Hear, hear! Why sound’s so powerful

In its most basic definition, sound is the audible change in air pressure that people perceive when the eardrum of the ear vibrates. However, sound is much more than that to humans. In this article, we set out to explain just why we love sound so much. 


First, we need to point out: sound has been in a constant evolution since its starting point. While sounds in our history started being ‘recorded’ with musical notations on cuneiform and later in the standardised sheet music, the audio whirlwind truly commenced with the arrival of radio, the first wireless mass communication system! Radio quickly turned into a booming business. Its effects on society were massive. 

Consider the 1938 radio episode The War of the Worlds, for instance, which was part of the American radio drama anthology series The Mercury Theatre on the Air. In the episode, a regular radio show was mimicked, but it is interrupted by news reports on Martians occupying earth. Understandably, it caused mass hysteria among those who were listening.

By now, sound means much more than just radio, though. By the end of last century, we were able to easily carry around our music on Walkmans, iPods and boomboxes. Nowadays, these devices have become vintage, demonstrating the speed in which technology is changing the ways in which we consume sound. All we need now is our phone and an internet connection. Plus, what we’re consuming has changed: today there are so many podcasts, we can not even start to listen to it all.


Striking a chord
One reason why we like sound is because it can help us understand the world around us. An audio book, for instance, might explain to us a concept we’ve been wishing to study. Other kinds of sound, such as music, can familiarize you with how people think and feel, for instance in a country on the other side of the world. From the amazing throat-singing by the Inuit in Canada to the enthusiastic rhythms of African tribes, they portray emotions all around.

Sound can also translate hard-to-grasp concepts into something a bit more manageable. Take climate change: A few years ago, professor Chris Chafe, director of the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics at Stanford University, created a musical piece based on the global average temperature and CO2 from A.D. 850 to 2016. Listening to the audio, we simply sense what is going on in the world regarding the climate crisis. 


Audio and the mind
Sound doesn’t just have a strong explanatory power. Ever get chills because of a song? You’re not alone. Audio, and in this case mostly music, can have us feeling an enormous range of emotions. With one song, we’re on the brink of tears, while other music makes us want to dance around the room singing into our hairbrush. According to the research done by a speaker company, it’s not only that: audio can also motivate us, reduce stress, and make us feel more confident. Just take a look at ASMR and what it can do to your senses!

But it’s not just feelings that are touched by audio. In our brains, music, memories and emotions go hand in hand, according to Petr Janata, associate professor of psychology at UC Davis’ Center for Mind and Brain: 

“What seems to happen is that a piece of familiar music serves as a soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head. It calls back memories of a particular person or place, and you might all of a sudden see that person’s face in your mind’s eye (…). Now we can see the association between those two things — the music and the memories.”

That sound and our memory go hand in hand is also supported by other research. Research at Aalto University in Finland, for instance, has found that educational apps that incorporate audio improve knowledge retention.

But keep in mind: not all audio improves learning. Remember that one professor in your high school? In their class, your head always started to nod a bit, jerking you awake when the school bell rang. Other teachers, on the other hand, were able to keep you captivated even when they were instructing you on the dullest subjects out there. The power of audio to help study is improved massively if it’s done right. The same goes for audiobooks and podcasts: a monotone voice with little to no passion in it is forgotten faster than you can say ‘study’. 


A practical force
But audio, in whatever form, is not only loved because of its emotional and explanatory appeal. It’s also practical! For people who are not able to read, such as young children, audio serves as an outcome. By being read fairy tales, for instance, they get the chance to be emerged in wonderful stories that they are not able to read in books just yet. 

People with bad vision, too, profit from audio on a daily basis. There’s many assistive technologies based on audio that are designed in such a way that the visually impaired can improve their lives. Screen readers enable written text to be read out loud through a speech synthesizer. Or liquid level indicators that can be put into a cup when pouring a drink. When the cup is full, it starts beeping

Additionally, audio gives us the chance to consume media in situations where it’s not practical to look at a screen or read text: during a car ride, doing household chores or working out, for instance. According to estimates, a whopping 79 percent of audio consumption takes place during these times in which consuming visual media is not a possibility. Audio has become a life companion, being incorporated in our lives at any point of the day.

Audio’s also an outcome on a daily basis for a group that’s often forgotten about: illiterate people. Whereas reading texts is a huge hurdle for those who are not capable of reading well, spoken information, for instance train announcements, are life saving.


A warning call
Audio serves a range of purposes in our lives, not unimportantly for safety reasons. Warning signals, such as a honking car or a fire alarm, save lives on a daily basis. Audio also safeguards us in an indirect way. Acoustics indicated that the 2011 Japan earthquake would cause a tsunami. Sound can even be a more general indicator of environmental degradation, according to Garth Paine, Associate Professor of Digital Sound and Interactive Media at Arizona State University: 

“Sound is a powerful indicator of environmental degradation and an effective tool for developing more sustainable ecosystems. We often hear changes in the environment, such as shifts in bird calls, before we see them.”

This is not just the case with bird calls, though, according to Paine.

“Imagine how climate change could affect environments’ sonic signatures. Reduced plant density will change the balance between absorptive surfaces, such as leaves, and reflective surfaces such as rocks and buildings. This will increase reverberation and make sound environments more harsh. And we can capture it by making repeated sound recordings at research sites. In settings where sound reverberates for a long time, such as a cathedral, it can become tiring to carry on a conversation as echoes interfere. Increasing reverberation could have a similar effect in natural settings. Native species could struggle to hear mating calls. Predators could have difficulty detecting prey. Such impacts could spur populations to relocate, even if an area still offers plentiful food and shelter.”

All in all, there’s many reasons for choosing to use audio. You can use audio when you want to…

  • Be able to do anything physically, such as driving a car
  • Hit an emotional chord
  • Make hard to grasp information more manageable
  • Help memorize information
  • Motivate yourself and others
  • Reduce stress
  • Boost your confidence
  • Serve practical purposes, such as warning someone

With today’s technology anyone with a smartphone, a small microphone and some apps, and of course the skills, can produce a podcast or a radio show of (almost) professional quality.


Header image: Marius Masalar