You’re watching a heist scene. Rather than the sound, you’re focussing on the masked protagonists as they move from vault to getaway car, gold bullion in hand. But it’s the soundtrack – nothing but a ticking watch – that brings you to the edge of your seat.
In real life, as in the cinema, sound may exist in the background, out of consciousness. But it exerts this power over us all the time. Everything from the crunch of a crisp to the hum of air conditioning has an effect on our perception, influencing our senses, stimulating our emotions and changing our behaviour. Every sound carries messages that we understand and decipher effortlessly.
Simply by listening we can tell the difference between rough and smooth, heavy and light,solid and flimsy. We instinctively judge the size and shape of a room from its echo alone, and habitually knock on walls to judge solidity. Car manufactures, as a result, invest millions in sturdy-sounding dashboards, although we know, rationally, it can have no relevance to the car’s actual performance.
The evidence is not only anecdotal. Neuroscience has recently revealed a deep ‘crossmodal’connection, where sounds can actually change how we perceive the world through our other senses. Research at Oxford University proved that by changing a background soundtrack alone, we can change the taste of food, from bitter to sweet. At Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck restaurant, diners are served sashimi whilst listening to the sound of the seaside on an iPod. It is not just a gimmick: it makes the fish taste fresher.
From gastronomy to architecture, healthcare, product design, marketing and even warfare, the power of sound is remarkable. The right sonic environment, when combined with coloured light and scent, has been shown to shorten recovery time in patients. The US Army employs techniques of ‘psychoacoustic correction’, while sonic booms (or sound bombs) are detonated over the Gaza Strip. At Condiment Junkie, we’ve employed cross-modal sound design inside a supercar, not only making your drive more enjoyable but also improving safety at high speed. By co-ordinating sound and light within the vehicle, information can trigger a stronger emotional response, speeding up the driver’s reaction time.
The same cross-modal impulses can be applied in the home. Choose music wisely, for instance, when you serve wine. According to a study in California, listening to music that echoes how the wine tastes will increase enjoyment by around 45%. Music that is light and zingy, with a high tonal register such as Nouvelle Vague’s ‘I Just Can’t Get Enough’ will enhance citrusy notes in a Chablis. Listening to ‘People Are Strange’ by the Doors will make a Cabernet Sauvignon taste deeper and more voluptuous. It’s something we might instinctively feel – and again, it’s now backed up by scientific research.
If we take into account this profound influence, then we begin to consider sound as an important element in our lives, one that needs to be as well designed as the decor or the lighting. If sound is in harmony with our environment, experiences will be heightened and lives improved.
As the Futurist Luigi Russolo said a century ago in his essay The Art of Noises: “By selecting, coordinating and dominating all noises we will enrich men with a new and unexpected sensual pleasure”.
Russ Jones is a sonic artist and composer and is Creative Director of Condiment Junkie, a sonic branding and experiential sound design company.
Russ will be a guest speaker at the 'Concrete Music: Making Sounds with the City' weekend tour led by Kerry Andrew on Sunday 18 November. Click here for more information and you can follow the Condiment Junkie blog 'Sound and the senses' at www.soundandthesenses.blogspot.co.uk