Your home's acoustics may be making it harder to hear
Small, budget-friendly decor changes can make a big difference in sound clarity
Ever notice hearing in some locations is particularly tricky? Cavernous bars and noisy restaurants with stark walls and tables sans tablecloths can be particularly challenging. But so too can your home.
This is due to acoustics, or how sound travels in a room or given space.
Take a large dining room with wooden floors, bare walls, and large, curtain-free windows—sounds bounce off all of those hard, reflective surfaces, so you’ll hear both what someone says and an echo, explains Lindsay S. Creed, AuD, CCC-A, associate director of audiology practices at American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA).
How the wrong acoustics make it harder to hear
This echoing distorts the clarity of speech, she says. With more stuff in a room—a tablecloth on that table, drapes over windows, rugs on the floor—sound is captured and absorbed by the softer surfaces, rather than bouncing back.
“It [acoustics] can have a huge effect on somebody's communicative ability,” Creed says. That’s true for everyone, not just people with hearing loss or those who wear hearing aids, she notes.
Fortunately, there’s plenty you can do in your home to improve the acoustics, making communication easier.
Current design trends aren't very hearing-friendly
“What's appealing to the eyes isn't always appealing to the ears,” Creed says.
That is, today’s homes—designed with open spaces for entertaining, drapery-free windows, uncarpeted floors, and vaulted ceilings—may be aesthetically on-trend, but these designs also have unintended consequences when it comes to hearing.
“It would behoove us for communication to really have more furniture, more carpeting, more drapery materials for sound absorption around the house and not just hard surfaces and walls,” Creed says. “Unfortunately, this current interior design aesthetic that is preferred by many is not good for the ears and communication,” she says.
Some materials absorb sound (think: fuzzy, soft, and textured materials), while others reflect it, says occupation therapist Kristen Marie-Weber Chang, adjunct faculty at Concordia University Wisconsin, who also works as an occupational therapist at Mayo Hospital, Rochester, MN. That includes glass, brick, and tiled surfaces, she says.
The trickiest rooms: Kitchens, bathrooms and laundry rooms
Some spaces can be particularly challenging when it comes to hearing, points out Chang. That's the rooms where we're least likely to use sound-absorbing fabrics and furniture, such as:
Knowing the areas where hearing—and therefore, communication—will be more tricky can lead to strategic decisions.
“If you're going to have a really important conversation with someone, maybe don't do it in the kitchen,” Chang says.
6 tips to improve your home's acoustics
No need to completely redesign your home. (Although, if you are designing from scratch, consider moving away from open concept, and thinking about your ears as you view the architectural plans.) Here are small, budget-friendly changes that can improve the acoustics in your home.
1. Add carpeting
Wall-to-wall carpeting can make a big difference, but if that’s not in your budget (or your aesthetic preferences), try incorporating throw rugs. Do so with caution, Chang says. “Many older adults are also at a higher risk for falls,” she says. So, if you’re incorporating a rug, use carpet tape to tack down the sides and slip a rubbing backing below that can help keep it in place (and also absorb even more sound), she says.
2. Install door sweeps
Not only will these put an end to drafts, but a door sweep can cut down on sounds emanating from noisy rooms, like the bathroom or laundry room, Chang says.
3. Add furniture—and choose padded options
The more furniture you have in the room, the better. And, if you are planning on getting new furniture, opt for items that are large and padded, as opposed to minimalist and made from hard surfaces, Chang says.
4. Use fabric strategically
That includes putting a tablecloth on your kitchen and dining room tables, and using heavy drapery, Chang says. Consider heavier drapes made with noise-absorbing material to absorb the most sound, she says. Even small things, such as adding drawer liners in the kitchen (to reduce the clanking of silverware) and adding bumper pads to drawers, tables, and doors can be helpful, she says.
5. Put up art
“You can hang curtains or tapestries on the wall, that can also be visually appealing, but also help with the acoustics,” Creed suggests. And artwork can also be helpful, she says.
6. Use room dividers
Along with helping to absorb sound, they make large spaces smaller.
“All those little things are going to help to absorb and not reflect sound, which is going to result in less reverberation and a better communication environment,” Creed says.
Always try to limit background noise
And, of course, don’t neglect the benefits of limiting background noise, Creed says. If you need to focus during a video chat, turn the HVAC system down or off, for instance.
Background noise makes it harder to hear consonants (it’s the reason it’s hard to know if someone said “cat,” “hat,” or “sat” without relying on context clues). Combine this with challenging acoustics, and people will hear several iterations of vowel sounds, creating a communication nightmare.
More: How to hear better in challenging places (like a crowded restaurant), even if you don't have hearing loss.
Your hearing provider can offer tips, too
Everyone benefits from an “awareness that the environment does affect someone’s communication,” Chang says. If you find that there are particular spots in your home where conversations are difficult, you can make sure to avoid important chats there—or, take steps to improve the acoustics.
An audiologist or hearing specialist also can be helpful here. They’re experts in both technology and auditory rehabilitation, which includes counseling, Creed says.
“So in addition to making changes to the hearing aids, an audiologist can sit down with a patient and even their communication partners in the house and go over strategies for communication tips, healthy hearing habits that they should use, or go over what areas of the home are challenging to them and come up with specific advice for them,” Creed says.