How we built our homes around sound.

Interiors 5th Jan 2021 7 mins
Felicity Haythorn

It’s easy to take sound for granted. 

Those of us lucky enough to be in possession of our hearing spend much of our time either not listening, practicing the art of “selective hearing” (as my mum always used to say about my dad’s skills in that department) or trying – either out of necessity or frustration – to block out the sounds of the world around us entirely. We pick and choose when we listen and what we listen to – even (or, perhaps, especially) at home. 

What we don’t tend to think about, though, is how the spaces we occupy are designed – in both respects – not only to accommodate these desires, but to facilitate them.

In a recent article on the architecture, art and interiors platform The Spaces – which, if you’re not familiar, is a more-or-less guaranteed dopamine hit for anyone even remotely aesthetically-minded – writer Harriet Partridge compiles a list of “10 buildings with extraordinary acoustics,” and makes note of what, exactly, makes them all so sonically special. These structures – as impressive as they are varied – range from the forest megaphones of Estonia to the Fertőrákos Cave Theatre in Hungary to the Music Hall of the Āli Qapu Palace in Iran. In short: a fascinating collection of breathtaking feats of acoustic engineering. 

What Partridge hasn’t selected, though, is a single home. It’s an understandable omission: everything that did make the cut is dedicated to sound – both as a profound, abstract concept and as a physical reality. 

But our homes, in their own way, while perhaps not constructed in service to sonics, are equally built around sound.

"Our houses, when we’re trying to work in the middle of the day, are not necessarily the quiet haven they present themselves to be in those later hours when the only goal is succumbing to sleep."

In a BBC article from 2019, author Lakshmi Sandhana begins by writing that the “acoustic properties of our houses, offices and public spaces can have a major impact on how comfortable we find them and may even affect the way we behave.” It’s a fairly innocuous opener, as they go, but it points to a certain universal truth: sound is powerful. It can bring comfort and distress. 

It doesn’t take a serious case of misophonia for a slight shift in the balance to throw your whole day off: a colleague whistling thoughtlessly or eating their lunch at what either is or feels like an egregious volume. These things are, it’s fair to say, universally irritating. By that same turn, a familiar voice or piece of music can conjure up instant and irrepressible joy. Sonic swings and roundabouts, really.

Presently, many of us are — if not quite literally — confined to our homes and have been forced to confront the reality of the sonic bubble in which we live. Our houses, when we’re trying to work in the middle of the day, are not necessarily the quiet haven they present themselves to be in those later hours when the only goal is succumbing to sleep. 

There is, it seems, no escape: outside — cars, roadworks, alarms and sirens of all kinds. Inside — loud pipes, the television, pots and pans clanking violently through a once-homely atmosphere. But small changes can make a big difference. 

How we built our homes around sound

When I first moved into this apartment, on a busy road in South East London, I was surprised. I was surprised how little of the outside world seeped into my new sanctuary, and I was equally surprised how much noise one person can make doing not very much at all in an empty room with hard floors. I hadn’t yet bought a sofa and I certainly didn’t have anything you might call “soft furnishings.” Rugs, I had decided, were for the weak.

Except, it turns out, rugs are for people who like a little peace and quiet. As are cushions, throws and — well — furniture of any kind, really. As Sandhana writes: “You can hear an empty room. You can find out if it has low ceilings and where its walls are just by the way sound reflects off these surfaces. Think of the echoing noise the click of a heel makes on a marble floor as opposed to the muffled padding from someone walking on thick carpet.”

It’s a lesson hard-learned. Our homes are built around sound: proper insulation, thicker glazing, well-constructed seals on the doors and windows – all of these are built to keep sound out and, without them, the difference is palpable. Try watching TV on a main road in London with your windows improperly locked; it’s a sonic nightmare of the most frustrating kind. 

But all these things, these modern acoustic conveniences, they also keep sound in while the rooms of your home are designed — unless specifically otherwise — to carry and facilitate that sound. This makes sense: conversation is a huge part of our daily lives, after all. But, still, it can be a bit much. 

"Buildings built with sound in mind are wonderful, beautiful things — churches, secular or otherwise, in monument to acoustic theism."

So, what can you do to keep your sonic sphere in the perfect equilibrium?

Well, as with most things, there are the simple answers and answers that require a little more imagination. Or, at least, a little more technology. 

The most obvious answer, as mentioned before, is rugs – or something similarly plush. By some wonderful alchemy of interior design, soft furnishings on hard surfaces seem to stop the bouncing of soundwaves in their tracks. It’s not a particularly high-tech solution, but if you want to keep road noise out and calm the ricocheting of your own dulcet tones, the answer is clear: get curtains or some really thick blinds.

On the other, more futuristic, end of things the answer is — bear with me here — more noise. Just, and again bear with me, the kind of noise you can’t actually hear. See; noise cancelling headphones work by playing noise back into your years at an inaudible frequency which effectively blocks out the world at large. It’s brilliant: it’s a recipe for being hit by a bus, but it’s brilliant. 

In your own home, however, unless something’s gone really, horribly wrong, there are no buses. But, despite the lack of public transport, you can buy speakers which act just like those headphones — cancelling out the excess sounds and creating a warm little sonic cocoon to your own specifications. Neat, right? 

So, the long and the short of it is: buildings built with sound in mind are wonderful, beautiful things — churches, secular or otherwise, in monument to acoustic theism. But the home is something else entirely; sound simply happens here, like it or not. But your home is what you make it. Your own, private chapel awaits.