⇠ Back to News

The science of biophilic sound: Creating multisensory workplace experiences

A man sits working at a desk that's set in nature: he's surrounded by mountains, grass and trees

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

Imagine you’re walking through a beautiful forest. The trees are lush and green, the birds are singing, insects are chirping. Then, suddenly, there’s silence. Everything goes eerily quiet. How would that make you feel? How might your body react, physically?

This scenario highlights two important things to consider in the context of workplace experience. Firstly, sound plays a huge part in the way we experience the world. And second, we should characterise this sound beyond just its noise level. Quiet isn’t always good and conversely loud isn’t always bad.

Designing for the ears

Our ears evolved for us to make sense of physical spaces.They give us 360 degrees of information about an environment. The sound we encounter on a day-to-day basis affects our brains and bodies enormously, whether we’re indoors or outdoors. Just as we experienced in the silent forest, sometimes no matter how beautiful a space looks, the way it sounds can override our response to it.

Despite the fact that we evolved for survival in nature, we now spend most of our time indoors. Sonically, these environments are so far removed from our natural habitats that our brains struggle to cope. Our primordial sense of hearing is very well-adapted to survival outdoors, but ill-adapted to the acoustics of the modern office. Bleeping phones, other people’s conversations... These spaces are typically distracting and lacking the richness and therapeutic value of the natural world. And this has a knock-on effect for the way we think and behave in offices.

On the flip side, simply listening to the sounds of nature can bring significant benefits to our physical and mental health. Natural sounds can relax us, energise us, or help us focus. Research has found that the sound of a babbling brook promotes optimal cognitive functioning.[1] Birdsong can help us feel safe and secure.[2] Listening to the sounds of nature can reduce our muscle tension and heart rate.[3]The list goes on and on![4] These benefits can be brought indoors too. Our own research found that introducing biophilic soundscapes into the workplace improved focus, creative thinking, and relaxation compared to typical office sound.

Listening beyond the noise

Despite knowing about these biophilic benefits for years, most of the historical talk about office sound comes back to loudness and how to reduce noise. It can lead people to assume that quiet equals good and loud equals bad. Sometimes that’s true, but not always. Just think back to that eerily quiet forest.

Loudness is an important consideration. We’ve all experienced that feeling of “not being able to hear ourselves think”, and continued exposure to loud noise like traffic or construction can cause serious health problems. But loudness isn’t the only factor that determines how healthy or productive a soundscape is.

Workplaces can also be too quiet as well as too loud. It’s become a particular problem post-Covid lockdowns, with lower office occupancy levels. Humans are particularly sensitive to speech and in a quiet office other people’s conversations are frustratingly intelligible and distracting.

Even without distractions, silence isn’t the gold standard for wellbeing or productivity. When researchers compared task performance in different soundscape conditions, natural soundscapes outperformed silence and pink noise for restoration, focus, creative thinking, and subjective preference.[1, 5]

Creating multi-sensory workplace experiences

Consider the diversity of sound you encounter walking through a natural habitat. Even in a relatively small area, you might encounter open meadows, forests, streams, or any number of other environments or creatures. Imagine too how that sound changes throughout the day, year or in different weather conditions. Outdoors, we’re connected to our surroundings and its daily or seasonal rhythms. Compare that diversity with the sound you’d encounter in atypical workspace and the differences will be obvious.

This is important because responses to sound is personal. There’s no one size fits all. Individual reactions might depend on a person’s sensory processing capabilities, or on what type of activity they’re engaged in. It also matters because by being connected to nature, we maintain functional circadian rhythms, promoting healthier sleep schedules at night and greater alertness in the daytime.

But recent developments in soundscaping technology mean that it is possible to create more organic sound indoors. With algorithmically programmed soundscapes, content can vary from zone to zone, hour to hour, or even deliver soundscapes that are “alive” and respond in real-time to changing environmental conditions. Just as with circadian lighting, research shows that natural sounds too can be used to trigger our bodies’ circadian rhythms.[5]

Beyond sound, biophilic design should recognise the workplace as a multi-sensory experience. Aligning sight and sound, for example, enhances the therapeutic benefits of biophilic design.[7, 8]

In this way sound becomes part of a holistic and human-centric design language. With nature as our blueprint, we are unlimited in the types of beneficial spaces and experiences we can design for people.


1. DeLoach, A.G., Carter, J.P., & Braash, J. (2015). Tuning the cognitive environment: Sound masking with “natural” sounds in open-plan offices. Journal of the Acoustic Society of American, 137, 2291.

2. Sayin, et al. (2015) “Sound and safe”: The effect of ambient sound on the perceived safety of public spaces. International Journal of Research and Marketing, 32, 4, 343-353

3. Largo-Wight, E., et al. (2016) The Efficacy of a Brief Nature Sound Intervention on Muscle Tension, Pulse Rate, and Self-Reported Stress: Nature Contact Micro-Break in an Office or Waiting Room. Health Environments Research and Design Journal, 10, 1.

4. Ratcliffe, E. (2021) Sound and Soundscape in Restorative Natural Environments: A Narrative Literature Review. Front. Psychol., 26 April 2021, Sec. Environmental Psychology

5. Haapakangas, A., Kankkunen, E., Hongisto, V., Virjonen, P., & Keskinen, E. (2011). Effects of Five Speech Masking Sounds on Performance and Acoustic Satisfaction. Implications for Open-Plan Offices. ACTA Acustica United with Acustica, 97, 641–655.

6. Goel, N. (2005) Late-night presentation of an auditory stimulus phase delays human circadian rhythms. American Journal of Physiology: Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology. 289, 1, R209-R216

7. Pheasant, R.J., Fisher, M.N., Watts, G.R., Whitaker, D.J., & Horoshenkov, K.V. (2010). The importance of auditory-visual interaction in the construction of ‘tranquil space.’ Journal of Environmental Psychology, 30, 501–509.

8. Jahncke, H., Hygge, S., Lahin, N., Green, A.M., & Dimberg, K. (2011). Open-plan office noise: Cognitive performance and restoration. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 31, 501–509.

Sign up for our newsletter

Keep up to date with our work, training and research.