Victoria Deiorio
 
 

How do we become objective to something to which we don’t give a second thought?
Sound can seem intangible and hard to describe.

Physics aids in determining what of sound is contained in the evolutionary response,
& Psychology aids in determining what of sound is contained in the associational response.
The common denominator is perception.

ear waves.jpeg

Sound Waves

Sound waves are the vibrations that emanate from an object, which is in contact with a medium of transmission, and eventually is perceived as sound. We usually think of sound traveling through air as the most common medium, but sound waves can also pass through solids and liquids at varying speeds. The human ear has a very intricate system of intercepting these sound waves and brings meaning to them through the auditory nerves in the brain. This produces the second meaning when we speak of sound, a more physical and emotional sensation of hearing, which is how the sound feels, such as “the crickets at night are very peaceful.”

Frequency

Frequency is the rate of changes in atmospheric pressure along a sinusoidal (sine) wave of vibration, and is relative to pitch in our perception; however, pitch is a subjective sensation. You may not be able to hear a change in pitch with a very small change in the frequency of a sound wave. Perception of these waves varies from person to person, taking into account age and gender. The perception of the lowest audible frequency is around 15 Hz. In the perception of the higher frequencies is where you see the greater variance. Young women tend to have a higher range of hearing, up to 20 kHz, when the average high range is around 15-18 kHz. With age, and exposure to high decibel levels of sound pressure, the ability to hear high frequencies declines. Sound pressure levels are measured with the decibel scale sound pressure level (dBspl).

Four Aspects to Auditory Spatial Awareness

1 - Social

Social spatial awareness influences our social behavior with an emphasis on privacy or social interaction. In the social aspect of auditory spatial awareness, we determine how we will act with others in an environment. If we are in a private space, such as a private garden, our body language and how we present ourselves will be at ease. There is no need to keep control of the appearance of oneself in this situation. In a public environment such as a community park, our bodies will perform in a different manner based on our own reactions to others around us. If we are in a business meeting, there is yet another different demeanor based on social norms of how to act to appear professional. When supporting an environment with sound design, you will be adding in the surrounding aural environment, and these environments in turn inform those in the space to their settings more fully.

2 - Navigational

Navigational spatial awareness allows us to navigate and orient our way through space, by either supplementing vision or at times replacing it. In the navigational aspect of auditory spatial awareness, we can determine where we are in space through our focus. Some animals, such as bats and dolphins, determine how far away they are from an object by measuring how long it takes for an echo of the sound they emanate to return. This is called echolocation. Blind people are now learning how to do the same. We determine the three dimensions of space and actually hear cubic dimension by how sound reacts around us. We can recreate that reality of cubic space in the sound for a more realistic experience, to inform beyond where the visual elements end.

3 - Aesthetic

Aesthetic spatial awareness affects our aesthetic response to the space. As visual elements embellish a space for our eyes, aural elements embellish a space for our ears. In the aesthetic aspect of auditory spatial awareness, we appreciate the quality of the way sound behaves in space. This type of space helps clarify specificity of sound. It is a space that does not feel noisy. A symphony hall with its near-perfect acoustic response is a glorious place to hear sound. And we can choose to be aesthetic with our sound determined by our desired effect.

4 - Musical

Musical spatial awareness strengthens our experience of music and vocal experiences by merging the source of the sound with the space to create a unified extension of the art performed. In the musical aspect of auditory spatial awareness, we note how constructed sound such as music and voice react within a space. This, coupled with the aesthetic aspect, will define how human beings will respond to the sound. Changing the perception of the space can be quite powerful for those who have to interact within it.

Evolutionary Response

The first step to the development and evolution of the mind is the activation of psychophysics in the brain. It is what makes an organism sentient. If you understand what you are experiencing around you, you can apply that understanding to learn and grow. This is how the mind evolves. And in our evolution our minds developed a complex way to interpret vibrations and frequency into meaning and emotion. Everything in our world vibrates because where there is energy there is a vibratory region, some more complex than others but none ever totally silent. The brain seeks patterns and is continually identifying the correlation of sensation with perception of the energy that hits our bodies at a constant rate. When the brain interprets repetitive vibration, it creates the neural pathway of understanding around that vibration, which is why we can selectively block out sound we don’t need to hear, e.g. the hum of fluorescent lights or the whir of a computer. But when a random pattern occurs, such as a loud noise behind us, we immediately adjust our focus to comprehend what made that sound, where it is in relation to us, and question if we are in danger. 

