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We've been ignoring the power of sound for far too long

Graeme Harrison, Executive Vice President of Marketing for Biamp Systems, reports on the influence soundscapes can have on the health of individuals and the economy.

Glasgow Airport.
Glasgow Airport - where soundscapes led to an upturn in sales of 10 per cent. Photograph: Getty Images.

While reading the piece it may aid your concentration to listen to this sample from the Sound Agency...  

Since our earliest days, sound has helped us avoid predators and provided us with a depth of awareness about our surroundings that no other sense can match. However, it’s hard to argue that sound plays quite the same role in our lives that it once did – the buildings and structures that make up our cities and house us in our everyday lives are designed almost entirely using visual aesthetics, with sound coming in as an afterthought at best.

To some extent, this blindness (or deafness) to the impact that sound has on us has become even more serious in the modern day. As populations continue to expand we’re living in a world that is steadily becoming noisier. Research from the World Health Organisation has found that regular exposure to noise levels of just 50dB is enough to increase blood pressure, leading to a higher risk of heart attacks (as a point of reference average noise level in a busy office or classroom can exceed 65dB). Then, once you get to hospital, the battle continues as standard hospital wards are now being recorded with noise volumes as high as 92dB - nearly double the acceptable standard.

On the other hand, silence is not the solution. The complete absence of noise is just as unnatural. What you’re listening to now is a generative sound installation that Glasgow Airport trialled in its departures terminal – the scheme was put in place to try to sooth passengers in a potentially stressful environment. In this case researchers found that travellers admitted to feeling more relaxed, even in cases where they hadn’t realised the soundscape was playing. And perhaps more surprisingly, retailers noticed an uplift in sales during the trial, with some periods seeing an increase of nearly 10 per cent in passenger spending. 

The Glasgow case study is far from the only example of how sound can have a powerful effect on behaviour. Across the Atlantic, in the town of Lancaster, California, they experienced a 15 per cent drop in reported crime after the local mayor installed a birdsong-based soundscape in the downtown area. Organisations including the London Underground are following this lead expecting similar gains – when tube stations, including Brixton and Clapham North, noted decreased levels of violence following the introduction of classical music.

So what’s the secret to these experiences? And how far does the potential stretch? Sound may no longer as important for warning us of predators as in the past but, as the research suggests, risks still exist. It’s clear that taking control of local soundscapes can have a positive effect, avoiding the aggravation of uncontrolled noise and offering tangible benefits such as improved health and behaviour of those in the surrounding area. We need to begin constructing our sound environments as carefully as we would the façade and interiors of our buildings. Improving sound design isn’t about bringing home cinema to life, or turning amps up to 11, but is something that can be of real value to our society, health, and economy.

For more information, please see the whitepaper ‘Building in Sound’ which can be found here.