How sound affects us

Have you noticed how much noisier life gets in the summer?

On hot sunny days and balmy nights we open the windows and bring both the cool breeze and outside noise into our homes and workplaces.

If you live in the city like me, then sirens, sounds of neighbours’ barbeques, music and passing conversations all become part of your daily soundscape.

Also for me, it’s meant 4am wake up calls by squawking seagulls!

But why are we disturbed by certain sounds, even natural ones, like seagulls?

If we understand the fundamental reasons for our reactions to noise, can it help us design spaces that are more comfortable to be in?

You may think that we get used to certain noises over time – and so are no longer troubled by them.

But studies show that this isn’t the case. As Dylan Jones, Professor of Phycology at Cardiff University, explained on Radio 4’s recent programme The Search for the Perfect Office

Our Neanderthal past is expressing itself in our modern spaces:

Our sensory system is highly tuned. We respond to unwanted sound as a threat, activating our fight or flight response and putting us on high alert.

This reaction is so hard-wired that it doesn’t diminish over time.
A creaking floorboard in the night is likely to freak you out every time you hear it.

In a similar way, if an interior has a problem with unwanted sound at the outset, it’s not going to get better or go away.

But why is sound so often overlooked in the design of interiors?

As designers, we’re taught to focus on the visual aspects of a design. Beyond practicalities, how an interior scheme looks is key.

But what about how a place feels?

The ‘invisible’ benefits of good acoustics such as atmosphere and ambiance may be harder to quantify, but can be crucial to the success of a space.

We all know the effect sounds can have on us.

Within hearing the first three seconds of Gary Numan’s track, Cars I’m catapulted right back to 1982 and the school disco.

Emotional responses to sound are often far stronger and more immediate than those associated with visual stimuli.

Which songs make you instantly feel happy or sad? And which sudden noises give you a fright? In our house, every time the dog barks at the postman, I jump.

Design is about people. Responding to our practical and emotional needs means creating harmonious spaces that are in tune, not conflict, with our most natural selves – whether it’s a buzzy restaurant, formal boardroom, or stimulating work environment.

Have you dealt with issues with acoustics in your projects in ways that have, or haven’t worked?

Let me know – it would be great to hear from you!