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When creating a comfortable space, sounds are as important as decor

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Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

What does your place sound like?

We spend enormous chunks of our lives in our homes and workplaces. More and more, we’re coming to understand the effect these frequent haunts have on our physical and mental health, our emotional states, our creativity and productivity — in short, our very well-being.

A number of recent studies have shown the positive effects of nature in our interior spaces (and the negative effects of its absence). Thus, plants, windows looking onto greenery and natural images in the form of pictures, murals and even screensavers are being incorporated more and more into offices, schools, hospitals and homes.

As is often the case, the visual is given highest priority in these efforts to bring more nature, even secondarily, into our everyday lives. Yet the world and our experience of it is multi-sensory, and we often give short shrift to our ears, noses, mouths and hands when nurturing our relationships with the spaces around us.

Luckily, interest in “aural architecture” is on the rise. Aural architecture considers our reactions to sound in buildings and how we can best design our indoor spaces to make them acoustically satisfying, functional and desirable.

“We have probably all been in a building that sounds wrong,” writes BBC reporter Lakshmi Sandhana in the article “How the sound in your home affects your mood.” “Dingy offices where noise rattles uncomfortably between the floor and the ceiling, old houses where the creaks and groans of ageing floorboards carry hauntingly from room to room, train stations where public announcements reverberate until they are indecipherable. While it may be hard to put a finger on why, these places can feel instinctively uncomfortable to us.”

One of the most obvious examples of the effect of sound in our homes is the difference between hardwood and carpeted floors, which also illustrates how people can have different relationships with different types of sounds. While I understand and often admire the aesthetic beauty of a nicely finished hardwood floor, I find the sound in such homes echoey and rather harsh. I personally much prefer the softer, quieter, more intimate sound of a carpeted room.

Paying attention to our interior soundscapes has implications beyond just aesthetics. Sandhana cites studies that show how “noisy work and home settings have been proven to annoy people, and noise annoyance itself has been linked to depression and anxiety. Furthermore, issues [over] concentrating in the workplace due to office noise and intermittent noise [have] been found to significantly reduce human performance.” Research is also being conducted into how sound environments can promote or inhibit healing and recovery in hospitals.

I have garnered a reputation among my colleagues at the University of Iowa for having a “great” office. This is a result of some simple choices I’ve made to create a comfortable environment in the place where I spend more time than anywhere other than my own home. The two main choices are a healthy number of plants (remember the importance of bringing the green world into your workspace) and using table and floor lamps rather than the harsh, sterile and overly bright fluorescent ceiling lights. (A comfortable reading chair, a good number of books and some nice pictures on the wall also help.)

I’ve worked to improve my aural environment in my office as well. It shouldn’t be surprising that I need quiet to concentrate on my work as a writer. While the ethos in the office suite is to keep doors open, I keep mine partially closed without latching it, which lowers any commotion beyond my door to a comfortable murmur without my appearing to be too unwelcoming. If the decibels of the meeting or phone call in the office next door become too perceptible, some earphones plugged into my laptop playing low levels of white noise, nature sounds or gentle music calm my synapses and nerves.

I’ve also discovered that sound can carry an important ceremonial purpose in my day at the office. I have a Tibetan singing bowl sitting on a small side table. In the morning, after I’ve opened the window blinds to let the day’s sun in, I stop and gently tap the side of the singing bowl with the striker. The bell chime sounds, and I stand still, breathing slowly, concentrating on only the metallic sound, listening for its overtones, reverberations and, as the tone fades toward silence, for the final moment when my ears no longer perceive the sound waves swirling about me.

This little “ceremony” takes all of 30 seconds or so, but it nicely marks the beginning of my day, setting a mindful attitude, pace and perspective for the rest of my work time. But more importantly, I try to carry its experience with me throughout the hours to follow — to remind myself that often I need to briefly just stop, breathe, slow down and let my senses attune themselves to and focus on the place I’m in right here, right now.

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More and more, we’re realizing our spaces matter — to our well-being and even our identity. The relationships we build with the world around us occur on many levels, from inside the walls of a room where we work, to the wide expanse of the global environment that gives us life. Whether we design, create, adapt or just attune to these places, we must marshal all our senses to most effectively dwell within them. Today, I wish you happy and healthy listening in your most important places.

Thomas Dean loves the sound of a bell tone in the morning. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 270.


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  1. Last week’s guest on “On Being with Krista Tippett,” was Gordon Hempton, acoustic ecologist. It was fascinating and ear opening. Highly recommend if this article appealed to you.

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