Production Essays: The sound of the future

Although still a mysterious, complex force, sound's profound influence over man is undisputed.

As an experiment in the early 50s, the composer John Cage arranged to spend an afternoon in Harvard University's anechoic chamber: a soundproofed lab designed to absorb all sound and electromagnetic emissions. Instead of the total silence he had hoped to experience, Cage heard two sounds: one high and one low. On emerging from the chamber, he asked an engineer attached to the physics department what these sounds were. "The high one was your nervous system in operation," the engineer is reported to have replied. "The low one was your blood in circulation."

In other words, sound isn't just all around us - it's deep inside us as well. Sound is biological: it has a raw and vibrant physicality that is easy to overlook in an age of iPod shuffles and MP3 downloads.

The first anechoic chambers were built during the Second World War to develop the capabilities of military radar. At the same time, the Germans were rumoured to be working further down the frequency range, trying to perfect a sonic weapon able to generate a shockwave powerful enough to knock a plane out of the sky. Research continues to this day into sound's potential as a "non-lethal" weapon, most notably a Russian oscillator that fires "acoustic bullets" of very low frequency sound and America's Long Range Acoustic Device, a system for emitting a "deterrent tone to influence behaviour or determine intent".

These represent only two examples of the power that sound can exert over the human body, capable of provoking a wide range of effects from deafness and spatial disorientation, via nausea, headaches and vomiting, to the intense pain caused by resonating internal organs and bones.

That such devices are still far from standard issue says more about the nature of sound itself than the state of our technology. The world of sound remains a mysterious one, full of hidden depths and unexplored potential. Sound still connects us with our most basic responses - remember how our distant ancestors depended upon it for survival in a hostile environment.

Unlike sight, our sense of hearing operates in 360 degrees, allowing us to detect what can't immediately be seen. Our ability to "hear round corners" may seem like second nature to us today but it also offers advantages when coping with the unknown. Sight can only tell you what's here, whereas sound lets you know what's coming.

Our visual organisation of space, how we frame and understand what we see, flatters the intellect: consider, for example, the amount of commercial graphic design that resorts to complex visual puns and tricks of perspective in order to get its point across. The world of sound, however, appeals directly to our instincts: under its urgent prompting, we are all still hunter-gatherers in an acoustic landscape that has the power to surround us completely.

First identified by researchers in the 60s, the modern "soundscape" is made up of everything we hear, whether it be natural, human or technological in origin. As a subject of study, it has attracted increasing numbers of architects, designers, engineers, artists, entrepreneurs and inventors from around the globe. Investigations are already being conducted into how sound can alter our mood, which parts of our brains are influenced by which listening experiences and how unpleasant sounds differ from pleasant ones in their effect upon our emotional wellbeing.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has recently funded strategic initiatives into exploring and developing new soundscapes for the UK - and not before time, considering the levels of noise pollution assailing our cities. Listed among the "non-auditory effects" of urban noise pollution by the National Institutes of Health in the US are "elevated blood pressure, loss of sleep, increased heart rate, cardiovascular constriction, laboured breathing and changes in brain chemistry". Meanwhile, the World Health Organization's Guidelines for Community Noise specify that such symptoms can also lead to "social handicap, reduced productivity, decreased performance in learning, absenteeism in the workplace and school, increased drug use and accidents". Seen in practical terms, our soundscapes are really audible ecosystems, acting directly upon our minds and bodies, and should be treated as such before it's too late.

Good sound design should, therefore, also be seen as good ecology, transforming its message into a useful part of the landscape rather than simply forcing itself upon people's consciousness. By working with sound, you already have their attention. Ivan Pavlov may have used a wide range of stimuli, from whistles and bells to metronomes and tuning forks, to tell his dogs when it was feeding time, but it was George Orwell who could see where all of this was heading when he famously described advertising as "the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket". His words, after all, are just a low-tech prelude to the slick authoritarian fantasies of commercial communication offered in such classic sci-fi flicks as Blade Runner and Minority Report.

Is the future sound of sound best summed up by a disembodied voice introducing you personally to a fabulous range of products based on your previous spending patterns? It's easy to detect both a threat and a promise in operation here. At least the medicine cabinet in George Lucas' THX 1138 asked you what was wrong before prescribing the appropriate antidepressant whenever its door was opened. Some faint vestige of communication still lingered in the exchange. Sound design, after all, helps to complete the picture, letting you know what is taking place off the screen. It's what you don't see that sometimes creates the most tension. "In space, no-one can hear you scream," ran the celebrated shout line for Alien, a movie that was notorious for keeping its monster carefully out of sight until the last reel.

Sound tells us a bigger story than we can see. It creates its own horizons, architecture, spaces and moods. Consequently, good sound design should bring ambient and narrative elements together to transform information itself into an environment the public feels happy to occupy and explore. Out of such an approach, a brave new sonic landscape may soon emerge. In the meantime, people will remain hungry for sound: it's a part of our DNA. We are, by instinct, obsessive listeners. "Until I die there will be sounds."

Cage predicted in his book Silence. "And they will continue following my death." Under such circumstances, the future sound of sound seems assured.

- Gary Walker, Sam Ashwell and Andy Humphreys are audio designers at 750.