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Recording Studio

A small carpeted room with uneven diffusers covering the walls

Forest

A dense grove of trees surrounded by open sky

Concert Hall

A hall of brick and plaster with soft wooden floors

Cathedral

A massive empty stone structure with high ceilings

Meadow

A wide open grassy field

Well

A fiberglass storage cylinder filled with water

Archway

A narrow brick archway at the park

Racquetball Court

A hardwood court with smooth concrete and glass walls

Whoa! Look at that explosion of color dots.

Sounds don’t really explode like confetti. They are mechanical waves, triggering a chain reaction of vibrating particles before they reach your ears.

Did you just see a burst of red or orange dots?

They represent low-pitched sounds with low frequencies. They’re difficult to absorb and more likely to travel longer distances.

Did you just see a burst of blue or purple dots?

They represent high-pitched sounds with high frequencies. They’re more likely to disperse or decay as a result of small changes in environmental surfaces.

Did you notice dark borders around that environment?

They represent soft, fibrous materials that convert sound into heat energy. In those places, we hear silence.

Did you notice bright lines around that environment?

They represent hard, smooth materials like stone or subway tile: sound bounces right off. In those places, we hear echoes and reverb.

Did you notice wavy lines around that environment?

They represent bumpy surfaces that trap sound waves. In those places, reverb and echoes are muffled.

Did you notice smooth, straight lines?

They represent small amounts of surface diffusion. In those places, high-pitched noise might scatter but bass lines carry.

Did you hear an echo?

Hard, smooth surfaces cause sound waves to bounce back towards the sound source.

Did you hear a really long sound?

In small spaces, reflected sound waves reach our ears instantaneously. We hear a prolonged sound, or reverb.

Did you hear a sound go silent?

Particles in soft, fibrous materials vibrate then turn into heat energy when sound waves reach them.

Did you hear a sound get muffled?

The nooks and crannies of diffuse surfaces trap and mute sound waves.

Did you hear a sound fade away?

Particles in the air vibrate as sound waves travel. Eventually, this kinetic energy slows down and the sound stops.

Sound Library/ Voices
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How do our surroundings affect sound waves and shape what we hear?

ABOUT THIS EXPERIMENT

At any given moment, we are surrounded by human, mechanical and natural sound. Whatever the source, these auditory vibrations are always co-authored: from the ground to the sky, from city walls to a forest grove, the materials and objects in a place impact the structure and movement of sound as it travels to our ears. This National Science and Technology Medals Foundation interactive invites you to discover the ways that physical space affects sound waves. By listening to words, beats, and naturally-occurring sounds in distinctive environments, you will observe how the properties of reflectivity, absorption, and diffusion shape the quality of what we hear.

NSTMF Laureates

The National Science and Technology Medals Foundation celebrates the amazing individuals who have won the highest science, technology, engineering, and mathematics award in the United States.

Ray Dolby

Pioneered advancements in sound recordings and developed the Dolby Sound System.

Leo L. Beranek

Changed our experience of live music through innovations in the acoustics of concert halls.

William Maurice Ewing

Mapped the floor of the Atlantic Ocean using sonar technology.

James Edward Maceo West

Developed the foil electret microphone, the technology behind 90% of today's contemporary microphones.

Tempo
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02 Sound/

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Experiment > Environment
How do our surroundings affect sound waves and shape what we hear?
Play our environmental synth to explore.
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Learn more about the pioneering scientists and thinkers behind this experiment at nationalmedals.org

Here are a few to check out: