Design for Sound

So many sounds bring delight,
The sound of shoes on a frosty night,
The wind in the trees, the rustling of leaves,
Such beauty to feel the sounds of the sights,
Without the ear, our hands and eyes would be in a plight,
So cherish the music, relive the silence,
For the life of man is in his resonance
(Dedicated to my friend, Varun)

Previously, we began understanding the importance of our five senses while designing buildings, interior spaces as well as the general surroundings. The five senses are very crucial factors that determine the way we perceive our surroundings. The sense of hearing is an extremely important aspect of the human nervous system as it gives us the ability to communicate with other human beings. We depend on our sense of hearing for a multitude of activities which vary from hearing a lecture to gain knowledge or listening to music for relaxation. We may not realise it but in our day to day activities we rely on hearing for the smallest of reasons. For example, have you ever sat in your room, playing a computer game or perhaps surfing the web when you were actually supposed to be studying? And while doing so, your ears were constantly focused on the footsteps outside your room, waiting for the moment when your parent walks in, so that you could turn off the monitor and not get caught. Or when you are about to sleep at night and that mosquito buzzing around you just won’t let you fall asleep because it increases your state of awareness. IRIANS conducted an experiment in their launch event at Mumbai, which examined the influence of music on beverage tasting. They concluded that the type of music you hear when drinking wine can determine your perception of the quality, taste, aroma of wine too. In simple words, our sense of hearing is in effect all the time. You can shut your eyes and not see, close your mouth and not taste, clamp your nose and not smell, but your ears are constantly hearing. Even silence. When there is too much silence you can hear a high pitch ringing or in a high sound absorption room, you could even hear your own breathing and movements.

Essentially, the sense of hearing is a very sensitive area of stimulation. We humans get affected by the tiniest of sounds around us. In the context of design, let’s think about it as an added characteristic for the room or building. When we sit in a library, we anticipate a quiet environment and therefore the design requires for elements like sound cancelling windows, carpet flooring, wooden cabinets and quieter HVAC to name a few. Even when examining a larger space such as a surrounding neighbourhood area, urban designers should consider factors like noises from neighbours, roads, nearby factory or a marketplace. These noise conditions can have adverse effects on people. According to a study, noise from a nearby highway can impair the development of children’s reading skills (Cohen et al. 1973). Those living under the airport’s take-off or landing path can testify to the annoyance of hearing the loud turbines all day long. Intense exposure to the noise from airplanes can cause greater mental instability, depression and overall nervousness compared to those not exposed (Hiramatsu et al. 1997). In children aged 8 to 11 years, a noisy environment can lead to more psychological distress (Bullinger et al. 1997). Classrooms which are exposed to unwanted sounds and unpleasant noises make for poorer learning environments. A movie theatre that echoes too much is not an enjoyable experience either. Such examples pinpoint the need for understanding the effect of sound on our mental well-being.

But sounds can also help enhance a space. In certain cases, increasing the audible ambience of a room is an advantage, like in a live performance lounge or hall. Sound engineers spend countless hours designing the audio setup for such spaces to give people the best experience. On a different note, walking in the woods while hearing the sounds of nature, chirping of birds and the rustling of leaves can also have a positive effect of our minds. We often visit nearby parks, forest trails and gardens to escape the noisy streets and urban annoyances in our daily lives. We go to a quiet restaurant when we want to have a healthy conversation over a meal. Does this mean we only want quiet spaces? Perhaps, we also need our dose of noisy loud spaces too. Youngsters go to pubs and discos to experience the thrill of loud music and unbearable volume. This gives some people a temporary sense of pleasure. A music room or concert hall has to be carefully designed for the best possible audibility of instruments. Too much absorption is as bad as too much reverberation. But by playing with sounds we can also play with the perception of spaces. In fact, recently it has been shown that exposure to auditory white noise facilitated cognitive performance in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) children (Söderlund et al. 2009). This means that in certain scenarios, these children have shown improvement in performance even from road traffic noise. This goes to show that noise may not always have a negative impact like most people think.

By increasing the echo in a room, a user may feel that the space is larger than it actually is. Or by making a room quieter, one’s awareness of his/her immediate surroundings are increased as the focus and attention are narrowed down by elimination of unwanted noises from outside. As designers, it is highly critical to realise the effects of sound and the requirements of a space with respect to human perception, to create ‘a sound and healthy’ design.

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To read more about the IRIANS experiment of music and beverage tasting, visit the link below –


Bullinger et al. 1999 cited in Evans, Gary W. “Child development and the physical environment.” Annu. Rev. Psychol. 57 (2006): 423-451.

Cohen, S., Glass, D. C., & Singer, J. E. (1973). Apartment noise, auditory discrimination, and reading ability in children. Journal of experimental social psychology9(5), 407-422.

Hiramatsu, K., Yamamoto, T., Taira, K., Ito, A., & Nakasone, T. (1997). A survey on health effects due to aircraft noise on residents living around Kadena air base in the Ryukyus. Journal of Sound and Vibration205(4), 451-460.

Söderlund, G., Marklund, E., & Lacerda, F. (2009). Auditory white noise enhances cognitive performance under certain conditions: Examples from visuo-spatial working memory and dichotic listening tasks. In The XXIIth Swedish Phonetics Conference (pp. 160-164). Department of Linguistics, Stockholm Universitet.

Akshay Ashok Salunkhe



IRIANS- The Neuroscience Institute


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