Silence is not the Ideal Soundscape for Productivity

 

The 4th floor of the Clough Undergraduate Learning Commons is a study location frequented by many Tech students. The space is always “buzzing” with a white noise that provides the ideal backdrop for finalizing a lab report due to the 5th floor at noon or reviewing for that calculus quiz in Skiles at 3:05. Many noises contribute to this soundscape—the ding of elevators, the clamor of feet ambling up and down the central staircase—but the babbling of voices is the keynote sound that makes the Clough a perfect place to study.

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Though conventional wisdom preaches utter silence as the best promoter of productivity, the noise of the Clough offers something that silence cannot—stability. In a sparsely populated soundscape, such as the Library, the squeak of a chair can radically alter the entire soundscape, shattering concentration like a pane of glass. In contrast, the chatter of the Clough creates a soundscape that is difficult to alter, discouraging selective hearing and promoting sound as an aid to productivity. Voices from all levels of the building bounce from concrete face to concrete face, mixing and mingling to create an unintelligible hum of conversation. The constituent signals comprising this hum have been blended so thoroughly that decoding any information regarding their original content or source is near impossible. It is a uniform and indistinct sound that does not lend itself to semantic or causal listening and allows the brain to focus fully on comprehending a text or composing a paper.

Yet, the amalgam of human voice that is the soundmark of the Clough is not entirely void of meaning. It retains a bustling timbre that is insidious. It chants “there are things to be done.” It energizes on the subconscious level and provides the vigor necessary to accomplish the tasks at hand. The next time you are getting ready to crank out a big paper, skip the Library and employ the excited hum of the Clough as the backdrop for your toils.

“Zzzz? Or Humm? To Sleep or to Not to Sleep?”

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At 10AM, the bean bag room on the fourth floor of CULC is full of the sound of sleeping students.

The bean bag room of the fourth floor of the Clough Building is created to provide comfort, while completing school work or potentially studying for the next quiz or exam. But considering the soundscape and environment of the space, does it really fit the task of studying or working? After observing the soundscape of this small area both in the Morning and at the Night, I can say that the subtle changes in the sounds in the morning and at night play an enormous role in students completing tasks. In the morning, around 10 AM, the area can be described as a musical bustle (According to John Cage, “Music is sounds.”) While the area, is very much secluded from the outside sounds, it can still be inherently heard inside the space. The student or professor whose shoes generate a rhythmic stomp, or the chatter of the study groups all create a soundscape of bustle and movement. Personally, the sounds of the bean bag room in the morning remind me of the Apollonian view of music , which consists of external sounds that illustrate “the harmony of the universe.” The soundscape contributes to the overall effect of you studying effectively and/or working efficiently.

On the other hand, at 10 PM, the soundscape shifts to an almost deafening silence. The silence along with the gentle hum of the air conditioner, which I feel was a keynote for the space, in fact caused me to doze off and to not engage in any studying or work. What is so interesting for me was that during this time, I was exercising more fidelity than intelligibility during the time of 10 PM than of 10 AM. My ear witnessed the entire landscape and absorbed the sounds of everything, without looking to a cause or source behind it, which I believe adheres to the fidelity principle described in chapter 22 of the Sound Studies Reader. On the other hand, at 10 AM, the soundscape of the bean bag room made me intelligible to certain sounds. For example, I listened more to the sounds generated by the people who were passing by instead of the sound generated by the air conditioner or the tap of a pencil. With all this being said, I believe that in order to effectively study in this work space the sounds have to include movement and drive away from ambient silence, but to sounds geared to a rhythmic tempo that promotes working and studying. But, others may beg to differ, what do you think?

Auditory Caffeine

After a tiring day of classes at the CULC, you’re almost to the door to leave when a distinct mixture of sound catches your attention. Its liveliness beckons you to come closer, and before you know it, you’re at the counter, waiting for the piercing sound of your name to reach your ears.

Anyone who has stepped foot into a Starbucks knows that the sounds from behind the counter are remarkably different than the sounds from the other side. However, due to the architecture of the space, these sounds have a way of flawlessly converging into a soundscape that is conducive both to studying and to picking up your favorite caffeinated beverage.

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At the counter, you hear the machines grinding and brewing coffee, along with the periodic blending of a frappuccino. You hear an accousmatic beeping sound and the conversations from the other customers in line. As the line progresses forward, the increasing sound intensity produces a sense of excitement. The low ceiling at the counter reduces reverberation and increases the intelligibility of the barista’s voice, which is the most important sound in the space. This signal breaks through the noise and carries the meaning that a customer’s order is ready.

This differs from the sounds heard in the seating area. There, the sounds from the counter combine with faint classical music, chatter between students, and clicking of keyboards. The lofted ceilings and the large windows allow the sounds to echo and form white noise, which promotes concentration. When cups are thumped down, sound meets touch as vibrations travel across the length of the wooden tables. This forms a connection between the other customers in the space, and, in a way, provides a sense of comfort that expedites the completion of the task. In this space, fidelity is crucial to the task in that the blending of all of the sounds is what creates the experience. If one sound were more prominent or, on the other hand, missing, the entire atmosphere of the space would be altered.