Julian's blog: Sound workers unite!

November 11th, 2012
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I have in the last week presented to the Mozart & Science 2012 conference for music therapists, and to the Autumn conference of the UK Institute of Acoustics. My message to both was essentially that of my latest TED talk: that we need to start designing our built environments with our ears. The experience of meeting two such aligned and yet very different groups made me reflect on the effects of specialisation. As we focus and specialise, we can gain great depth in our own area, but we can also lose sight of the bigger picture.

The early scientists were polymaths, happy to leap from geology to cosmology, political philosophy or chemistry and then back again without a second thought. Today even the relatively small community of sound workers is divided into many specialisations, and very few of them are talking to one another. I believe there are great gains available if musicians, composers, sound designers, sound and music therapists, sonic artists, musicologists, music psychologists, aural ecologists, audio branding practitioners, audiologists, ENT specialists, acousticians, sound engineers, pro-AV and h-fi specialists and installers all start to communicate. Without doubt, there is deep wisdom and experience locked into all of these groups, but it is not being cross-fertlised at the moment.

Based on my experience this week, even groups as disparate as acousticians and music therapists care about very much the same things: the effects of sound and vibration on health, productivity and behaviour. Across all of the sound worker groups, there is a shared passion for sound: to know it fully and to better understand its relationship with human beings. We have so much to learn from one another, and through communication with one another we can enhance our perspective and perhaps transform the whole context for our own work. There are far more similarities than differences between us: we are all on the same road, so why not join hands and walk it together?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a single central website that connects us all? This could be a place where papers, thoughts and work can be posted, where people and organisations can find one another, and where resources can be linked to for the common good. The question is, who has the time and resources to create such a site? Maybe this forum can start this conversation and then we can see where it goes.

Even more important than sharing, we need to start speaking with one voice. We all care deeply about the sound of the world, but because most of its population are unconscious about sound’s effects on them, governments pay almost no attention to the subject. And so we have at best a little noise mapping and no action. We have a few low-level regulations, rarely enforced, about sound in buildings – even those as crucial as schools and hospitals – and our architects and designers care only about visual appearance, forgetting about aural experience. The effects of this institutional deafness are devastating.

If we sound workers are going to change this and get governments to start thinking about positive sound design rather than (at best) reactive noise control policy, we need to become a powerful lobby with a single message: sound matters and the costs of ignoring it are enormous.

The response to my TED talks on sound has been overwhelming, which proves to me that there is a great latent desire to reconnect with sound, to understand its effects and to listen more consciously to our environment and to one another. I believe we sound workers have a responsibility to awaken that desire. If we can do that, we will truly make the world a better place for generations to come.

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