SOUND and SPACE -issues of design -19

Post 661 -by Gautam Shah


Philharmonie im Gasteig, München Wikipedia Image by Andreas Praefcke

A space is perceived through three main senses -seeing, hearing and touching. The three senses mutually compensate and reinforce the perception. The perception occurs through coordinated stereo perception of sensory elements like two eyes and ears, and spatially distributed elements for touch. All three senses, scale the extent and depth of space. Physiologically, hearing diminishes with distance; seeing fades with reduction of illumination and touch becomes ineffective with the loss of tangency. Psychologically, however, the all three experiences remain associated with places, spaces, seasons, moods and people. The three senses format the perception of space. The space experience gets reinforced by the lingering effects like echoes, reverberation, and afterimages.

A group of musicians; representing the sense of hearing

Sound dwells in two distinct entities: space and time. The realm of a sound originator -the speaker, a singer, perceives substantial sound from the same space –the vicinity. The world of listeners is spatially separated and distinct, but has slight time delay. This duality is negotiated with some form of calibrations to arrive at common perception. The musicians and speakers tune and improvise once inside a space and begin to deliver. Oftentimes, we shout in to the telephone, believing the reception at the other end is equally bad. Similarly pauses in speech or music by the sound originator, if occupied by other ’disturbances’ (echoes, reverberated sounds, background noises, local absorption), the equation between the listener and sound maker fails. This is one of the reasons why it is nearly impossible to faithfully record a real out of the door profile of sound. What we listen in a place is ‘a convolution between the original sound and response of the room.


Sound is a spatial entity. Sound-spaces are associated with shapes, sizes, materials and memories. In outdoor unbounded spaces the environmental elements like terrain, components of atmosphere and vegetation are modulators of the sound. In the long run these elements format the quality of speech and singing of people of the locality are affected by the surroundings. In ethnic societies the diction gets reinforced, whereas with migrants, it persists in traces for several generations.

The sense of Hearing in ART

The sound is also a temporal phenomenon, a dynamic happening. The sound-happening persist for a very long time and spreads through cutouts, chowks, openings like doors and windows, gaps, cleavages, holes and cracks. Sounds have an eerie feeling in empty spaces due to unpredictable time delays, amplification and directionality. The time-sound response in such spaces fudges the scale and materials. Cluttered spaces have loss of detail due to subjugation of background noises. The connect with external noises provide eventual reference to the personal domain.


Sound in architecture is heard through the physical presence and sensitivity. Sound induces emotional connect and sensual responses. Inside or outside, materials, scale, memory and familiarity, all create a ‘sense of sound. The sound acquires a personal identity. Sound is both a ‘tangible and intangible sensational atmospheric quality’. It allows the individual to physically hear, as well as feel and sense the characteristics present in architecture. So, Sound like the illumination helps in cognition of the spatial information, and these processes occur concurrently and reinforcing each other. Hearing and seeingenable us to communicate, to orient ourselves, and to recognize danger.

Familiar Spaces Hunter's home, by Henry Voordecker

Peter Zumthor outlines that, “Interiors are like large instruments, collecting sound, amplifying it, transmitting it elsewhere. That has to do with the shape peculiar to each room and with the surface of materials they contain, and the way those materials have been applied.” (Atmospheres, p. 29).

Peter Zumthor

The simultaneity of images and sounds is most important aspect of communication for cinema, advertisements, multi-media presentations, games, products, telephony etc. to construct or mask the reality. Typically pressing buttons needs concurrency of tactile, audio, and visual experiences, and these may not be real or life-like but one that arouses satisfaction of an action happening. In certain aural-visual environments like games, films, TV programmes, telephony, medical examination equipments, the visual data is too consistent, but is variegated by addition of sounds as feedback or feed forward clues. Similarly addition of beats or predictable rhythms adds measurable familiarity.

Marionettes from the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre, New York, USA production of Cinderella Samba

Sound is transitory, so the rate of fading and its directionality, as ‘aural impressions’ must become elements of design. But rarely architectural spaces are created for the ‘sound-scape’. Many sound-space installations are created, some in bounded and many in open areas. Bounded spaces are handled with uncertain volumetric maneuvers and surface manipulations’, or with gadgetry to alter the quality of sound production. Open spaces are more scary as the volume is not maneuverable and surfaces beyond the echo-reverberation range. Here too, the gadgetry is used to alter the quality of sound, but effects are sporadic.

Instrument Musical Clarinet Sound Music

A street or neighbourhood reveals itself more at night. The sounds impinging into the interior space with little variations of illumination (of moon light, street light glow, and vehicles head lights) bring forward the depth of the spatial surroundings. But human settlements are designed for visual and aural spaces of day-time only. The public spaces turn unfamiliar (and unfriendly) at night. At night the aural space seems more holistic then visual space, because sound seems to transcend many obstacles or barriers.

Lonely Place 2


This is the 19 th article of 20 topics series on ISSUES for DESIGN