When you close your eyes and think about being in a hospital, what do you imagine hearing? Are the sounds soothing, or do they make you tense up with even more anxiety? Hospitals aren’t usually relaxing places, and they don’t always sound very relaxing either. Heart monitors beep, respirators pump, and voices murmur in the background or occasionally ring out over the intercom.
They can be surprisingly loud too. The nighttime background noise at a hospital can sometimes reach over a hundred decibels, louder than a chainsaw. A National Institute of Health study in 2009 recognized noise as a hazard to patients; sleep deprivation weakens the immune system, which has a direct effect on mortality rates. Hospital noise isn’t just annoying, it can be dangerous.
Some hospitals are working to change that. Apart from lowering the noise, they’re also focused on weaving it into a healing soundscape that harnesses the link between music and the human body. You can check out my blog for a short but insightful video by electronic musician Yoko Sen about how her experience as a patient inspired her to help create a more melodic ambiance:
Last year Aalto University won the International Sound Award for Soundscapes and Ambient Sound for its own work in creating an innovative series of ambient soundscapes for New Children’s Hospital in Helsinki. Each floor has a unique and constantly changing theme, from the ocean on the first floor all the way up to space and the stars at the top, and is designed to help put children at ease, taking their thoughts away from the hospital and into an imaginative journey filled with natural sounds and delicate instruments.
There’s a link on my blog to a presentation video by the project’s director, composer and lecturer Antti Ikonen, as well as a link to an interactive demo of each of the nine soundscapes so you can hear them for yourself:
The idea that sound can play such an important role in healing has been around for quite a while now. Music therapy as we know it today got its start soon after World War II, when musicians visited hospitals to play for veterans. Doctors and nurses started to notice that these visits made a very real difference in their recoveries. They began to incorporate music into the idea of creating a “healing environment” where each aspect of the hospital setting, both visual and audio, plays its own part in helping the patients.
Florence Nightingale wrote in 1859 that carefully controlling the lights, colors and sound in a patient’s room could help them recover more quickly, and in 2013 Brian Eno credited her for inspiring his own “Quiet Room for Montefiore”, an immersive audio project at Montefiore Hospital in Essex. A few years later the “Healing Soundscapes” research project at Hamburg University began, uniting music therapists and composers to find new ways of improving the well-being of hospital patients.
There’s no doubt that sound can have a very real effect when it comes to health care. One study in 2016 showed that listening to just fifteen minutes of music before surgery reduces a patient’s anxiety, while another study found that creating an immersive natural soundscape is more relaxing and effective than simply masking the background noise. These nature sounds significantly reduce your cardiac stress markers and cortisol levels, and, for some patients, lower stress can make a literally life-or-death difference.
Most of us probably aren’t ever going to find ourselves looking forward to a trip to the hospital. But for the children at New Children’s Hospital, as well as a growing number of hospitals all around the world, soundscape and audio design are helping transform that clamoring background noise into a soothing melody.
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