When we want to vividly communicate an experience, we usually default to our strongest sense: sight. Visual images are excellent communicators of objective information. They instantly present what something is, but often fail to detail what that something is actually like in real life.
A picture is a limited, two-dimensional container of information. Artists continuously circumvent this limitation by controlling the information they capture. They do this by building sets, arranging objects, and manipulating photons, to name a few. This often adds a new layer of emotion to the image and gives the viewer a sense of what it’s like to actually be there.
Sound works in the same way.
The importance of considering sound
“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” – psychologist Abraham Maslow.
To say the least, we are pretty good at all things visual to the point that we often neglect our other super power: hearing. Even “silent” films use music to add emotion to the moving pictures.
By evoking specific feelings, sound can transmit fragments of an experience. However unlike visual images, sound requires more time to develop its message.
Try the following. Without any narrative, many of us can visualize where the following audio was recorded and what is happening. And yes, there really was a cat there, too.
Noise is a result of the mind trying to sort out the content from a cacophony of sounds, so it can build a coherent image. Focused conscious sorting can help reduce the unconscious brain’s workload. But constant dissonance can wear out a brain’s energy.
In fact, prolonged exposure to neglected acoustic environments will make an entire mass of people develop reading difficulties, long-term memory loss, and other psychological disorders.
Dissonance in itself is not necessarily bad; it simply forces us to direct our attention.
The following is a Viennese crosswalk. Vienna is famous for its musical history, so there’s no surprise the city knows what it’s doing when it comes to sound. The mechanical ticking is part of the crosswalk signaling that helps not only the blind, but anyone who’s not really paying attention. Note the dissonant tick (and try to differentiate the Maserati and motorcycle from the cars).
It’s no coincidence that sound is directly connected to our psychology and emotions. Hearing was our ancestor’s early-warning system. Interestingly, the sound of a twig snapping falls right in the frequency range where we are best at hearing. Sound, in various degrees, can cause stress or encourage calm, push or pull our attention.
To gain “peace of mind” from dissonance, we clumsily remove unwanted sound. We tend to think of it in terms of quantity – having a lot, having some, having none. This line of thought gives us a simple formula: no unwanted sound = good. But even total silence can be unnerving. It’s like there’s no way to win, so we put on some white earbuds and fight it out in the Loudness War.
The core issue is not the quantity but the quality of sound. Besides amplitude, the sonic content has an enormous impact on our minds. Sonic waves produce images that we cannot see, and their complicated structures require several parts of our brain to decipher. If these structures are nonsensical to the brain, they encourage stress. Stress is our signal that we should be repelled.
Ancient Greek philosophers knew very well the connection between these sonic structures and the mind. Plato argued away certain structures because he thought it would drive people insane (maybe he had a point!). He argued for “useful” structures – useful meaning for political motives: if you wanted your people to go to war, play sounds in Dorian scale; if you wanted them to relax, play sounds in Phrygian scale.
Constructing a sound stage
Those ancient ideas gave insights into the environmental imprints that sounds contain. These ideas were used to construct edifices around spacial shapes, most prominently used in European cathedrals and reached their height during the Renaissance, where soundscapes along with landscapes were considered during urban area designs. Harmonizing these spaces with the daily humdrum made people want to be there.
Cathedral builders used architectural techniques to build a space in which a sound appeared as if it were rising into the sky. Pay attention at how the following sound transforms in this Viennese church:
If this coin were dropped in a flat-walled, box-shaped room, the sound would appear to vanish without motion.
In the quantitative approach, when we want people to be in a place, we tend to make the sonic space rather clinical and mechanical by removing and squaring off spaces. An escape to the silence of a lounge can be an antidote to daily dissonant sounds, like this *cough* relaxing lounge in the Boston airport:
In contrast, all sorts of sounds can be bouncing around and still grant a much more desirable experience as long as, like the photo/video artist crafting a set, the environment was crafted around expected and desired noises. For example, ordering some wine in a noisy restaurant in Venice doesn’t have to be unpleasant:
Being aware and carefully crafting the space between the sound’s source and its receiver reduces stress-causing dissonance and makes the content easier for the mind to digest, which opens up a clearer, uninterrupted channel for transmitting fragments of an experience. Sound carries with it an imprint of space that can be used to help “transport” the audience.
When the sounds, timing, and sonic space are all harmonious, we call it music.