If there’s one thing that goes unnoticed and underappreciated but holds huge weight in our everyday lives… it’s audio.
As a company that lives and breathes audio, it’s no surprise we are celebrating World Audio Day. But for me as an individual, before starting at IRIS, audio was not something that was ever on my radar. Sure, I love music and the way it makes me feel, but I never thought about the depth to which audio affects us, and the influence it has in our everyday lives.
Audio is all around us, every second of every day. From the moment our alarm rings, to when the kettle whistles or the microwave dings — audio floods our space. But audio doesn’t just wake us up and give us warnings and signals, it’s also connected to an important sense, hearing, which is essential to maintaining relationships, creating emotional connections, and experiencing life.
As you can see, after almost two years at IRIS, my interest in the power of audio has grown significantly, and I wanted to open more eyes, or should I say ears, to just how present and impactful audio really is.
Let’s start with how it works…
The science of sound
Sound is a series of vibrations moving through the air. These vibrations, known as sound waves, travel into the ear, causing vibrations in the eardrum. The brain then pieces these together to form what we know as sound.
Sound waves have the ability to affect us physiologically and psychologically. Some scientists believe one of the reasons for this is that sound travels extremely well through water, and our bodies are made of 70% water. The idea of sound healing suggests that vibrations (from music for example) passing through the water in our bodies promote energy flow and circulation. The frequency waves synchronise with our brainwaves, and in turn, can have both physical and emotional benefits. Many studies also show that continued exposure to loud noises can increase hypertension and anxiety. Audio and neurodiversity is actually an increasingly explored subject (and one we’ll be delving into further soon).
Sound can also affect us cognitively and behaviourally. Our ability to work effectively is dependent on our environment and the sounds around us — just think about how we instinctively move away from uncomfortable sounds and towards appealing ones. Conditions like misophonia (an unexplained strong hatred of certain sounds) have been known to disrupt many people in their everyday lives, and one study found that increased noise for students in the pandemic caused adverse effects on their learning abilities.
The science backs it, and the heart believes it. Personally, when I can’t seem to shake a feeling of anxiety, audio is the one thing I can always rely on to get me back to a positive mindset.
Sound has the ability to influence us without us even knowing. We don’t just use our ears for speech and media. We use it for subconscious decisions we make every day. For instance, you’ve probably stopped yourself from crossing the road not because you saw the car coming from a direction you weren’t expecting, but because you heard it. Or you went ahead and crossed it because you heard the beeping at the intersection.
So why do we use sound as a means of warning and signalling when light actually moves faster than sound? Because sound is a passive sense, meaning it operates 24/7 and never turns off; you can’t close your ears. Light, however, requires a line of sight. Sound can travel round a corner, a visual can not.
Without getting too scientific, noise is processed by the brain almost entirely subconsciously. The brain instinctively reacts to a sudden noise, with a direct line of neurons running from your auditory systems to your defence responses in the central nervous system. We have also evolved to find certain sounds innately alarming, like that alarm clock buzzing at 6AM or the whistle of a kettle about to boil. New mothers even experience a change in their brain architecture to completely sync up with their baby’s cries and therefore react faster and more effectively.
In addition to alerts, sound has great importance in many other aspects of life that deepen our ability to connect and feel.
Hearing enables us to connect and communicate in a way that no other senses can. A newborn baby communicates with its mother by crying; a bird sings to find a mate; a lion roars to warn its pride of possible danger. Sound is used to communicate not just with humans but with all animals.
Sound is a core factor in our communication and alert systems, but for me the most important part, the part that makes life worth living, is empathy. Our ability to feel something through the prism of someone else’s experience, all thanks to the way they play a phrase or sing a melody. When we record sound, we save a vital part of human experience — alive for as long as we can play that recording. The voice of a loved one, the song of a bird, the sound of the waves on a special day; all of these moments of time and memories can live on long after they’ve stopped, through the magic of audio.
Audio can help connect us to our emotions, to our past memories, and even to the future.
When watching a horror movie, audio is what creates the suspense — mute the audio and there goes the eeriness. That’s why, if you’re anything like me, you’ll block your ears during a scary scene, not because it’s not visually frightening, but because without the audio creating this atmosphere, it’s much easier to watch. Audio has the ability to draw you in and consume you.
So what turns these ‘vibrations’ into something that we find scary? It’s not like we’ve all had past experiences that these sounds remind us of . Why do we associate these sounds with fright?
This is due to the type of sound we are affected by – non-linear sounds that have rapidly changing frequencies, for example the cries or screams of an animal. These are sounds our early ancestors had reason to fear and over time, we have evolved to associate these non-linear sounds with danger, reacting instantly to them to protect ourselves.
Hollywood caught onto this early on and started to incorporate these sounds into their films. The sound of a crow squawking reminds us of a deserted graveyard, not because we are by a graveyard every time we hear a crow, but because these sounds have been used constantly in films and we now associate them with these scenes. Like Pavlov’s famous dog, who salivated every time the dinner bell rang, we have been conditioned by nothing more than repetition and sound.
This doesn’t just create associations for us in movies; it does so in real life too.
Think about when you hear an old song, and you immediately get transported back to the time and place, flooded with memories or feelings, down to the last detail and even smells. All this, set off by a sound!
That’s because sounds stimulate different parts of the brain. For instance when we listen to music, our hippocampus — which is the area of the brain responsible for memory and emotional responses — lights up. It’s truly humbling to witness, especially in cases of Alzheimer’s, when a patient can relive a moment in their life simply by listening to music.
Sound for the hearing impaired
We’ve spoken about how important sound is to us — surfacing emotions, creating immersive atmospheres, and stimulating behaviours — but what about those who can’t hear?
Audio is so impactful that even those with hearing difficulties adapt the ways they experience audio. Remember how sound is a series of waves travelling through the air, that our brain then transforms into sound? Well, Beethoven learned to ‘hear’ with his body, allegedly by placing a wooden stick between his teeth to feel the vibrations. Interestingly, those who are hearing-impaired feel sonic vibrations in the part of the brain that others would usually use for hearing.
The fact that our bodies have the ability to adapt this way in order to experience this magnificent sense perfectly embodies how important sound is. It’s truly amazing.
Let’s hear it for audio
I could write many more pages about the immense power of audio, sound, and noise, but I’ll leave it here for now. Audio is what we live and breathe at IRIS. We know all too well how audio and sound have fallen by the wayside in favour of visual improvements, and we’re determined to change this so that everyone, everywhere, has the ability to Listen Well.