TEDGlobal 2009

Julian Treasure: The 4 ways sound affects us

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Playing sound effects both pleasant and awful, Julian Treasure shows how sound affects us in four significant ways. Listen carefully for a shocking fact about noisy open-plan offices.

- Sound consultant
Julian Treasure studies sound and advises businesses on how best to use it. Full bio

Over the next five minutes,
00:15
my intention is to transform your relationship with sound.
00:17
Let me start with the observation that most of the sound around us is accidental,
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and much of it is unpleasant. (Traffic noise)
00:24
We stand on street corners, shouting over noise like this,
00:26
and pretending that it doesn't exist.
00:28
Well, this habit of suppressing sound has meant that our
00:31
relationship with sound has become largely unconscious.
00:33
There are four major ways sound is affecting you all the time,
00:36
and I'd like to raise them in your consciousness today.
00:39
First is physiological. (Loud alarm clocks)
00:42
Sorry about that. I've just given you a shot of cortisol, your fight/flight hormone.
00:47
Sounds are affecting your hormone secretions all the time,
00:50
but also your breathing, your heart rate -- which I just also did --
00:53
and your brainwaves.
00:56
It's not just unpleasant sounds like that that do it.
00:58
This is surf. (Ocean waves)
01:00
It has the frequency of roughly 12 cycles per minute.
01:02
Most people find that very soothing,
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and, interestingly, 12 cycles per minute
01:06
is roughly the frequency of the breathing of a sleeping human.
01:08
There is a deep resonance with being at rest.
01:11
We also associate it with being stress-free
01:13
and on holiday.
01:15
The second way in which sound affects you is psychological.
01:17
Music is the most powerful form of sound that we know
01:20
that affects our emotional state. (Albinoni's Adagio)
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This is guaranteed to make most of you feel pretty sad
01:25
if I leave it on.
01:27
Music is not the only kind of sound, however, which affects your emotions.
01:29
Natural sound can do that too.
01:32
Birdsong, for example, is a sound which most people
01:34
find reassuring. (Birds chirping)
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There is a reason for that. Over hundreds of thousands of years
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we've learned that when the birds are singing, things are safe.
01:40
It's when they stop you need to be worried.
01:43
The third way in which sound affects you is cognitively.
01:45
You can't understand two people talking at once ("If you're listening to this version of")
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("me you're on the wrong track.") or in this case one person talking twice.
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Try and listen to the other one. ("You have to choose which me you're going to listen to.")
01:52
We have a very small amount of bandwidth for processing auditory input,
01:55
which is why noise like this -- (Office noise) --
01:58
is extremely damaging for productivity.
02:00
If you have to work in an open-plan office like this,
02:03
your productivity is greatly reduced.
02:06
And whatever number you're thinking of, it probably isn't as bad as this.
02:08
(Ominous music)
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You are one third as productive in open-plan offices as in quiet rooms.
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And I have a tip for you. If you have to work in spaces like that,
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carry headphones with you, with a soothing sound like birdsong.
02:21
Put them on and your productivity goes back up to triple what it would be.
02:24
The fourth way in which sound affects us is behaviorally.
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With all that other stuff going on, it would be amazing
02:31
if our behavior didn't change.
02:33
(Techno music inside a car) So, ask yourself: Is this person ever going to drive
02:35
at a steady 28 miles per hour? I don't think so.
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At the simplest, you move away from unpleasant sound
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and towards pleasant sounds.
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So if I were to play this -- (Jackhammer) --
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for more than a few seconds, you'd feel uncomfortable;
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for more than a few minutes, you'd be leaving the room in droves.
02:51
For people who can't get away from noise like that,
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it's extremely damaging for their health.
02:56
And that's not the only thing that bad sound damages.
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Most retail sound is inappropriate and accidental, and even hostile,
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and it has a dramatic effect on sales.
03:04
For those of you who are retailers, you may want to look away
03:07
before I show this slide.
03:09
They are losing up to 30 percent of their business
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with people leaving shops faster, or just turning around on the door.
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We all have done it, leaving the area
03:17
because the sound in there is so dreadful.
03:19
I want to spend just a moment talking about
03:22
the model that we've developed, which allows us to start at the top
03:24
and look at the drivers of sound, analyze the soundscape
03:26
and then predict the four outcomes I've just talked about.
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Or start at the bottom,
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and say what outcomes do we want,
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and then design a soundscape to have a desired effect.
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At last we've got some science we can apply.
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And we're in the business of designing soundscapes.
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Just a word on music. Music is the most powerful sound there is,
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often inappropriately deployed.
03:45
It's powerful for two reasons. You recognize it fast,
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and you associate it very powerfully.
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I'll give you two examples. (First chord of The Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night")
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Most of you recognize that immediately.
03:55
The younger, maybe not. (Laughter)
03:57
(First two notes of "Jaws" theme) And most of you associate that with something!
04:00
Now, those are one-second samples of music.
04:03
Music is very powerful. And unfortunately
04:05
it's veneering commercial spaces, often inappropriately.
04:07
I hope that's going to change over the next few years.
04:10
Let me just talk about brands for a moment,
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because some of you run brands. Every brand is out there
04:15
making sound right now.
04:17
There are eight expressions of a brand in sound.
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They are all important. And every brand needs to have guidelines at the center.
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I'm glad to say that is starting to happen now.
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(Intel ad jingle)
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You all recognize that one. (Nokia ringtone) This is the
04:29
most-played tune in the world today.
04:31
1.8 billion times a day, that tune is played.
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And it cost Nokia absolutely nothing.
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Just leave you with four golden rules, for those of you who run businesses,
04:40
for commercial sound.
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First, make it congruent,
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pointing in the same direction as your visual communication.
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That increases impact by over 1,100 percent.
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If your sound is pointing the opposite direction, incongruent,
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you reduce impact by 86 percent.
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That's an order of magnitude, up or down.
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This is important.
04:59
Secondly, make it appropriate to the situation.
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Thirdly, make it valuable. Give people something with the sound.
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Don't just bombard them with stuff.
05:06
And, finally, test and test it again.
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Sound is complex. There are many countervailing influences.
05:10
It can be a bit like a bowl of spaghetti:
05:12
sometimes you just have to eat it and see what happens.
05:14
So I hope this talk has raised sound in your consciousness.
05:18
If you're listening consciously,
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you can take control of the sound around you.
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It's good for your health. It's good for your productivity.
05:24
If we all do that we move to a state
05:26
that I like to think will be sound living in the world.
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I'm going to leave you with a little bit more birdsong. (Birds chirping)
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I recommend at least five minutes a day, but there is no maximum dose.
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Thank you for lending me your ears today.
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(Applause)
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About the Speaker:

Julian Treasure - Sound consultant
Julian Treasure studies sound and advises businesses on how best to use it.

Why you should listen

Julian Treasure is the chair of the Sound Agency, a firm that advises worldwide businesses -- offices, retailers, hotels -- on how to use sound. He asks us to pay attention to the sounds that surround us. How do they make us feel: productive, stressed, energized, acquisitive?

Treasure is the author of the book Sound Business and keeps a blog by the same name that ruminates on aural matters (and offers a nice day-by-day writeup of TEDGlobal 2009). In the early 1980s, Treasure was the drummer for the Fall-influenced band Transmitters.

More profile about the speaker
Julian Treasure | Speaker | TED.com