Sound impacts on every aspect of our lives, from health and wellbeing to learning, working, sleeping and our relationships at home and in the workplace.

In many ways our sense of hearing is more sophisticated than our sense of sight. We see only what is in front of us, but we hear sounds coming from all around us. Hearing is our primary warning sense, so sound goes very deep, very fast.

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Sound affects us in four key ways:

PHYSICALLY. Sudden noises trigger the release of brain chemicals that prepare us to fight or flee; peaceful sounds like surf or rain slow down our heart rate and breathing.

PSYCHOLOGICALLY. Music can change our mood; birdsong tends to make us feel secure.

COGNITIVELY. Most humans have bandwidth for just 1.6 conversations, so our ability to think is greatly affected by other sounds that are present – especially other people’s conversations.

BEHAVIORALLY. Sound affects our buying patterns: inappropriate retail soundscapes can reduce sales by up to 28%.

Office work involves collaboration, for which open plan offices are entirely suitable. But it also involves concentration, contemplation and communication, and sadly the typical office soundscape often compromises our ability to do these things. In communication, the signal (speech or other sounds that we want to hear) is often hard to extract from the noise (other people talking, phones ringing, and other unwanted sound).


The solution is to design soundscapes that work for us instead of against us, based on four building blocks:

GOOD ACOUSTICS:

Surfaces and furnishings should include soft, absorbent materials to reduce the amount of sound that reflects back into the room.

THE RIGHT SOUND SYSTEM:

A sound system that is incorrectly specified, inadequately budgeted, poorly installed, and badly calibrated will be a constant source of frustration to everyone who uses it. Many users spend valuable time at the start of a conference trying to make complex equipment work.

MINIMAL NOISE:

Generally, a background noise level between 45 and 55 dB SPL is appropriate for an office. If it’s too quiet, nearby conversations become distracting. If it’s too loud, people become stressed and sick, and communication is compromised.

APPROPRIATE CONTENT:

Whatever sound is added to the environment should enhance people’s wellbeing, effectiveness and happiness.


While most modern communication platforms are designed to let us exchange text, images, or video, our voice is the most powerful interface that we have. The synchronous, sonorous, rhythmic capabilities of the human voice deliver information efficiently and naturally. Making a compelling video requires one to acquire significant technical skill; making a compelling speech is something that anyone can do.

Julian Treasure Chairman of The Sound Agency, author of Sound Business and five-time TED.com speaker on sound