‘Sounds Design’ at the Design Museum

While you are sat reading this blog post your vision is not the only sense being stimulated. You are taking in sounds and smells of things going on around you whilst you skin touches different fabrics. As Professor Charles Spence explained in the ‘Sounds Design’ talk at the Design Museum last night, we are only aware of the results of how our senses integrate, how we experience a situation as a whole, but not how our senses interact with each other to produce that experience.

Charles Spence is a psychologist based at the Crossmodal Research Laboratory in Oxford University. His research investigates how our brains combine inputs from each of our senses. All the senses influence an experience in their own way, and sound, the focus of the evening’s talk, is no exception. We are all aware of influence that sound can have (e.g. a ticking clock in a horror film to build tension) even if we are not aware of it at the time.

Russell Jones and Scott King from Condiment Junkie use Charles’s research and apply it to real world situations, influencing people’s perception of environments, spaces, brands and design. Along with Charles they explained the basics of how different sounds influence us and how they harness this in their work.

The evening was full of fascinating facts. My favourite part was discovering the sonic vocabulary. Based on the work of the musical theorist Peter Kivy, the sonic vocabulary describes the emotional content of the sounds which fill our lives. All aspects of a sound, from timbre to melody, conveys information which we unconsciously decode. The sonic vocabulary which describes these aspects is split into two categories; contours and conventions.

Contours describe how sounds mirror human body language and expressions. For example, a downward scale in a song denotes lament, mirroring the lowering of voice and negative body position of someone lamenting. Conventions are sound which have cultural meanings associated with them. For example; country westerns have a instantly recognisably use of chords and instruments. I would have liked to hear more about what happens in the brain when you hear these sounds; particularly in light of the paper published recently which showed that when someone hears a metaphor the sensory areas referred to in that metaphor are active.

A lot of the work which Condiment Junkie and Charles Spence do looks at consumer behaviour and asks the question; ‘What about the sensory information in that situation can I alter to make a consumer think or feel a certain way about it?’ For example; materials sound different to each other, and we readily assign emotional content to them. When someone is test-driving a car they often tap the dashboard as a test of its quality. Car manufactures have made their dashboards from materials that sound heavier, heavier denoting higher quality, so when people tap the dashboard they associate the car with a high quality product.

But, as explained before, every experience in life draws on all of your senses. The different senses work together, enhancing or suppressing each other, to produce a final cohesive experience. This is demonstrated beautifully by some research, carried out by Charles Spence’s lab, which won an Ig Nobel. During the study volunteers to eat some crisps. As they were eating the sounds of them eating the crisps were played back to them through headphones; the level and frequencies of the sounds being altered without the volunteers’ knowledge. Each volunteer was then asked to rate the crispiness and staleness of the crisps they were eating.

The results demonstrate that the perception of both the crispness and staleness was systematically altered by varying the loudness and/or frequency composition of the auditory feedback elicited during the biting action. The potato chips were perceived as being both crisper and fresher when either the overall sound level was increased, or when just the high frequency sounds (in the range of 2 kHz−20 kHz) were selectively amplified.

Sound, smell and taste are all inextricably linked. In other experiments Charles has shown that, even across a broad range of people, volunteers reliably associated specific sounds with certain flavours. He has even worked with Heston Blumenthal and Condiment Junkie to produce the sound experience which accompanies Heston’s Sounds of the Sea dish, served at the Fat Duck in Bray.

As usual when I go to talks my mind soon turned to how what I was listening to could be applied to science communication. Sound and scent are closely linked with emotional feelings. Used appropriately, they have proved effective in making people form an emotional connection with a space, a brand or a product. I have lamented before about the lack of the use of smell in science communications, and the talk last night made me realise how ineffectively sound is used. Our senses aren’t used in isolation of each other so why do we only try and only target one of them so much of the time. It led to me to ask the question – With so much science going into how multi-sensory stimulation enhances experience, why doesn’t science communication use it?

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