Music & Sound

Designing With Sound

Architecture clothes the human body with an intervening body of air.

We live under an ocean of air. Air is not empty. It  fills at high pressure the space between solid walls and liquid body. It is full of information: heat, scent, breeze, sound-vibration.

As a city we all speak and breathe into one connected body of air, modulated into squares and streets, alleyways, courtyards and rooms; all interconnected. Behind doors and windows, curtains, duvets, down to the scale of the air cavities inside our heads: sinuses, pharnyx, larynx, chest cavities; an inner architecture that gives each person’s cough a unique sonic timbre, a set of resonances that makes us recognisable, not for the shape of our external body, but for the shapes of the air cavities within, that makes our voice ours.

As we live we make sound, voluntarily and involuntarily. The voluntary part, speaking, can be summarised in architecture as to provide a place where a voice can be heard. Not always as straightforward as it may seem, it is  a basic requirement for civic life. The involuntary part may be useful, of no interest, or distasteful, which brings us to the interesting question and ever-changing boundaries of noise.

Architectural space comes alive with inhabitation, and with inhabitation come the sounds, rhythms and patterns of movement of everyday life.

The sounds of daily life are real activities in space and time.

All human life involves water. The body has the same salinity and density as the sea.

We need first air then water, food, habitation, in order of urgency if not scarcity.

Architecture encloses our day to day activity, reflects sound back to ourselves as air meets wall, the sound modulated by the shape, materials, and micro-porosity of its surfaces.

Water is our horizontal. The ears are our seat of three dimensions – the fluid-filled labyrinths of the inner ears. Hearing is spatial, in all directions. Temporal: now. Our soundscape, from the womb to the grave  is part of a multi-sensory understanding of place in time. The range of ear-audible sounds can be expressed as wavelengths in air whose size easily relates to those of the body and architecture. The smallest sound we can hear is the size of a fingernail (17mm); the most sensitive fist sized, mouth sized; the average the distance from mouth to belly (0.4m); the sound of a baritone  singing a middle G the size of a man (1.8m); the longest, lowest note we can hear with a wavelength the size of a ballroom or small courtyard (17m).

Beyond this – an air distance of 17m or a time differnece of 1/20th a second we hear sounds as echo/rhythm.

Sounds heard  as rhythm have no upper limit of wavelength in either space or time except our ability to recognise repeated events, to recognise vibration.

The rhythm of history.

So the range of hearing can be said to extend from the size or wavelength-in-air of a fingernail to the size of a city and beyond.

Listening, we can consider the vast array of sounds we all make through our own bodily actions and the machinery of city life to explore not only the form but also the significance of the sounds we make and hear. This significance, cultural as well as biological, helps us understand what is meant by noise and its opposites: quietness, useful information and music.

We modify behaviour according to the place we are in, according to how we and it sound.

Architectural acoustics can be used as a design tool to modify the perception of self and space and thereby affect mood and behaviour.

A background room acoustic or ambience can be made formal, cosy, intimidating, confusing, consoling, larger or smaller than it actually is.

If we consider the human activities of a place and the sounds that evidence them, we can, by modulating sound, create appropriate and supportive environments to clothe the activity.

Tools available to the designer:

  • The geometry of the air, we sculpt air. The larger the volume the greater the reverberation. Ceiling heights especially are open to design.
  • The materials of enclosure: the surfaces that constrain the air walls, floors ceilings, how much do they reflect sound – it is useful to consider dense walls as mirrors.
  • Sequences of spaces, a low space leading onto a tall space, or an open-to-the-street leading into a private space for example and al the theatrical possibilities that spring from this.
  • Masking: hiding a large sound far away with a small sound nearby.
  • Attenuation: making acoustic separation between different spaces.

Architecutral sound affects built form and materials, but also works with sounds of nature: wind, water and its many voices as it entraps air, the sounding, resonating and amplifying elements of the building itself.

A design method begins and ends with the human body.

It dances, hears, speaks in a particular way aporprite to our size and space and time.

From large to small scale, it considers how the human body relates to the form and topography of the existing city, how the layout, arrangement, organisation, sequence and narrative the ‘emotional story’ of interrelated places affects soundscape and ambience. Rooms are considered in themselves as enclosing human activity, but also visual and acoustic connections and permeabilities.  Wind and water, trees and birdsong are latent, potential sonic elements, the building potentially a musical instrument itself within a landscape of sound.

It considers active acoustics –  interventions of sound and their effect on human health, mood and behaviour, from fountains to muzak, mechanical hums, pink noise and alarms.

© Marcus Beale 2015 updated 2023

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