HEARING and interior spaces

Post 383 – by Gautam Shah



Hearing reveals multiple facets of architectural spaces through a very comprehensive experience. The experience is not focussed like vision, but substantially includes many convergent audio ‘effects’. This effects have clueless or orientation-less feel. Visual knowledge is more metrical compared to hearing which is abstract.


A normal person relies more on directed visual clues than diverse audio feeds. This is because visual information can be perceived and processed faster, whereas the audio cognition needs sustained understanding of the space making elements.

abandon_alley_architecture_black_city_corridor_dark_derelict-1358067.jpg!dThe audio information in a space is made of: 1. Direct sounds, 2. Reverberated sounds from different distances, surfaces and directions and, 3. background noises that enter the space. The hearing becomes more complex, when sounds get mixed to depress or enhance certain frequencies.


The space making elements, such as materials and their surfaces, the shape and the size, format the space hearing experience. This was realized from primitive times. Architectural spaces were exploited (rather than designed a fresh) for the hearing related inherent space facilities. This was possible with sporadic success. Acoustics for new spaces were always an unpredictable exercise.


Continuous use of known spaces, sizes, and shapes give a predictable audio experience. Religious buildings, amphi theatres, meeting halls, were such oft repeated works. The visual and tactile knowledge of the space helped mould it for hearing. Opera and concert spaces were fine tuned for such combined sensorial experiences.



Opera and concert halls over a period have fashioned the architecture of sound transmission exploiting the shape and size, beyond the surface qualities. Parabolic ceilings, inclined walls, convergent or conical forms were involved in interior articulation of the space. Even then within a space there were great many locally variegated experiences. A church, concert hall or assembly hall always had few pockets of poor hearing.


In all large spaces the spatial experience was moulded by direct and reverberated sound synchronized with relevant visual clues. Greek and Roman theatres were designed to bring the audiences closer to the stage so that audio-visual experience would become one. These were reinforced with loud and emphatic dialogue delivery, use of extra ordinarily flocked dresses and highly articulated postures and gestures. These traditions also continued in dramas, operas and other musicals. The techniques were, however, not freely applicable in sombre religious ceremonies.



For Peter Zumthor the 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.’ Corridors or passages are considered eerie places, not just due to poorly lit and unexciting architecture but the sound quality.

glacier-and-hiker-725x482Hearing nothing is like hearing through sea shell that re-transmits all sounds baffled by a wall and its labyrinth form. The Pantheon or cave recall this ‘absence or absorption’ of sounds. Architectural acoustics was once about managing the outside noises and inside sounds. The former was solved by isolation from surroundings, and the later by spatial modulation.Trees barriers

Modern technology of hearing, deals with the presence and absence of sounds, in the work places. One may not desire to eavesdrop a colleague talking to another co-worker or a wife at home. In highly insulated work space the complete absorption of such noise is as much a problem as the inability to suppress such sounds. These are now managed by adding additional sounds (white noise) through special type of speakers. The speakers output sounds in set frequency range to cancel (sound making – white noise) out the irritant sound presences.





Post -by Gautam Shah

The tonal quality of spoken language or sound is determined by many factors like social history and ethnic affinity. It is also formed by dominant building forms, materials and the physical environment factors like terrain, topography, (plains, coastal, valleys, lake fronts, forest, deserts). The quality of speech-sound is acutely affected by the environment one dwells in or aspires to be with.


There is a saying in Gujarat, India that every 20/25 km Speech varies. Such ‘Socio-linguistics’, can happen syntactically, lexically, and phonologically. The Phonology relates to the systems of phonemes or the organization of sounds in a language.

