Surrounded by Sound

Take a moment and listen. What do you hear? Often we are too busy in our lives to notice all of the sounds around us, let alone realize how they are affecting us.

Have you ever thought about why you love the sound of rain while your friend can’t stand it? Ever notice how your heart races when you hear a siren? These physiological, cognitive, psychological, and behavioral responses can be summarized as the psychology of sound.1


Sound can affect our hormone secretions, breathing, heart rate, and brain waves. Our response to sound depends on its characteristics — intensity, frequency, predictability, complexity, and length of exposure, as well as our interpretation of the meaning of the noise. Noise is different than sound. Noise pollution, as defined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is “unwanted or disturbing sound” and can diminish quality of life.

According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), the nonauditory effects of noise are:2

  • Increased stress
  • Sleeping problem
  • Annoyance
  • Mental health concerns
  • Cardiovascular function (hypertension, changes to blood pressure and/or heart rate)


Our ability to process sound is actually pretty low, which makes it hard to hear in background noise or while two people are talking at once. For example, sound consultant Julian Treasure claims that open-plan office spaces can reduce productivity by 66 percent.

In a study published in the British Journal of Psychology in 1998, researchers found that employers were incredibly distracted when they could hear others talking around them, and they were less able to perform their duties. Noise in the office is also associated with increased stress hormone levels and a lower willingness to participate with others.3

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports occupational hearing loss is one of the most common work-related illnesses in the United States. Twenty-two million workers are exposed to potentially damaging noise each year. Many people don’t realize they have a hearing loss until it’s too late. Even then, you might not realize your hearing has gotten worse because you no longer have a reference point for understanding what healthy hearing is.4


Music has the strongest emotional impact of any type of sound for two reasons: It’s easily recognizable and easy to associate. However, it’s not the only kind of sound that affects emotional state. Birds chirping is an example: In our primitive days, birdsong was generally a reassuring sound. When the forest became quiet, that’s when it was time to worry.

About 48 million people in the United States alone have significant hearing loss. Those who seek treatment often see improvement in their overall health.5

  • New hearing aid users experience less anxiety after starting hearing aid use.
  • Hearing aid users experience a reduction in depression, as measured by a geriatric depression scale.
  • Hearing aid use is shown to improve generic and hearing-related quality of life.


Sounds — whether they are pleasant, intense, or annoying — can change our behavior. A fire alarm gets your attention and makes you want to get away from the sound. Contrast that with what you do when you hear your favorite singer live in concert (hopefully you’re dancing!).

Ever wondered why some people have a strong reaction to sounds? It’s called misophonia. This condition is defined as the hatred of sound; however, “a person with misophonia does not simply hate all sound. People with misophonia have specific symptoms and triggers and are sensitive only to certain sounds (and occasionally to visual triggers). Any sound can become a problem to a person with misophonia, but most [often the troubling sounds] are some kind of background noise.” These sounds can trigger people to have an instant, emotional response. When someone’s trigger set (the sounds that set them off) is heard, the person can have a wide variety of reactions from annoyance to panic or anger. This kind of response is like a siren or an alarm to the person with misophonia, and they may urgently try to distance themselves or become agitated.6

Did You Know?

  • Ocean waves have the frequency of roughly 12 cycles per minute, which is soothing to most people. This is probably because that is roughly the frequency of the breathing of a sleeping person; there is a deep resonance with being at rest. We also associate it with being stress free and on holiday.
  • When the London Underground started playing classical music at a crime-heavy station, robberies fell by 33% while assaults on staff dropped 25%, says The Independent.7

“If you’re listening consciously, you can take control of the sound around you. It’s good for your health [and] for your productivity,” says Treasure. Contact us today to take control of the sound around you.

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