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.

The sound of learning

Library is always my favorite place for studying. This morning I went to there again. Places above 2nd floor are quiet study area, but I am that kind of person who feel more comfortable working with a little background noise – white noise some might call. Sitting in a completely silent room with cold air around make me feel enclosed, lonely and restless. So I ended up sitting at a table on the 2nd floor.

I never really paid attention to what I heard in the library before, but today I need to focus on these sounds. Two guys seemed to be working on their physics homework, one was explaining to another. He sounded serious, but his voice was low. It seemed that he was trying to keep his voice down to not disturb others. The keynote sound of library is probably the sound of page turning. It is the sound that have been heard continuously, but hardly picked up by brain. It just immersed you in this academic atmosphere stealthily. I focused myself on it to figure out how it actually sounds like. The sound of paper rubbing has a middle to high pitch, but sounds rather smooth and gentle here, very different from the disturbing sound produced when someone intentionally rubs papers together. There were also sounds of people typing occasionally. Different keys produce different sounds – some are low and muffled while some are clearer. They are usually not loud. But people seem to press harder on certain keys — for me the space and enter keys, thus making a relatively louder noise. However, because I have been working with this sound for so long, I am not really bothered by it. I find all these sounds together comforting and inspiring. They make me wonder: how can I not work hard while others are? As a result, they stimulated me to do a better job on accomplishing my task here.

However, there was a machine, the air conditioner probably, screaming from a distant location. The intensity is low, but the high pitch could be really disturbing. Fortunately, it is so subtle that if people are not trying hard to listen, it might just go unnoticed. Shortly before noon, more and more people had showed up. Library became a little crowded and all the sounds became less relaxing. This is a signal telling me that it is time to leave and grab some foods, coming back later if necessary. Thus, I packed up my backpack and left the library shortly afterwards.

An Evolved Soundscape

The library of antiquity has often been seen as a place of vast knowledge and resources, a watering hole for the rare yet somewhat snobby specimen sometimes called the intellectual. But in modern times, with the rise of e-commerce cutting the price of books and an increasingly growing wealthy middle class, the need for a library has begun to be questioned. Gone is the age of the past, some have declared, boldly exclaiming the death of religion, philosophy, arts, music, concert halls, radio, books, libraries, and whatever else in order to add to these fanatics’ histrionic nature. And yet all have survived, and the library is no exception. It has in fact evolved, as one article ensures, stating that, “They [the libraries] are offering programs in technology, career and college readiness and also in innovation and entrepreneurship – all 21st-century skills, essential for success in today’s economy.” The library has transcended a place for just gathering to read books, but now has incorporated many different roles from tech savvy center to public lecture hall.

It is in this kind of setting that I find myself in the Georgia Tech library; being a technical school I hope that it will at least serve the role of a tech savvy center. The library has at Georgia Tech transformed into the role of a study and tech center. And indeed I find this to be true. A quick use of reduced listening finds myself hearing the clicking of computer mice more than the flipping of book pages. Occasionally in the distance I can hear the beeping signal noise as students swipe their buzzcards across the turnstiles. Such a noise is produced with the idea of intelligibility in mind, in order to signal to the student that they have gained access. Returning to reduced listening, the technological evolution can again be heard in the occasional sound of the printer, whirring to life as it prepares to do its job. I also discern the sound of other students engaged in conversations and also the sound of pencils writing on paper. And if I focus even further, I can suddenly feel the roar of the A/C, a sound that seems almost like silence until it actually becomes silent. I believe it is all of these noises that help one concentrate and study and feel in a modern space. The sounds of technology, of the printers, the computers, the beeping, all help in making the location feel more sleek and clean, adding to the tech center feel. Hearing the sound of other students studiously working, the sound of the pencils on paper, the flipping of textbook pages, as they prepare for the quiz tomorrow help motivate oneself and propels one forward in their own preparation, hopefully for a quiz that is in a week and not tomorrow.

This is the library of today. So yes in a way the old library has died, but is that a bad thing? In its place lies a transformed space, and at Georgia Tech it has become a study and tech center, and the sounds that accompany it help serve that role.