“Sound is a spatial event, a material phenomenon and an auditive experience rolled into one. It can be described using the vectors of distance, direction and location. Within architecture, every built space can modify, position, reflect or reverberate the sounds that occur there. Sound embraces and transcends the spaces in which it occurs, opening up a consummate context for the listener: the acoustic source and its surroundings unite into a unique auditory experience.” -– OASE (https://www.oasejournal.nl/en/Issues/)



People (fishermen) who stay close to a sea coast are affected by the continuous splashing sound of waves. Similarly villagers staying in a valley often bear the echoing effect of the mountain range, whereas in plain desert land there is complete absence of bouncing sounds. People living on a very busy-noisy street have to talk louder and that habit remains with them for a very long time.

Sea coast


True colour of human speech comes about by intra vowel-consonants pauses, vowel and consonant utterance lengths and preferred frequency combinations, intra word pauses, phrasing, etc. When a language is spoken in different terrains each, creates its own variants. Human speech variants develop according to the environment one resides, and specifically how one listens to own speech sounds. This is perhaps the reason why children with deficient hearing capacity often have poor speech formation.


It is also true that people tend to accept the speech sound they can make as the perfect one, which may not be true. Teachers have better speech quality, as they have more opportunities to improvise. Similarly an American child or for that matter any child of a well to do family, bred in media culture is better attuned to a style of talking that is correct for good projection. Next generation of children are going to be more articulate than their parents or other non media children.

Speech intelligibility is a function of space. Space not only defines how the speech will be listened to, but also how the speaker or musician will improvise the output.



In Indian classical music concerts (vocal and instrumental) we have seen masters tuning the musical instruments, drums on stage, in front of the audience. This is often irritating to many, but in reality the musician is attuning the sound for that space and environment (moisture, temperature and air movement currents). The Alap in Indian music, the first rendering that is without the drum beats, is also attuning for the space and environment. Most Western concerts or Pop singers spend hours on the ground testing position of the speakers, their location and pitch of a sound etc. to attune to the site conditions.



Most experienced speakers and stage actors have the capacity to instantly modulate their output according to the quality of space. For example, if the background noise is high, the speaker will raise the voice and change the tonal quality (change the range of frequency to over come masking) or if there is a longer reverberation, the pauses between words are widened. Speakers also face the section of crowd they want the message to sink in. In group discussions, an experienced person automatically shifts to a ‘sound’ advantageous position. Seasoned actors during the rehearsals pick the nuances of stage positions and body posture to deliver an effective dialogue.


Effective sound delivery is closely related to how the speaker is perceived. For example on non visual space like the Radio or telephone a straight into the mike creates a steady delivery of sound, but a moving speaker (or the mike) carries the impression of a non-sincere person. Most of the TV anchors are taught to speak without moving their head or body. There was a time when the surroundings or space mattered a lot on the quality of Sound being carried, however, today the microphones can eliminate the background noise and also do some degree of micro balancing to eliminate the differences caused by shifting speaker or singer.




SOUND -as we listen

Postby Gautam Shah



SOUND is sensorial perception received mainly through the Ears, but often through the Skin of the body. The ears are on either side of the body, and so are able to distinguish the sound from left or right fields. The ears are able to distinguish pitch and intensity of the sound and thereby roughly determine the source, its distance and the nature of medium through which the sound has arrived.


In technical sense Sound is caused by the Mechanical disturbance in a solid, liquid or gaseous materials. These materials have varying degree of Elasticity to act as the sound transmitting medium. The vibrating objects could be the vocal cords of a person, string and sound board of a guitar or violin, tines of a tuning fork, or the diaphragm of a radio speaker. Music is formed of one fundamental frequency, and several other integral multiples of this basic frequency, called harmonics. A pure Tone of sound, composed of only one frequency is one that is produced by a striking fork.


Sound producing or vocal organs are many such as: lungs, windpipe, throat, larynx, nose and mouth “The vocal organs –are primarily for breathing and eating. The lungs act as bellows. The vocal cords or folds of the larynx vibrate as double reeds. The cavities of the throat, nasal sinuses, and mouth act as resonating chambers, with the size of the mouth cavity varied by jaw movement.”

