By Julian Treasure, The Guardian
The Times has installed typewriter noise in its newsroom, just the latest attempt to use sound to affect us functionally.
Can sound really enhance office workers’ productivity? The Times thinks it can. The newspaper has installed the sound of oldfashioned typewriters in its newsroom, with the sound building to a crescendo at press deadline.
Sound powerfully affects us in four ways, even though we’re generally not conscious of them. Physiologically, sound alters all our rhythms, including heart rate, breathing, hormone secretions and even brainwaves. Psychologically, sound changes our moods and emotions. Cognitively, sound affects how well we can think and how productive we are. And behaviourally, sound affects what we do and where we do it: we move away from unpleasant sound if we can. Hearing is our primary warning sense, so sound goes very deep very fast – and since we have no earlids, our ears are working even while we sleep.
It’s dangerous to generalise about sound because many of its effects work through association. These can be universal: we all instinctively associate any sudden, unexpected noise with danger and react with a release of fight/flight hormones, while most people find sounds like gentle rainfall or birdsong calming and reassuring. But many associations are very personal: for example, Wayne Rooney’s need to have a vacuum cleaner or hair dryer on when he’s trying to go to sleep.
These associations tend to be forged in early childhood as our listening develops. Every individual’s listening is as unique as his or her fingerprints because we all listen through filters that develop from our personal mix of culture, language, values, beliefs, attitudes, expectations and intentions. That is why one person’s musical taste is another person’s hideous noise.
Most of the sound around us is accidental, unpleasant and counterproductive. We stand on street corners or sit in restaurants, yelling over 80dB of noise and pretending it doesn’t exist. In society, noise is costing billions, mainly through loss of sleep, which affects one in five Europeans. And in offices, bad sound reduces productivity as well as adversely affecting health.
Is music a solution? Sadly, piped music in so many public spaces is often just more noise.
Rarely is it carefully designed to enhance our experience; much more likely it is there because retailers have subscribed to an incorrect view that music makes people spend more. In fact, research has shown that fastpaced music generally speeds us up through a process known as entrainment, so we leave sooner and spend less – exactly the opposite of the effect the retailers desire. A 1998 NOP poll showed that a third of the UK public disliked piped music, increasing to a majority of those over 45 and those in the AB
social groups. This led one MP to try to ban piped music altogether.
Music is designed to be listened to, so it’s calling for attention all the time, syphoning off our very limited auditory bandwidth and elbowing aside our ability to listen to the voice in our head we need when we’re doing mental work. Of course, listening to music may make a boring task more fun and help get it done; equally, it may help sustain motivation so the work can go on longer, so there are probably trade offs here – and of course, everyone’s different, so there may indeed be some people who are far more productive when they are listening to death metal.
With that caveat, some useful rules of thumb are: slow-paced sound tends to relax; fast paced tends to stimulate; stochastic sound (lots of random events creating a wash of sound, like rainfall or office babble) tends to be good for working. The most distracting sounds are human conversation, telephones and alarms of any kind (hence the soundscapes in hospitals being disastrous for patient rest and sleep). Prolonged exposure to noise in excess of 65dB is not good for you – and over 85dB your employer must offer hearing protection.
Conscious sound design can definitely help us all to become more productive, healthier and happier. But in offices it needs to be designed after looking at the research available and installed by consensus on appropriate sound systems. Time will tell if the Times’ trial works, but my guess is that the sound won’t last without the staff agreeing to it.
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