An Electronic Musician’s Quest to Reimagine Hospital Soundscapes
When Washington, D.C.–based electronic musician and sound engineer Yoko Sen fell ill and was hospitalized for multiple days, in 2014, she was unnerved—but not because of the potential trajectory of her ailment. Instead, the disquiet stemmed from the sounds she heard in the hospital: a cacophony of alarms, beeps, people screaming, and doors slamming. Because Sen is a musician, the disturbances manifested in a very acute way. “The beeps translated in my head as, ‘Oh, this is a B flat, and this is F sharp, and this is E flat,’” she says. When two or three beeps occurred at the same time, they often created an unsettling dissonance.
While Sen may be particularly attuned to the displeasing qualities of sounds, she’s not alone in the aural turbulence of medical facilities. Over the past decade, multiple studies have demonstrated a clear link between hospital sounds and increased levels of stress, anxiety, depression, fear, and blood pressure—not to mention hearing loss—in patients, nurses, and doctors. The auditory irritants have even been given a name: hospital noise pollution. “The disturbance [of the hospital] really stayed with me even after I recovered,” Sen says. “I wanted to see if there was a way we could change that somehow.”
In turn, Sen and her husband created Sen Sound, an initiative that aims to reshape the future of hospital sound design. Over the five years since its founding, in 2016, the organization has collaborated with a number of leading universities and innovation labs to chart new territory in medical treatment facilities’ sonic spaces. For example, in 2016, Sen Sound worked with patients and staff at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, D.C., to develop the Tranquility Room, an immersive, in-hospital sanctuary filled with soothing ambient sounds, dim lighting, and aromatherapy. The space (currently on pause due to the pandemic) served as a haven where hospital staff could relax and recharge; those who spent time in it reported feeling less stressed and more clear-headed after emerging.
Another project, “My Last Sound,” was completed when Sen was an artist-in-residence at Medicine X, Stanford University’s premier program on emerging technology and medicine. She began by asking people what sounds they would want to hear at the end of their lives, and three responses resounded: the ocean, laughter, and the voices of loved ones. Sen weaved the answers into a short piece of music, which she uses in presentations to highlight the important role of sound in bringing respect to a patient’s final days. Currently, Sen Sound is working on a to-be-announced project that seeks to redesign the sonic components of medical devices themselves.
In Sen’s eyes, hospitals should be not only centers for treatment, but holistic refuges for rest, recovery, and relief. After all, as she points out, these spaces are often where our first and last seconds are spent. “[In hospitals,] there are infants who are very, very sensitive to sound,” she says, “and there are people who are nearing the end of life.” If health centers embrace her findings, they can add dignity—and tranquility—to these vital moments.