies as well as those specialising in ethnomusicology, geography, architecture, communication studies, musicology and archaeology.


Ongoing influence

The approach taken by the project team to maps and mapping (including digital GIS and hand-drawn concept maps) was new to music studies and continues to be influential. Aspects have been used by the AHRC Beyond Text project 'What is Black British Jazz? Routes, Ownership, Performance', and it inspired the AHRC 'City in Film' project. It has also been adopted as a teaching tool by individual researchers. 

The musicians involved were able to develop new skills, insights and ways of working through studio and performance-based collaboration, and to make new contacts. The project will continue to influence the ways in which they work.

The project has highlighted the value of music as intangible heritage and the notion of popular and 20th/21st century culture as heritage.

A number of other projects have been undertaken as a direct result of the Popular Musicscapes project. These include; 'Landscapes, memories and cultural practices: a GIS/GPS digital heritage mapping network' (AHRC), and 'Oral histories and the social clubs of the African Diaspora in Liverpool' (Leeds Metropolitan University). Sara Cohen has also become involved as UK Partner-Investigator in two international projects that enable her to build directly upon Liverpool-based research conducted for Popular Musicscapes; 'Popular music heritage, cultural memory and cultural identity: localised popular music histories and their significance for music audiences and music industries in Europe' (HERA JRP), and 'Popular music, cultural memory and national identity' (Australian Research Council).

Award details

Duration: 2007-2010 (30 months)

Principal Investigator: 
Dr Sara Cohen

Higher Education Institution: 
Institute of Popular Music, University of Liverpool

Project team member:
Dr Brett Lashua (University of Liverpool)

Selected publications

Publications include a number of journal articles as well as a contribution to an edited collection.

Cohen, S., Schofield, J. and Lashua, B. (2010). Introduction to the special issue: music, characterization and urban space. Popular Music History. 4(2):105-110. Available online.  

Cohen, S. and Lashua, B. (2010). Dig the beat. British Archaeology. January 2010:22-27.

Cohen, S., and Lashua, B.D. (2009). Re-Mapping the Precinct: Music, the built environment and urban change in Liverpool. In: Leonard, M. and Strachan, R. (eds.) (2009). The Beat Goes On: Liverpool, Popular Music and the Changing City. (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press).

Lashua, B.D., Cohen, S., and Schofield, J. (2007). Popular music, characterisation and the urban environment. Conservation Bulletin. 56:35-36


Project partners

National Museums Liverpool


Related links




Landscape and Environment Programme

School of Geography
University Park
University of Nottingham
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

telephone: +44 (0) 115 84 66071