Do people with hidden disabilities hear differently to others? Composer and sound designer Dougie Evans explores the power of sound through sensitive ears. 

In Brighton the sound of seagulls, traffic and people blend into a mixture of noise that most people have unconsciously trained their minds to filter out. Modern life has added a fairly invasive mix of mobile notification sounds, buzzing home appliances, music piped into every shop, self service checkout machines, and phone waiting music to name a few.

But this level of noise pollution isn't just annoying, there is actually evidence that long-term environmental noise can have a negative influence on your health. As part of our research into hidden disabilities we have been asking people about their experience of noise and trying to discover how noise affects people with hidden disabilities and if hidden disabilities affect how we hear sound.

What seems to be a shared experience is that many people with hidden disabilities have a hypersensitivity to sound. Hearing is a sense that we cannot easily control – there is no equivalent to shutting our eyes for example, and the invasiveness of sound can disturb someone’s attempt to maintain a calm environment.  

We also discussed as a group whether we chose to play music which represented how we already felt or music which might help us change our mood. Do we play sad music when we are sad, or happy music to feel happy? “Sometimes I like to indulge in how I feel” one participant admitted. Most people agreed that we are more likely to use music for a positive influence, whether it is to feel calm or to lift our spirits, rather than bring us down.

After a bit of experimentation we found that the most calming sound was a slow deep tone. Whilst the sound of the dawn chorus can be uplifting at times, its high pitch and rapid sounds can be overloading to the senses. Equally most people found busy environments with lots of sounds all at once stressful, whereas the single sound of running water can be relaxing.

The best way to start to notice the sounds around you more clearly is to record them. Anyone interested should check out my article on recording found sounds.

We have had some really inspiring and creative sounds come out of our sessions. The Hubbub exhibition in July will showcase some of these and we would love to hear your thoughts on how sound and hidden disabilities might affect each other. 

Dougie Evans is a Composer and Sound Designer whose work has has been in award winning dance and theatre productions, BBC productions, short films, animations, National Trust audio walks, and sound installations.
His interest in mixing recordings of everyday sounds and real instruments into his work sets him apart from other composers and sound designers. His work, whether it’s a soundtrack for a show or an installation, always aims to transport the audience so that they really feel like they are in a fictional world, even if that world is abstract or electronic. The use of familiar sounds in sometimes unfamiliar ways has become his trademark sound design.