The sympathetic nervous system is one of the two divisions of the autonomic nervous system, which regulates the unconscious actions of the body. The sympathetic nervous system’s primary process is to stimulate the fight-or-flight response. A loud sound will stimulate not just the cochlea but also the entire inner ear. And the louder the sound, the less a human being is concerned with consonance or dissonance, or linguistic meaning. After a really loud sound occurs, our focus is on our well-being in the situation. You physically manifest this by your motor controls being startled and producing sweat from the chemical reaction of fear. If the loud sound is repeated, a neural pathway within your brain is built based on this experience, and the effect will diminish with use.

The absence of sound draws attention as well. If you’ve entered into a sound-deadened room, such as an isolation booth, you immediately remark about how quiet it feels without the reverberation of your own voice. After a few minutes, you start registering low-level vibrations, or perhaps a slight hiss that could be the molecules bouncing around in your head. Perhaps you tune into your own breathing or heartbeat, and suddenly it’s all you hear. It’s then that we feel the need to have some sound in our environment; this shows how dependent we are on disregarded background noise. Once it’s taken away, the brain is either waiting for what is going to happen next (in an environment someone else is controlling) or the brain will make its own noise such as singing or talking to yourself to help fill in what is missing (in an environment of which you are in control). This is because there is a link between executive decision-making regions of your brain and the perception centers that are interpreting what you are hearing.

Associational Response

Sound that is meaningful produces an emotional response due to what we perceive as the effect upon us. Emotions are expressed in body language and physiological changes. Changes to the body can be sensed and are a window into human reaction. All of this has evolved within the brain as it responds to stimuli without conscious awareness of it. You can actually see how people are responding to sound through their body language. The limbic system, which controls our basic emotions and cannot be specifically located in any area of the brain, controls the amount of arousal. It also is the place of association of stored memories and historical experiences. Therefore, we can conclude that the limbic system determines which aspects of the emotional response to the experience you will remember in the future.

All of our past experiences have been categorized and memorized so that when we hear a certain song, or even the harmonics of a specific instrument, it will remind us of something we have experienced in our past. This is an association, and sound and music can be a very effective way to remember not only how we felt in the past but bring us to different times and places. Birdsong will transport us outside in the daytime, while crickets will bring us to afternoon/evening time. Sleigh bells remind us of winter, and the crunch of leaves brings us to autumn. And all the subsequent feelings of being transported are then felt by those who are hearing those sounds.

What we as sound designers do is construct the effect upon people in environments. We can do that with a subliminal shifting of feeling or mood, and we can overwhelm with immersion of sound. Both elicit emotional response. And when aural components are deliberate, detailed, and synchronous to intention, few will consciously recognize the motivation behind an emotional shift. The goal is to be in sync with all elements of the expression of the visual aspects so that one element is not singled out unless specifically intended. Aural awareness remains subtle, often unconscious, and seldom recognized. And whether designed, or by accident, the aural space around us affects our mood and behavior.

The Architects

Aural architect

An aural architect is someone who is acting as an artist and a social engineer, selecting specific attributes of the space based on the desirable effect. This can be described in opaque language derived from the concepts, values, and vocabulary of a particular culture. The aural architect focuses on the way the listeners experience the sound waves in the space.

Acoustic architect

An acoustic architect is someone who builds, engineers, or implements the aural attributes selected by the aural architect. Acoustic design is the manipulation of spatial geometries and physical objects using mathematical equations and the science of physics. The acoustic architect focuses on how the physical properties of sound waves are altered by the space.

 

Sound designers think on the levels of both aural and acoustic architectural design to achieve their goals. What we do as designers is use technology to reproduce environments that are not normally amplified through a sound system.

Because modern culture is fundamentally focused on visual response, there is little appreciation to the value of the art of auditory spatial awareness. However, sound design can make visual design come to life and give more meaning to the visual sensory response by adding the spatial acoustics that accompany what we see.

We create aural richness when the physical design and the cultural context are combined. We can arouse excitement or invoke tranquility; we can create isolation; we can promote socialization or isolation; and we can stimulate aesthetic pleasure. To be excellent at sound design is to be a aware of the depth of the phenomenology of aural space.