The sound in the spaces around us has a history. Princeton University professor and author of The Soundscape of Modernity Emily Thompson studies that history. Thompson says that what we hear in the world and the way we listen result from architectural methods, technological innovations and even the culture at large.
Artist: Build Buildings
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And, I'm Bob Garfield. We're back with this week's show about spaces. Spaces can be constructed with bricks or mortar – or sound. Princeton University professor Emily Thompson studies the history of sound. Whether in a newsroom, an office building, a concert hall or the street outside your window, what we hear in our daily lives, our soundscape, is an evolving product of technological innovations, architectural methods and even the culture at large.
In her book, The Soundscape of Modernity, Thompson charts this evolution. Emily, welcome to the show. EMILY THOMPSON: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me. BOB GARFIELD: Throughout the course of the last two centuries, the sound landscape has changed pretty dramatically. For one thing, I guess, it's gotten louder, hasn't it? EMILY THOMPSON: It's hard to answer that question because until a noise meter was invented, we don't have sort of a standard measure by which we can compare the level of loudness in the world today with say, what it was 200 years ago.
But I think you're right. With the development of modern technologies, industrial technology, suddenly the noise of machinery really kind of overpowers the noise of human life and natural life.
And certainly in early 20th century America, with subways and subway excavation and skyscrapers being built into the sky, and the noise of trucks and cars, whether it's louder or not, people respond to it differently because of the kind of noise that it is. BOB GARFIELD: Now, you wrote about Symphony Hall and you've written about Radio City Music Hall, and these are the convergence between acoustics and architecture. They're magnificent buildings, in addition to being acoustically advanced.
There's another innovation which I connect with the '50s but which persists like a cold sore, and that is the acoustical tile. Do you like the acoustical tile? EMILY THOMPSON: Well, I appreciate it. The acoustical tile was a very different kind of physical artifact when it first appeared sort of in the 1920s and 1930s, when American culture is really kind of obsessed with the notion of efficiency. And industrial psychologists did experiments that proved that when people were exposed to unnecessary noise their productivity went down.
So, there was a particular desire in work settings to find sound-absorbing materials that would get rid of the unnecessary noise. And the materials out of which acoustical tiles were made were some of the most sound-absorbent materials around. And the tiles fit with the architectural aesthetic at the time. It was a high tech solution to a problem that was considered both pervasive and serious.
But our attitudes towards sound change over time, and, you know, today, you know, they, in the worst case, characterize what we call the sick building syndrome. And everything that was a solution to problems back in the '20s and '30s is now a problem itself. BOB GARFIELD: Well sure, because they didn't realize that they were sucking the very souls from their lives. EMILY THOMPSON: [LAUGHS] And many of those tiles, unfortunately, were packed full of what was considered a miracle substance in the '20s - BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS]
EMILY THOMPSON: - asbestos. [LAUGHS] [LAUGHTER] We've learned a lot since then. BOB GARFIELD: Now, we've talked about the volume of the soundscape and try to deaden or obliterate [LAUGHS] the soundscape. There's one other category that fascinates me, and that is trying to alter it, whether in a shopping mall or an elevator, where easy listening music is wafting in the background, or in a casino, where they, I'm told, pipe in the sounds of slot machines. [LAUGHS] EMILY THOMPSON: [LAUGHS] BOB GARFIELD: Are there many examples of adding sound to an environment in order to change the mood of the people within it? EMILY THOMPSON: Well, this is another technology that actually goes back to the 1920s, because it seems that as soon as people created those soundproofed silenced rooms, they were a little too quiet for comfort, and they began immediately to think about how to pipe sound back into those spaces.
And the origins of Muzak actually come from this period, as well. The original Muzak was a technology for piping music into workspaces. And the intention was to manipulate the energy level of the workers to try to obtain maximum productivity out of them, so that maybe in the morning, when they had their energy stored up, you might actually have calming music so that they'd start at a more moderated pace that they could sustain throughout the day. So it was all about productivity and efficiency.
But at some point, as we became people defined more by what we bought, rather than what we made, Muzak was really kind of reformulated as a commodity that could be piped into spaces of consumption.
A lot of stores use the music to kind of help create the lifestyle image they're trying to promote through their merchandise. I've also heard of more insidious uses [LAUGHS] of store sound. I don't know if they're true or not, but I'm told that some of the stores that focus on sort of adolescent clothing will play really loud, really current music, which is not only intended to attract the teenagers but to keep the parents out of the store -
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHING] EMILY THOMPSON: - so that they'll just turn over the credit card and let the kid loose.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, in fact, there was a case in East Lansing, Michigan maybe five or six years ago where a guy didn't like the college kids hanging out on his street corner, so he piped classical music [LAUGHS] to the corner. EMILY THOMPSON: [LAUGHS] BOB GARFIELD: And, sure enough, they scattered. I want to ask you one final thing because we've been talking about the sound environment, and we are in a period of environmentalism. And sound is on the laundry list of pollutants that some people are just trying to obliterate. Can you explain the phenomenon? EMILY THOMPSON: In the 1970s, which was another period where there was kind of an organized movement against noise, it was characterized as noise pollution. And we seem to kind of be experiencing a resurgence of some of those ideas today.
And the recent case about the musicians in the Bavarian Orchestra, their conductor chose not to perform a newly commissioned piece because the sound level was detrimentally loud and was damaging the musicians' hearing, is an interesting, unusual example of a more general problem, which is protecting workers from overexposure to loud sounds. BOB GARFIELD: It seems intuitive that there's an entire generation or two of rock music fans who would go to live performances and leave not being able to hear a thing. Has there been any long-term effect to the Baby Boomer generation and subsequent ones from constant exposure to, you know, entertainment? EMILY THOMPSON: Hm, I've noticed there is an increasing number of ads for hearing aids appearing in general interest magazines now, and they're sort of marketing them as a hip new cool technology, which seems to be what the Boomers like to do. When something becomes necessary for them, they make it cool, and then it's not so bad. BOB GARFIELD: Emily, thank you so much. EMILY THOMPSON: You're welcome. BOB GARFIELD: Emily Thompson is a professor of history at Princeton University and author of The Soundscape of Modernity.