Most people, and most organisations, underestimate the importance of sound. It’s time for us all to take responsibility for the sound we make, and the sound we surround ourselves with.
In our daily lives we rarely encounter one sound in isolation; usually there are multiple sounds firing off all around us. The entirety of the sound in any one location is a soundscape. The word was coined by Canadian sound author and composer R. Murray Schafer. His concept of a soundscape was essentially an auditory landscape, almost exclusively applied to outdoor locations, and has been used by a thriving aural ecology movement ever since in their campaign against encroaching urban noise and their passionate efforts to record disappearing soundscapes.
I hope that in the future there will be more and more recording and archiving of some of the soundscapes we’re going to lose. The internet will make it possible for virtual soundscape museums to be set up, and the effort will be extremely valuable for generations to come. Each great city needs a soundscape archive because it’s usually not until something has disappeared that we miss it. In London, some of the classic sounds my parents knew well have disappeared: examples include the sound of tugboat whistles on the Thames, rag-and-bone men calling from their horse-drawn carts and the sound of steam trains in the great metropolitan termini. Characteristic London sounds I know so well, like “Mind the gap” on the tube or the sound of black cabs, will not last forever. Soundscapes can be preserved now, so we can leave a valuable record for future generations.
More importantly, we can get active in designing soundscapes for positive effect. To do this it’s useful to distinguish background sound from foreground sound. This is not a hard and fast rule, but the concept is a helpful starting point. Background sound (or ambient sound) tends to be quieter, easier to ignore, more continuous, less variable, broader in spectrum; foreground sound tends to be louder, more intrusive, composed of recognisable events, changeable, located in particular frequencies. For example, in a restaurant the background sound might comprise other patrons talking, the clatter of cutlery and low-level background music; the foreground sound might be our companion or a waiter speaking to us. In a supermarket, background sound might include people talking, beeping tills, trolley noise; foreground sound might be a staff announcement or a baby screaming right next to us. In some soundscapes the background effectively becomes the foreground: conversation is not the primary function in a nightclub or at a football match.
When we are designing soundscapes at The Sound Agency we consider what foreground sound people will be trying to focus on, and what background will be most conducive to that happening. For commercial spaces our aim is to create a soundscape that’s useful, appropriate and effective given the nature of the space, its function, the people in it and the brand or values behind it. The soundscape must also be congruent with the messages being received through all the other senses.
We can all do this in our private lives too. Listen to every room you spend time in, and ask: what sound could support me in doing what I want to do here? Whether it’s working, relaxing, sleeping or socialising, you can consciously design a soundscape that will work with you rather than against you. Just as you choose the colours of your walls and the furniture, you can choose your soundscape.
Every space has a soundscape, and I believe that every soundscape should be designed. The benefits will be enhanced, health, productivity and quality of life for everyone.