The Evolving Science of Sound

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We all know that acoustics is the science of sound…but what is sound?

Acoustics is more than just sound science.  Acoustics drives well-being, health and comfort within many different spaces.  Unfortunately there really hasn’t been a lot of clarity on how to practically manage acoustics.

Whenever I talk about acoustics, I always come back to one simple question: What is sound?

And then my mind is dragged further into its never-ending abyss of rabbit-holes with a reflection in the smash 1993 Haddaway hit:

Oh baby, don’t hurt me

Don’t hurt me…no more.

Which interestingly enough is at the heart of what we are talking about when we talk about acoustics…we don’t realize how much sound is actually hurting us.  The purest definition of sound highlights that it is vibrations traveling through the air which are in turn heard due to our eardrums vibrating from this sound energy.  It is when these vibrations become irregular, loud or cause disturbance that they reach a point of discomfort—a point at which it becomes noise—and obstructs our ability to hear wanted sounds (yes, there are some sounds we do want to hear…).

The Harmful Effect of Noise

In some cases it directly impacts us in the way we feel by affecting our physical comfort or well-being, but in other ways it could be indirectly affecting our pocketbook by making us lose money through loss of reputation.  In either case, once we understand its impacts, we don’t want it to affect us anymore.  Whether you are trying to simply enjoy a space or design and create them, once you realize and understand how acoustics work and what its impact is…you want to avoid environments with bad acoustics.

The role of acoustics in how people learn, work and heal is considerable.

The role of acoustics in how people learn, work and heal is considerable. With that in mind, let’s take a look at a few key examples:

  • When ambient noise in a hospital reaches 65 decibels (dB), the risk of a patient suffering a heart attack increases. This is especially concerning as noise levels in some hospitals have been measured as high as 95 dB —roughly equivalent to the sound of a subway train at 200 feet.
  • In classrooms, if students can’t hear they can’t learn. A 20 dB increase in classroom noise has been shown to delay a student’s reading level by up to eight months.
  • Workplaces are at risk, as well. It’s not uncommon for productivity to drop as much as 66 percent when an employee can overhear nearby conversations while trying to read or write.

But what exactly do we mean by acoustics?  Acoustics is simply put: the science of sound.  Whether we are talking about producing it, transmitting it or the effects of sound—we are talking about acoustics.  But when does acoustics matter?  Is it during the construction of the building? During the design phase? After the building is constructed?  It actually matters during all phases of construction and this brings me to my next point…

So what is right and what is wrong

Gimme a sign

What is sound?

Managing Acoustics

We know that acoustics matters, but what is the best way to manage it?  What are the right details to focus on and what are the wrong ones?

As with many questions around acoustics, that answer is never quite that simple.  It sounds cliché to say, but quite often we find that there is really only one appropriate answer: it depends.  Acoustics is a combination of many things and many different products, systems and solutions and every space has different needs.  Even people have different needs at different stages in their lives.  The right vs. wrong solution depends on all of these things (and then some).  This is why communication across all parties is critical before, during and even well after the project has been completed1.

For an existing space, we can use a three step approach to control noise: (1) locate, (2) measure and (3) design.  First we have to determine where the noise is coming from and then we can measure its impact to the various components.  With this data-driven understanding, we can then recommend acoustical materials with sound absorption and/or sound reduction properties best suited to the particular application.  As noted, many different pieces come together to meet the acoustical needs of any project from the selection and choice of gypsum wallboard, to the need for insulation within the cavity, to the treatment selected for the ceiling and each component plays a part in meeting the goals of the project.

There are many players and many parts and only together can we solve our acoustical challenges.

Fortunately, there has been a lot of study and research done around acoustics and we have a much greater ability today to understand the impacts of various components.  We are much better equipped with predictive tools to anticipate how a wall, ceiling or space will perform acoustically and  at CertainTeed, we love to talk (and teach) acoustics and are continually hungry to learn more so please do not hesitate to reach out to us.

Understand that you are in control of letting bad acoustics hurt you; so before you embark on your next project, ask yourself one simple question: What is sound?

Have a question about acoustics? Leave it in the comments section. 

Plus, take a tour of our Listening Lounge, where designers and architects can compare sound solutions with a touch of a button.

  1. At CertainTeed, we have the unique opportunity of being able to experience this and continue to learn by working in a living laboratory (http://www.livinglaboratory.com/). We continue to develop innovative solutions to meet the needs of our customers by living through the acoustical challenges they are trying to solve every day.  We are also working to develop tools (e.g. virtual reality) and solutions to enhance the conversation around acoustics and the value it brings to the spaces we create.
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Product Manager | Building Science, Systems & Technical Marketing

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