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Blue soundscapes: How water sounds can create positive spaces

A lush, green, sunny landscape with a stream running through the center

This article was originally published in the Journal of Biophilic Design.

There’s something inherently enjoyable about the crashing of waves on a beach, the rhythmic patter of raindrops on leaves, the gurgling of a gentle stream or the rush of a cascading waterfall. The sounds of water are some of the most popular and powerful sounds in the world. But why? And how can we use biophilic design to harness that power to improve people’s health indoors?

As human beings, we have an age-old connection with water that’s deeply rooted in our evolution. For our ancestors, water represented cleanliness, refreshment and a source of nutritious food. So, we’re drawn to these blue spaces and—as sound is arguably the fastest and most powerful way that people take in information about their surroundings—it makes sense that we feel good when we hear these sounds; over time, we’ve learned that they are healthy and reassuring.

This evolutionary connection is so powerful that we don’t even need to be outdoors or in the presence of water for it to have a positive effect on us. Listening to carefully designed water soundscapes indoors through speakers or headphones changes our brains and bodies for the better and helps with a variety of activities. The development of soundscaping technology in recent years means that it’s become much easier to bring these sounds into buildings as a natural accompaniment to other design initiatives. Water soundscapes can benefit almost any building, but as we’ll discover they’re particularly useful in spaces where people are trying to work, relax or recover.  

Water soundscapes for focus

In modern buildings, maintaining focus and concentration can be challenging. Disruptive noise is normally the number one complaint about office and healthcare environments. This is where water soundscapes can help. Studies have shown that listening to the sound of a babbling brook can mask distracting noise and create an environment where people can immerse themselves in their tasks.

The benefits don’t stop there either. Researchers also found that people given cognitively demanding tasks in the presence of water soundscapes saw their productivity scores remain higher over time. Even compared to silence, the water sounds had a buoying effect, lifting people’s cognitive abilities. In real world environments, we’ve found that water-based soundscapes can improved cognitive performance by a whopping 20-30% in offices.

A snowy mountainous landscape with sunny blue skies and a bluey-turquoise alpine lake

Water soundscapes for reducing stress

It’s not just our minds that benefit from water sounds; our bodies respond positively too.

While it varies from person to person, soundscapes that help with focus tend to be more constant – think flowing streams or rainfall. On the other hand, one sound that’s particularly good for relaxation is ocean waves. Studies have shown that ocean wave soundscapes can calm our bodies and reduce symptoms of stress. In one test, people listening to ocean sounds for only ten minutes had less tension in their muscles, a slower pulse and felt better psychologically.

One theory is that the tranquil pace of crashing waves – the way they come and go – is a similar tempo to the breathing of a sleeping human, so it helps calm our bodies down too. Interestingly, using water soundscapes to combat stress tends to be more beneficial the more stressed you are.

Elevating interior design concepts

To really reap the benefits of blue soundscapes, try harmonising sight and sound.

Biophilic design expert Victoria Jackson recently said that the future of biophilic design is multisensory, and I absolutely agree. The science backs this up too. When the senses work with one another, they can amplify the positive benefits of biophilic design.

There’s huge creative potential in this too. Bringing sight and sound together can create more immersive and unique experiences in the built environment. One project I was involved in recently – a workplace in India – had a client meeting area inspired by Himalayan lakes with a beautiful shimmering ceiling and glacial colour palette. We accompanied it with a Himalayan lake soundscape. Gently lapping waves and soft icy textures elevated the interior design and immediate brought a sense of calm. Another project was inspired architecturally by the forests of Slovakia. Huge “tree trunks” ran up through the building to support the roof. Down on the ground floor (or, as we envisaged it, the forest floor), we used a water soundscape including forest streams to provide restoration in the busiest areas.

Water-based soundscapes offer many benefits. Bringing these sounds indoors as part of a biophilic design strategy can elevate people’s experiences, fostering good health and positive mindset thanks to our deep connection to water and the natural world.

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