Finding the Words: The Vocabulary of Sound

September 9, 2022

When’s the last time you tried to describe a sound or a piece of music to somebody? How did it go?

If I had to guess, I’d probably say ‘not well’.

Why? Because there's just no common language for sound. After all, how do you describe something that no two people will experience in quite the same way?

I might tell you a sound was ‘noisy’, but how can we be sure my idea of ‘noisy’ matches yours? Or, I might tell you that this sound measured 120 dB. But who can really put that kind of measurement into context?!

Even sound professionals don’t have a universally understood language when talking about sound and music. Conversations might go something like this:

"We're looking for something dark and moody" , "Okay, what do you mean by dark and moody...?"

Cue a long game of trial and error as two parties attempt to come to a common understanding.

Related article: Why do we prefer some people’s voices over others?

The language of sound

As part of our research when we were forming Mumbli, we interviewed a range of sound professionals, from musicians to sound designers to producers.

One thing that we really wanted to know was ‘What language do you use to describe music day-to-day?’’

Here are just a few of the examples they gave us…

the vocabulary of sound

As you can see, the vast majority of these are totally subjective. What’s ‘muddy’ to one person may not be to another!

Related article: How sensitive are you to sound?

Adapting to the vocabulary of sound

You might be thinking ‘hang on, aren’t there technical terms to describe music and sound?’

Well… yes. Think terms like ‘reverberation’, ‘syncopation’, ‘high frequency’, ‘low frequency’, ‘compression’… we could go on.

So, why don’t we use these more? Well, there are a number of reasons.

First, not everybody knows what these terms mean (even amongst creatives like musicians, who don’t necessarily come from a technical background).

And second, music is a subjective thing that evokes feelings and emotions. While these technical terms help us to objectively describe a sound, how accurately can they describe how we feel listening to it?

As such, most conversations about music, even in professional settings, require both parties to adapt their vocabulary to come to a mutual understanding. Essentially, they’re forming a whole new language that works for the two of them. This process usually involves listening to a ton of example tracks so that they’re on the same page. There’s no quick fix!

Related article: Effects of Music on the Brain

The vocabulary of sound in social spaces

Now, if even sound professionals aren’t nailing it, how do ordinary people stand a chance?

Let’s say you’re looking for a bar to meet a friend in, for a long-overdue catch-up. Do you want to meet somewhere calm? Somewhere buzzy? Somewhere with a great atmosphere?

The problem is, what’s ‘buzzy’ to one person might be ‘noisy’ to another. And what’s ‘calm’ to me might be ‘silent’ or even ‘awkward’ to you.

And, as I touched upon earlier, using stats like Decibel levels and reverberation times isn’t helpful either. We just don’t have enough of a frame of reference for them. Even if we did, we’d all experience them in different ways anyway!

Related article: 5 ways that sound affects the human body

speech boxes

Expressing the vocabulary of sound

Are there sounds that drive you insane? What about songs that bring tears to your eyes or make you jump off your chair and dance?

Just like using words to describe sound, it’s not easy to express what we hear as it is so deeply rooted into our own memories and feelings.

The intuitive future of hearing wellness

“But what if we could cut out the trial and error?”

That’s a question that obsessed us at Mumbli, and exactly why we spent months developing the space and hearing ‘auras’. Essentially, the Space Aura is a visual representation of a space’s ‘vibe’. Using shapes and colours, it incorporates a venue’s Decibel levels, reverberation times and busyness into a simple, easy-to-understand swirl of colour that’s designed to help you intuitively feel what it’s like there.

Related news: Mumbli Hearing Wellness District

Alongside this, we developed the Hearing Aura

a visual representation of a person’s sound sensitivity levels, likes and dislikes – to demonstrate how each individual’s hearing is totally unique, and to help them find social spaces that suit their profile.

Can this cut out the trial and error completely? Possibly not. But I’m confident that it’s a great step towards helping us to take ownership of our unique hearing experiences, and to open up productive discussions about them.

Plus, if you’re like me and you’re tired of showing up to bars where you have to shout across the table to your friends to make yourself heard, it’s a great way of taking control. Why not take the Hearing Personality quiz to find your Hearing Aura? I’d love to know what you think.

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