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Architects need to start using their ears

So says sound consultant Julian Treasure in his TED talk.

Julian Treasure

Julian Treasure's TED Talk, "Why architects need to use their ears" struck a chord with me. Our noisy living and working environments create stress, precisely because architects routinely ignore the consequences of acoustics in their work. Treasure put it this way: "Architects design with their eyes rather than their ears -- which means that spaces generally look great and sound terrible." I always thought the same, but it was nice to hear someone as well spoken as Treasure put it so succinctly.

Treasure believes that of all the senses, hearing is the one that has suffered the most. Noise pollution has taken its toll and raises stress levels and reduces productivity. In the workplace Treasure notes that "You are one-third as productive in open-plan offices as in quiet rooms." School classrooms with lots of reflective hard surfaces are too reverberant, so the students sitting just a few rows back from the teacher will have a hard time understanding what's being said. How can we fix this mess? The solutions aren't rocket science: carefully designed acoustics and strategically applied sound absorbing materials can significantly improve intelligibility. Sometimes the din is intentional -- too many restaurants are purposely designed to be noisy to create a sense of energy and buzz, but Treasure believes that trend has peaked and quieter eateries will come back into fashion. I hope he's right.

In his work as a sound consultant Treasure advises clients to avoid using background music in stores and public spaces. Music invariably raises the noise level of the space. Treasure believes that listening to music as background to other activities such as reading or working has marked a fundamental shift in the way we experience music. I agree; music is rarely the primary focus. There are two kinds of people: ones who can occasionally listen to recorded music without multitasking, and those who just have music "on." Nowadays that applies to live music concerts, where a significant cross section of the audience is more engaged by their devices than by the music. It's background, even when the music is right there in front of them.

When we chatted last week, Treasure said he enjoys the increasing availability of high-resolution music, precisely because the better the sound, the more likely the listener will be engaged by the music on headphones, desktop monitors, or hi-fi speakers. Treasure says, "Go for the best quality you can, and really listen to the music." The more closely you listen, the more you'll get out of music. Treasure sums it up this way: "Listening is an active skill, hearing is passive."

Julian Treasure is the chairman of The Sound Agency, a firm that advises businesses -- offices, retailers, and hotels -- on how to use and control sound.