Sound Matters

As a lifelong fan of decent music and in my new role as a Fellow of the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce), I attended my first RSA event at the Sallis Benney Theatre in Brighton: The Future of Urban Sound Planning on Wednesday 22 February.

With an eclectic mix of seasoned speakers, University academics, and engineers of soundscapes, I was instantly engaged in the content of the evening. Sound really does matter and how we respond to the multitude of sounds around us is complex, innate and fascinating.

Julian Treasure, he of acclaimed TED talks on sound and founder of The Sound Agency, branding machine for international corporations, spoke at length with crystal clear audio accompaniment on how sound affects us. Sound in the workplace, open plan office spaces, distracting sounds, painful sounds and calming bird song with rhythmic pulses of ocean waves filled the auditorium and carefully contextualized the importance of the evening. Julian highlighted the importance of protecting our wellbeing through careful choices and through ‘sound’ design and not just volumes but rhythms and types of sound. He explained how we are designed to respond to our ears much faster than our vision. Hearing is 360 degrees he explained, yet our world is dominated by the visual signals we are subjected to on a constant basis. Sound affects our behaviour – the deepest bin in the world clip demonstrates this. Sound affects our mood – melancholy or magical tones can lift us or bury us. Music too has its own place in our world. We are born with a natural response to rhythm and we just know how certain combinations of notes can make us feel. I believe that music has a significant and profound effect on our emotions, that’s why I founded Music4Learning. That’s why I was interested in hearing more about soundscapes and how people are working to achieve better sound balances in our lives.

A team from Brighton and Hove City Council are working on a number of projects to create better urban spaces through a more creative use of architecture and sound. In one of their pilot projects, they took a busy seafront location, full of traffic, people and noise and used focused sound to create a calm zone. The results were spectacular. Another part of the research took them to use cameras and music in a dingy subterranean tunnel from the main road to beach and promenade. With the sugar plum fairy music from The Nutcracker Suite playing,  skulking changed to waltzing and introvert switched to extrovert in a matter of seconds.

Andy Knowles from Anderson Acoustics described brilliantly the passion that some architects have for creating better soundscapes, responsive to our needs and promoting our well-being. Sadly, planning blocks, intransigence and bloody-mindedness get in the way. It’s a frustrating business to be in by all accounts. Generating ideas is only half the battle.

One of the last presentations was on how the study of sound from an academic point of view can ‘open our eyes and ears’ to more thoughtful approaches to urban design and public health. In one part, Dr. Emmanuel Spinelli described how he had studied the designs and subsequent noise output of a wide range of hand dryers. Interesting – particularly when you consider the noise output from a child’s point of view. They are tested to within an inch of their life in sterile sound-proof booths but not necessarily in a fully tiled echo chamber that exists in most restrooms and can leave a sensitive 4-year-old requiring another visit to the bathroom.

I found the explanations of how sound design can be better incorporated into our world entirely fascinating. My role as founder of Music4Learning is to help teachers change the atmosphere in their classrooms through careful choices of music. Sound really matters.

The event was supported by The Noise Abatement SocietyAnderson Acoustics, and The RSA. Our Twitter feed commented on the evening @music4learning #rsasoundscapes