Julian Treasure is a sought-after and top-rated international speaker. Collectively his four TED talks on various aspects of sound and communication have been viewed an estimated seven million times; his TED talk on conscious listening is in the rare group that have achieved over 1.5 million views on TED.com, putting it in the top 100 TED talks of all time.
We recently talk to him online about his life and other issues:
1. Tell us something about yourself, early, age schooling and college life?
I was born in London, educated at St Paul’s School then Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, where I studied economics. I am a lifelong musician: I play drums and made my first record while at college. After university I worked in advertising (for Saatchi & Saatchi) and then magazine publishing. I started TPD Publishing in 1988, and grew it to become one of the UK’s leading contract magazine publishing companies, producing magazines for brands like Apple, Lexus, Microsoft and Orange. I sold that company in 2001 and left it in 2003.
2. You are the founder and Chairman of The Sound Agency. What is the purpose and mission of that agency?
The Sound Agency’s mission is to supply world-class sound consultancy, creative work and delivery systems that build our customers’ brands, business relationships and profits. We have asked and answered the question: “How does your brand sound?” for some of the world’s leading brands, from Nokia to Harrods. Over the last three years we’ve become specialists in retail sound, and in creating generative soundscapes that are crafted with science and art to produce effective, appropriate and nourishing ambiences that increase both sales and customer satisfaction. They are not music! Generative sound is a new class of sound, in between silence and music.
3. How can we define the term “sound“?
Sound is audible vibration conducted through a medium. The medium is usually air, although water is actually a much better conductor of sound waves, and to be audible the vibration must be between roughly 20 Hertz (20 cycles per second) and 20 kHz (20,000 cycles per second). Sound is thus one particular set of vibrations, a selection from the huge superset of all vibrations. We will never hear the notes of electrons or planets for two reasons: first, their frequencies are either too high or too low for our ears to perceive; and second, they are not conducted through a medium. Everything in the universe is vibrating, including all of us human beings, so it’s no surprise that sound affects us profoundly.
4. When and how did the subject of the sound and similar topics became a part of your occupation and interest?
Musicians listen in a special way: if you’re in a band, you have to listen to several other people playing all at the same time, with great attentiveness, so that your own playing fits perfectly with the others’. Maybe that’s why research has shown that musicians have bigger brains that non musicians! So I’ve always listened consciously, and for me sound is my primary relationship with the world. For years I’d been working with major brands by day, and playing music in the evenings. When I sold my magazine business I wanted to bring the two halves of me together. I started by asking why the world sounded so bad, and realised that most of the noise is made by organisations. The next question was, does that matter? I did a lot of reading and research and found that this noise is not only hurting us as individuals (for example in Europe we are losing a million years of healthy life every year to noise according the World Health Organisation) – it’s also hurting the organisations that make it. They just hadn’t realised that good sound is good business. So it was clear that there was a proposition there, to help brands and organisations to make good sound and improve their results.
5. How can our understanding of the sound impact on our daily lives ?
Sound affects us in four ways. Physiologically, it can alter all our internal rhythms: heart rate, breathing, hormone secretions and even brain waves. Psychologically, it can change our moods and emotions, Cognitively, it can change how effective we are in processing information, in being productive. And behaviourally, it can change what we do – for example most of us will move away from unpleasant sound if we can. If we understand all this and listen consciously, we can take responsibility for the sound we make, and for the sound we consume.
6. Can it be used to manipulate with our behavior and way of thinking ? For example, at the shopping malls, advertisements, movies etc?
Sound is powerful, so when designing soundscapes we must always behave with integrity and ecology: the sound must be good for people. It is certainly possible to influence purchasing decisions with sound – for example researchers showed that playing French or German music at point of sale caused more people to choose the wine from the country whose music was playing. I believe in conscious creation and consumption of sound. If we are all listening consciously we’ll know that the fast-paced music playing in a burger bar is designed to get us to eat faster, and we can choose to stay or go, and if we stay, to eat at our own pace. Right now most sound is unconsciously made and so much of it is inappropriate and unpleasant, and it is also unconsciously consumed so people don’t realise the harm that’s being done to them in the form of stress, fatigue and so on. At the moment a lot of what we do at the Sound Agency is to remove this unpleasant sound from retail environments, which typically have poor acoustics (because architects don’t think about sound at all), lots of noise, low quality sound systems and mindless generic music playing. Well designed sound would be no more manipulative than a well designed room which uses colours, shapes and lighting to create an ambience.
7. Can sound reduce or increase our productivity?
Yes. We are as little as one third as productive in noisy offices. That’s why open plan is not the universal solution. It’s good for some types of work, when we need to collaborate, but for quiet working or thinking it’s very poor. We need a range of environments in our offices, because one size does not fit all. If any of your readers have to work in a noisy place, they could use sound to mask the counterproductive noise: I recommend using headphones with the sound of birdsong, rainfall or some other natural sound. Music is mostly too dense for most people to work well to, though ambient music or very repetitive music such as trance could work as they don’t call for music attention.
8. Are we threatened to become a generation of deaf people?
Headphone abuse is sadly a big problem. One in eight American teenagers has noise induced hearing loss as a result of hour upon hour of listening to music at high volume on headphones. If you put 100 dB of music into your ears for hours a day, you will kill your hearing. We need to educate our children to take care of their ears. You only get one set, and once you damage your hearing there is no cure.
9. How can we develop our ability to listen?
My TED.com talk on conscious listening lists five great exercises to improve conscious listening. They are simple and fun to do, and they can really change your life experience. If people want to go into this in even more detail my in-depth course in conscious listening is on Udemy.com.
10. Can spending time in nature be some kind of healing process of the damage that urban places did out of our ability to listen?
I do suggest that everyone should have a few minutes’ silence every day, and if possible a few minutes of birdsong or nature sound too. Yes, spending time listening to beautiful places can really help to reduce stress and improve health. Research shows that even listening to the sound of nature without going anywhere (especially birdsong) has health benefits.
11. What is Your message to our readers?
Listen consciously, and make sound consciously.
12. Can you tell us Your future plans
To make the world sound beautiful! We have a big year ahead at The Sound Agency, with our new Ambifier generative sound system now affordable by even small retailers, and a web-based streaming service launching very soon to allow consumers to access generative soundscapes that will help them work, rest and play. And we have some clients now in the Gulf so I’m looking forward to spending some more time there, and making a difference to the sound of shopping there. We’ll be announcing all this on our website in the coming months.
Free Sound Affects seminar on Udemy
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TED talks on the four effects of sound, on conscious listening, on sound and health and on designing for the ears.
Interviewed by Irma Velic