The Four Golden Rules of Sound

Whenever sounds are applied to enhance customer experiences and wherever a soundscape is designed and deployed, I recommend that it should always be created in accordance with the following four Golden Rules of sound.

1. Make it optional

The backlash against music in public places (with consumer groups like PipeDown in the fore) is fuelled by the resentment that arises from being given no choice. We know that the people’s irritation with noise increases dramatically when they have no control over the sound source. It follows that we must aim to give people a choice about any sound we inflict on them.

Obviously this is difficult to do in a physical space – though not impossible. Zones with different sounds are one practical solution, as educational establishments with silent reading rooms have long understood. If we can’t offer truly optional sound, the next best thing is to target our geluidsoverlast buren sound as carefully as possible, so that we upset the smallest number of people. For spaces with a very tight demographic and psychographic user profile, this is not too difficult. Some shops, bars, clubs and restaurants know exactly who their customers are and what they like; in many cases the sound (usually music) acts as a filter, attracting the ‘right’ people and warning the ‘wrong’ ones to go elsewhere because this is not for them. Buddha Bar and Abercrombie & Fitch are two good examples.

This approach can work in more generalist spaces if music is used as part of an overall zoning policy. For example in a large mall there might be zones for younger and older customers, and music could be a form of signposting to help nudge people in the right direction – maybe club music in the former section and jazz standards in the latter.

The problems arise for generalist spaces that can’t or won’t operate this kind of zoning. One person’s signal is another person’s noise, and nowhere is this more true than with music in public. Whatever you play in a mass-market space, you will upset someone. I strongly suggest two actions. First, err on the side of caution: it’s better to inject no sound that the wrong sound. There is nothing at all wrong with the sound of people shopping! Second, research carefully before you deploy. Do not let the smooth patter of a music-streaming company persuade you that your customers will naturally love smooth jazz and r&b classics, because they just might loathe them. Use focus groups to ascertain attitudes, and create pilot sites where you run proper quantitative tests that measure the effect of the sound on people’s behaviour (see Golden Rule 4).