5. Developing the Concept of Sound Zone Systems in Homes


We recruited seven households in Jutland, Denmark, with variations in household composition (families with young children, roommates, single adults, and couples with no children living at home), participant professions, dwelling type, and area type (see Table 1 for an overview).


For this paper, we have chosen to provide an in-depth investigation of how one household reflected on their soundscape and on sound zone technology. We provide occasional small examples from the other households but go in depth with a household comprising two adults, 32 and 34 years old, and a 9-month-old baby. They have been given the aliases Thomas (34), Olivia (32), and Christine (9 months). They were living in a terraced house in a suburban area. Thomas was working as a guidance counselor and Olivia as an engineer specialized in climate and the environment. At the time of the study, Thomas was on paternity leave. The couple had moved from an apartment in a city to this suburban area a few years before as a result of a search for a cohousing community. The area consists of 20 terraced houses with families that all contribute to common activities, such as shared dinners.


Both Thomas and Olivia were reportedly interested in hi-fi technology. This included having good quality speaker sets. Thomas had a collection of vinyl records that they would listen to many times during the week. They had not particularly invested time in improving the acoustics of their home, but due to Olivia’s knowledge of indoor climate, they had painted the walls with a type of clay that, according to their perception, also incidentally improved the acoustics.


We structure our investigation according to the following three themes: design conditions for sound zones, unexpected incidents, and embodied sound experience. Articulating these themes allows us to highlight how the soundwalk specifically aided us in performing the design ethnography study.

Table 2, lists details regarding the sound recordings made by Household 1: in which room the sound was recorded, how participants chose to describe it, and what length the recording was.

5.1 Design Conditions for Sound Zones

The structure of our study enabled a gradually growing awareness of the participants’ home soundscapes. We found that the soundwalks provided a solid background for the design interview and supported the sensemaking, abduction, and design synthesis: when preparing and presenting scenarios for discussion and when asking the participants to imagine future situations. We also found that asking the participants to categorize sounds as good or bad resulted in a discussion about what constitutes a good or bad sound and, thus, soundscape quality in general.


To enable participants to discuss new concepts regarding technology, we prepared three strategies: 1) mapping situations, 2) introducing noise-canceling headphones as a point of reference for sound zones, and 3) scenarios based on stories from the first soundwalk. Strategies 1 and 3 were ways of enabling the participants to formulate their thoughts as concrete examples. We found that these particular strategies were influenced by the preceding soundwalks. During the presentation of a technological concept, the researcher’s words inevitably affect how participants conceive this concept in terms of capabilities, opportunities, and constraints. Imagining and mapping sonic situations with sound zones was achieved with the help of the floor plan participants had drawn, LEGO figures, and cardboard circles.

We initiated the discussion about sound zones as follows: “I’ve brought these cardboard circles. Each cardboard circle represents a zone. You can place a zone anywhere inside your home, and then you’re able to control all sounds entering and leaving the zone.” Presenting the sound zones did not lead to immediate discussions regarding possible technology. As a point of departure for that discussion, we sought to establish a coupling between the technology concept and the daily situations in their home. To achieve this, we asked the participants to imagine a typical day, similar to the day of the first soundwalk, and then consider how they wished to control the soundscape within the chosen sound zones. The overlap between these questions meant that many situations brought up during the first soundwalk became points of departure for this discussion. Furthermore, the participants had had time to reflect upon these situations. In some cases, these situations also provided inspiration in the choice of sounds to record during the intermittent period. For example, Thomas recorded his coffee grinder as a good sound, stating that, at the moment he was asked to do the second soundwalk, he decided to record this sound because it had been part of the first soundwalk. This led to a discussion about morning routines, with Thomas enjoying the sounds of preparing breakfast and listening to music. A typical morning situation included music played from the living room while Thomas was in the kitchen and Olivia took a shower upstairs while listening to the radio (see Figure 2, left). Both wanted to be attuned to Christine and the baby monitor, but they also sought to mask sounds from each other. In other situations, however, Olivia would sleep in, and that would require Thomas and Christine to be quiet. From this brief part of the interview, design conditions for sound zones already appeared, such as being able to hear specific signaling sounds across rooms and having an option for confining music audibility to a limited area with silence in other areas.