Human voice is more versatile than any other musical instrument. Sarangi (Indian musical instrument which has guts -instead of wires, and played with a bow, its markers are created by pushing the gut upward over the fingers) emulates sounds that are closer to human voice.


Vibratory energy that is perceived by the human ear or the audible sound is termed as audio or sonic. Audible range of frequencies for a normal young person is 20 Hz to 20000 Hz (1 Hertz = 1 vibration/second). Very low frequency (infra sound lower then 20Hz) or very high frequency (ultra sound beyond 20000Hz) are not perceived by the human ear. Actual audio capacity of an individual person varies a lot. Intelligible human speech occurs in the range of 600 Hz and 4000 Hz.

Caissons_grave_DSC_5563ECThe ears of children respond to very high frequency sounds which by adulthood narrows to about 15-15000 Hz. The loss of hearing in adolescence, approximately 80 Hz every six months, becomes noticeable years later. An aged person may not hear high frequency sounds such as ticking of a watch or certain high frequency consonant sounds.

EdisonLaboratoryMusicRoom1905smHuman ear or mind has enormous capacity to discriminate and to extract the required information from the background noise and signals. The Noise -the unwanted range of Sound is below 200 Hz. However it cannot separate out sounds that are close either in frequency or in time. A human ear has greatest sensitivity between 100-4000 Hz.


General room noise masks the traffic noise, making it less noticeable, or the traffic noise may mask the conversation taking place in the room. It often happens that in an attempt to reduce the external sound penetration through efficient insulation, enhances the internally occurring noises. Inversely by eliminating all the internal noises one may enhance the effect of sounds arriving from outside.


A modern good quality PA system should be capable of 100 Hz to 6000 Hz and preferably 10000 Hz. For music the PA system should be 80 Hz to 10000 Hz and up to 15000 Hz for high quality theatre type of installation. Some sound equipments include loudness control by attempting a degree of compensation by boosting bass and possibly treble at low listening levels.


This means that if a sound is reproduced at a higher level than at which it was recorded, then the low frequencies will become relatively louder (speech will sound boomy). If it is reproduced at a lower level then it will sound `thin’ and lack bass (orchestra reproduced at a small room level).



SPACE PLANNING by Visual and Non-visual means

Post -by Gautam Shah



The personalization of a space achieved through visual means is very obvious as much as it is effective. However, use of non-visual sensorial effects for personalization of space are very subtle but equally effective. Non-visual sensorial effects are not easy to perceive, record, communicate and express.

640px-Standen_InteriorProfessional designers, in their conventional space planning, give consideration to parameters like auditory, olfactory, tactile and atmospheric factors such as the temperature and moisture, etc. This is because many of the visual means also provide non-visual sensorial effects, at specific position and under certain circumstances.


A lay person improvising own spaces finds it very difficult to replicate the use of non-visual sensorial effects. A lay person considers non visual sensorial effects at best as the reinforcing elements to visual means.



For professional designers as well as lay persons, the judgements on these counts are often speculative because effective results derive from accumulation of several factors.


  • For example, Visual and Auditory senses work in consonance, as both have a sense of scale and direction. In space planning one provides the clue about the other.


  • The selection and placement of furniture, furnishings and enrichments can change the visual space perception, whereas the surface treatments of the same elements can change the audio response.


  • Tactile sense requires one to be in proximity of the surface, yet the textures, nature of construction (hollow, foamed, micro undulations), etc. prompt the auditory response from a distance, and so pre-empt the perception.


  • Odours are perceived with air and its movements. Enclosed rooms filter the noise but reduce the chances of fresh air. This translates into ‘smelly or stagnant space’. A designer has to perceive a space planning layout with all these overlapping sensorial perceptions, and notions people have about it.


Other parameters such as the privacy, intimacy, well being, safety, security, seclusion and participation, are achieved through sensible space planning, but need space and time reinforcement through indicative means.


The purposes of space elements, their placement, composition, shape or size, are not very apparent to a casual visitor. However, such effects become apparent on the required occasion and situation with non-visual reinforcements.