“Grand Central Station” by Neo_II is licensed under CC BY 2.0

You know when a certain place just doesn’t sound right. You might say it’s “too noisy” or it’s “echoey”, or maybe it’s “weirdly quiet”. Sometimes a certain sound is part of what makes the place feel good – think of surf sounds in a beachside bungalow, or sounds from a playground in a nearby café.  Or bad – aircraft noise in your living room; footsteps from the apartment above.

A “soundscape” is the set of sounds that are present in an environment, and how they relate to each other. I’d like to define two types of soundscape:

  • The physical soundscape – all the individual sounds that reach your ears, loud or soft; either directly, or via reflections, or after passing through walls, windows, etc.
  • The mental soundscape – the physical soundscape after it’s been processed by your brain, which makes some sounds stand out as a focus of your attention (for good or bad) while others are relegated to a “background” status, and other sounds are completely inaudible.

When you enter an environment such as a room, or a park, the soundscape that you perceive (your mental soundscape) has been shown to affect your level of stress and your task performance in that environment. More subtly, it has a “halo” effect that changes the way you perceive visual and other aspects of the environment, and affects your overall judgement – is this comfortable; do I wish to stay here?

Therefore, good architectural practice includes designing not just the visual aspects of a space but also the soundscape. Effectively, we design the physical soundscape to try to produce a positive mental soundscape for people using the space.

Given the myriad of different meanings and associations that we give to different sounds (what music makes you feel relaxed? alert? distracted?), it might seem that engineering a positive mental soundscape for everyone is beyond anyone’s ability. Nevertheless there are a few basic guidelines that acousticians follow (whether they know it or not) when designing soundscapes. They are in three key areas:

In subsequent posts I’ll discuss each of these aspects and how you can use sound modelling in SoundSoup to help ou understand how changes in the physical soundscape will affect your mental soundscape.