To ensure further continuity between the first soundwalk and the design interview, we built on the newly established awareness by preparing two or three scenarios. These scenarios were based on descriptions of activities during specific times of the day, participants gave during the first soundwalk. In the design interview, the scenarios opened discussions about how future situations might occur. For Thomas and Olivia, one scenario took place in their open kitchen and living room area (see Figure 2, right). Thomas would be sitting in an armchair while reading the newspaper and listening to music. At the same time, Olivia would be in the kitchen area with Christine, where they would play with toys and listen to children’s music. This would quickly lead to a chaotic soundscape. This scenario came out of a discussion in the first soundwalk in which we asked Thomas to describe an ideal soundscape. We had completed the soundwalk, and Thomas had noticed the stairs creaking. This led him to reflect on sounds he would expect from an environment, and he compared it to the crackling sound of turning the pages of a newspaper. These reflections enabled us to prepare a scenario of activities carried out by specific people in the household that formed the basis of considering how sound zones could support the family’s home activities.


While some sounds were described as “annoying,” this perception varied according to whether or not participants actively did something to prevent or lower the loudness of the sound. In one household, Tina described that she was annoyed with the sounds from a nearby highway during the summer, but she would not close doors or windows. In contrast, Thomas and Olivia were concerned about how traffic sounds would affect their daughter, so they tried to either close all doors and windows or attempted to mask the sound with music.


Categorizing a sound as wanted or unwanted inside a sound zone required much reflection and typically depended on the context within which the sound was heard. Therefore, when participants were asked to imagine good or bad sounds, it led to a discussion about situations in which a sound was perceived as being good and then contrasted with situations where it was perceived as bad. Conducting the second soundwalk in between the meetings, during which participants recorded good and bad sounds, required the participants to choose how to categorize a sound. They uploaded the sound with a small description, indicating their experience of the sound. Thomas explained in the design interview that, one day, Olivia was fiddling with their duvet, and he spontaneously decided to record the sound and categorize it as good. He elaborated by saying that this was one example of a sound that he noted as good even though, reflecting on it, he felt rather neutral about it.


Much of what I’ve marked as good sounds are really neutral, functional sounds – that’s how it’s supposed to sound. Because otherwise, it would be weird if it didn’t make any noise. It’s part of what makes me know that I’m making coffee, or whatever I might be doing. It definitely becomes unclear when I start to think about it. (Our translation)


From these communications it is clear that developing or modifying sound zones entails an understanding that any expectations regarding a soundscape will affect whether or not a sound is considered bad. Furthermore, even though a sound is perceived as annoying, it might be even more disturbing if the sound was absent. Many sounds might not evoke any particular, consciously-experienced, positive or negative feelings, making it difficult to choose what to mask and what to enhance. The soundwalks helped participants to reflect upon and articulate responses to their sonic experiences, which ultimately led us to a nuanced understanding of the design conditions, i.e., social and physical aspects to consider, for the sound zone concept.


5.2 Unexpected Sounds

Since the soundwalk takes place in-situ, any immediate sound might be tied to a specific time of day. Similar to Oleksik et al. (see Section 2), we found that participants discussed sounds with more ease when relating them to narratives, but these narratives were not always recalled until the participants heard a sound triggering the memory. We found that unexpected sounds helped participants to enter the discussion and later listen consciously for the same sound or for sounds related to the newly-articulated narrative.


During the first soundwalk, Thomas requested taking a break to walk their daughter in her pram. We were asked to join them on this walk through a forest close to their home. During the walk, we talked informally and did not record anything, which made the conversation more relaxed. Even though the aim was not to continue the soundwalk and the interview, the conversation ended up being about the outside soundscape, which had changed since the municipality had decided to cut down many trees in the forest. This caused the traffic noise to travel more easily to the housing area with the consequence that the sounds from the nearby highway had become a disturbance to the residents.


