Sound has incredible power over us; we know this. Think about the way you feel when you listen to your favourite music, compared to the effect that noisy neighbours can have on your wellbeing. But could improving our sonic environment enhance our lives?
“Most people don’t realise the relationship between space and sound,” says Chris Harper, a sound engineer and lecturer with over 25 years’ experience recording, mixing, producing and designing sound for a range of applications including music, film and games.
Now a freelance sound recordist and post production engineer, he builds and designs studios and listening rooms with custom acoustic treatment and soundproofing, and says he’s on a personal mission to help people disrupt spaces and improve their environments through acoustic design.
“The places we inhabit are sonic spaces as much as anything, else but we tend not to think about sound and the impact it can have on our wellbeing,” he says.
Much of what we experience as sound is modulated or affected by the space we’re in, which can make sound appear distant or muddy. Think of the ‘wall of sound’ you might experience in a space like school hall with poor acoustics.
“Current building regulations that apply to schools state that the acoustics in a classroom should support the teacher’s ability to communicate as well as every student’s ability to hear clearly,” says Harper. “But many older schools which were built before the current building regulations came into effect have horrible acoustics, which can cause real sensory overload for children.”
The right acoustic treatments could change that, creating a better environment in which to listen and learn. And it’s not just public spaces that could be improved with a little acoustic thought. That fancy TV you splashed out on? How much attention did you pay to how it would sound, or indeed to the acoustic design of the room in which you’re going to watch it – and listen to it?
“We live in a visual society; we talk about ‘seeing’ films and ‘watching’ TV – our language is all about sight rather than sound, yet listening is at least 50 percent of those experiences,” says Harper.
“The rise of HD and 4K televisions is all about the visual element of entertainment, but if you’re going to invest £1k in a television, it actually makes better sense to invest some your budget in your sound system – and in ensuring the acoustics of your room are as good as they can possibly be.”
How? “It’s a lot to do with physics,” Harper explains. “In any room, the sound will reverberate around the space and reflect off all the surfaces, which causes cancellations in the sound – some of it will disappear and some of it will be enhanced.”
On a broader scale, the spaces we inhabit affect how our brains work, and this impacts our stress levels. That’s why it’s possible to be in a large space with lots of people yet feel relaxed, or to be in room with relatively few people but find the acoustics impact you negatively, creating that distinct sense that you can’t hear yourself think.
Ultimately, Harper believes that life, for some people, is “a sonic battle between sound and noise” and that much of the current interest in cultivating inner peace is actually about the need to block out all the unwanted noise around us.
It is fitting, then, that the key to creating a healthier sonic environment is to listen more. "Our urban environments are becoming noisier. For example, when a government sanctions a new runway, it rarely considers the impact that increased noise levels will have on real people’s lives, and on a planetary level, noisy human activity in our oceans can be deafening to marine life, causing ecological problems.” He says.
“But if we can become more conscious of how we hear the world, we might also become more considerate of the impact of the noise we make on others and, in turn, be more proactive about reducing noise pollution.”