Wellbeing at home | Harnessing sound

Nicholas Anthony Kitchen open living space with artistic elements

Music to my ears: harnessing sound for a better living environment

Every single one of our senses contributes to our sense of wellbeing, especially in our homes. Touch, sight, scent, taste, and sound are all contributing factors in how we experience the world around us, and while we have spoken about light (sight), aesthetics and touch in the form of materials and textures in the past, sound (or the lack thereof) deserves some attention in its own right.

Instinct and intuition

Those who have a particular interest in music will know the importance of acoustics, and that there are two important sides to sound: how a sound itself makes us feel and how the quality of that sound can enhance or undermine our experiences

Like all the senses, sound is instinctive. As babies, hearing is usually fully formed, and we respond naturally to our mother’s voice. Some research suggests that newborns prefer a higher-pitched voice at the outset (the mother’s) to low-sounding voices (men) [Ref. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia]. Scientists have also found that as adults, our brains are hard-wired to respond to the sound of a crying baby — which is why it catches our attention like nothing else, even when it’s not our own child.

Sound falls into two categories — those we want to hear and those we don’t. Unwanted sounds can be extremely upsetting and undermining to our wellbeing — often without us really realising it. For example, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, unwanted background noise (traffic, machinery, computers) can increase general stress levels and “aggravate stress-related conditions such as high blood pressure, coronary disease, peptic ulcers and migraine headache” [Ref. Scientific American]. There’s even a suggestion that the additional cortisol those stress levels release can have a negative impact on executive function such as “planning, reasoning and impulse control.”

We also know that sound can be used effectively to provide a sense of calm and to make us feel better. We don’t need to be scientists to know this — anyone who’s listened to a power ballad whilst nursing a broken heart or curated a playlist to get them energised for a workout knows that music can have a direct impact on how we feel.

Sound and the spa world

On a more peaceful note, the power of sound has been employed in the world of well-being time and again. We know that in relaxing environments we value certain sounds over others: it’s considered bad manners to talk loudly in a spa because it disrupts the sense of wellbeing, but the sound of moving water and birds in the trees is conducive to feeling rested.

Sound is even used in treatments. Sound baths work on the principle that everything operates on a vibrational level, including us. They seek to harness that energy and use it for healing with instruments such as Tibetan singing bowls. It’s a practice that goes back centuries – the idea is that when our natural vibrations get out of tune, that’s when illness begins, so it aims to get the body back to its own vibrational state.

Audio art and dramatic effect

There are even sound artists who seek to explore the mechanics, meaning, and impact of sound. In modern art, the practice dates to the work of futurist Luigi Russolo and his “noise machines that replicated the clatter of the industrial age and the boom of warfare” in the early 1900s. It’s an area that has continued to be explored by the likes of Salvador Dalí, Marcel Duchamp, and Bill Fontana.

In another creative setting, the Ancient Greeks and the Romans knew a thing or two about creating a sense of drama with the amphitheater.  The vast, semicircular spaces with concentric rows of seating on a slope, were designed with the idea of amplifying the sound on stage or in the ring so that everyone could hear each dramatic turn of phrase or blood-curdling scream in a gladiatorial duel.

Harnessing sound in our homes

When it comes to our homes, we’re less interested in hearing screaming matches at the other end of the house and far more concerned about creating an enjoyable environment to live in. We want to minimise background noise with appliances designed to be quiet; we want to be able to have conversations with friends without them echoing around the room, and we want to be able to crank up the volume on the Sonos system without deafening the neighbours.

Sound in the home is a dance between what we want to hear and what we don’t; a jigsaw of insulation, architecture, appliances, materials, and more to create the desired outcome. For example, when we worked with a client who had a Huf Haus, which is largely made of glass, the slightest noise was reflected throughout the space. Curtains were not a suitable solution given the design, so we found artwork made from fabric to help absorb unwanted sound.

It doesn’t matter what the value of a property is, sound is difficult to control, especially if it isn’t planned for from the start. However, by working with it and planning for it, you can enhance your home with a whole new dimension of experience and enjoyment.

Speak to our team of designers at Nicholas Anthony to create the experiences that you want to have in your home.

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