Arriving back home, he set up a baby monitor to alert them when their daughter was awake again. This also prompted a discussion about how the process of becoming parents had introduced several new sounds, including those of service technology, such as a baby monitor. The baby monitor depends upon the parent’s ability to have their attention be caught by the particular signal it makes. Typically, walking in the forest or engaging in a home activity alone, Thomas would listen to music on his headphones, but he had stopped doing this out of fear of not noticing the alarm.


During the design interview, the baby alarm beeped, which prompted Thomas to say that he had wanted to record the sound during the second soundwalk. After the assignment had been described, he had decided to include the baby alarm as a bad sound, because he associated it with sleep deprivation. He elaborated upon this choice, explaining that the sound had become an integral part of the soundscape at home, so even though he reacted to the sound by going to his daughter, he did not consciously reflect upon it.


When the discussion turned towards sound zones, Thomas used the baby alarm as one example of a functional sound – i.e., a practical notification related to their daughter. Since the discussion regarding the concept of sound zones had as its point of departure the exclusion and inclusion of specific sounds, he pointed out that some sounds can feel negative but should still be included. Furthermore, the fact that his reaction to the sound had almost become completely routine rather than conscious indicated the influence of the situation – and the power of repetition in building habit – on his perception of the sound. 


5.3 Embodied Sound Experience

To initiate the first soundwalk, we asked the participants to listen for sounds they were making themselves. These sounds intrinsically carry information regarding the physical properties of an environment, such as room acoustics, and, according to our findings, they can also prompt reflections regarding expectations of how a room should feel acoustically. This sometimes expanded the narrative descriptions associated with many sounds. During the first soundwalk, Thomas said:


We can hear our fridge, which is crooked […] which is annoying. I don’t hear our radiator. I sometimes do. It’ll make these sounds like there’s sand. And then I hear my voice resonating when I speak. And the floor is creaking a little bit. It especially does that upstairs. (Our translation)


Here he is using a metaphor to describe the sound of the radiator. Other participants sometimes used personality traits in a similar way to describe a sound, and Thomas even described the coffee grinder as “merry” in one description. He explained that, even though he enjoyed a quiet soundscape, the loud sound from the coffee grinder reminded him that he could soon relax. He had become used to the sound and obviously connected it with those previous experiences. Correspondingly, when the baby alarm beeped unexpectedly, he experienced a physical reaction because it reminded him of many sleepless nights.


This finding reveals that even though participants were asked to describe sounds they could hear at that moment, they typically also included and described related sounds that were not present. A narrative would form around a particular sound they could hear in the moment and, from there, the narrative would expand to include sounds they had heard previously. In another household, this was exemplified by the participant noticing birds outside. She explained that she enjoyed the sounds of the birds that she heard at that moment, but that, previously, particularly noisy birds had made sounds that annoyed her.


Another example regarding this tendency took place in a discussion in a city apartment shared by two roommates, Michael and Finn. Walking into the kitchen, Michael reviewed many of the appliances that make noise, such as the oven, water tap, and cooker hood. Talking about the noises led him to activate several of the appliances to reveal their sounds. While showing the oven, he realized that they mainly used the kitchen during weekends. The roommates had different daily schedules, which meant that during working days they were careful not to disturb each other.


While reflecting on sound zones during the second interview, these experiences were brought into the conversation, newly-articulated by the participants themselves. Barry Truax refers to sounds as inseparable from the situations in which they are heard (Truax 2001: 12). Understood through his concept of soundscape competence, performing an ear cleaning exercise before any discussion provided participants with the opportunity to direct their attention to sounds they had become accustomed to and no longer noticed. Furthermore, being in the room containing the sounds reminded participants of mundane daily routines that might otherwise be construed as unnecessary to mention.

Table 1: An overview of participating households, detailing dwelling type, composition, area type, and professions.

Table 2: An overview of recorded sounds by Household 1 organized according to room of the recording, participants’ description and length of the sound clip.

Figure 2: Maps of situations in Thomas and Olivia’s home. Left: Morning, with Olivia in the bathroom and Thomas and Christine in the living room. Right: Afternoon, with Olivia and Christine in the kitchen and Thomas sitting in the living room.