“I see music as fluid architecture,” legendary singer and songwriter Joni Mitchell told the New York Times in a 1991 interview. Debbe Daley saw it as an inspiration for interior architecture when she remodeled a room in her Portsmouth, New Hampshire home as a music studio for herself and her husband. The interior designer and author has been playing the flute since the fifth grade. Her husband is a multi-instrument musician. Playing Sunday morning jazz is part of their weekend ritual and performing with and for friends at home is part of their social life.
“A completed music room was always on my husband’s list to have in our home,” Daley shared. “He was set up in different rooms and then as we remodeled, he went to the unfinished basement.” When they began the music room project last year, installing a drain in the waterside home’s new downstairs space to ensure there was no flooding was a top priority. Unlike Mitchell, Daley wanted her music architecture to be fluid-intolerant.
The designer shared additional priorities to create a successful, enjoyable music room in an email interview, as did Connecticut-based acoustical and audio consultant Steve Haas, and concert pianist/board certified music therapist/instructor at Berklee College of Music Renate Rohlfing.
All three of these experts also share a love of playing music themselves. (So do I, but as a newbie cello student since January 2023, my musical output is still more yowl than Yo-Yo Ma.)
Wellness Benefits of Music
You’ve probably heard or read this famous quotation: “Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast.” Attributed to 17th century English playwright and politician William Congreve, it is still relevant today.
Music definitely offers soothing benefits, Rohlfing notes: “It can serve as an outlet for stress, anxiety, and negative emotions, promoting relaxation and overall emotional balance. Moreover, engaging in musical activities, such as playing in a band, orchestra, ensemble, or choir, can foster a sense of belonging, social connection, and teamwork, which are essential for emotional and mental well-being.” With an epidemic of loneliness, according to the Surgeon General, playing music together can soothe multiple breasts at the same time. Shared experiences like these can help combat feelings of isolation and loneliness, the music therapist says.
There are other benefits too, which drew me to taking up a complicated string instrument in my 60s: “Playing an instrument or singing is a powerful cognitive workout,” Rohlfing points out. “It engages various regions of the brain simultaneously – those responsible for motor skills, auditory processing, memory, and emotional processing.” (Whenever I feel frustrated with my scratchy bow work — which is often still — I repeat to myself, ‘It’s good for my brain. It’s good for my brain.”)
The music therapist comments that there are additional physical benefits to music, whether your instrument is your voice, a violin or something altogether different. “The act of playing requires fine motor skills, coordination, and dexterity, which can enhance hand-eye coordination and finger strength. Additionally, singing and playing certain instruments, such as wind instruments, can strengthen respiratory muscles and improve lung capacity and control.” This can be particularly helpful for those with breathing conditions or anyone seeking to improve their lung health.
Even if you don’t make music yourself, there are wellness benefits to listening to it. “Because music can stimulate dopamine release, we can improve our mood and emotional well-being by selecting music that resonates with our desired emotional state,” Rohlfing explains. Listening can reduce stress by lowering cortisol levels and activating a relaxation response.
It can also inspire movement and productivity for someone having a tough time getting going, she suggests. “Music with a fast tempo, strong rhythm, and positive lyrics can significantly increase motivation and work output.” This is completely understood by the strength trainer hitting new lifting goals to her favorite jams and the housecleaner vacuuming to his rocking playlist.
Rohlfing sums up music’s mental health benefits this way: “It can resonate with our emotional state.”
Music Space Priorities
As anyone who has neighbors, roommates or family members whose musical tastes and schedules differ with ours can attest, hearing someone else’s tunes can be nerve-jangling, rather than soothing. Much of that has to do with sound (and sometimes vibrations) traveling through walls, ceilings, floors and windows.
This is a challenge that Haas addresses in the acoustical consulting work he does for museums, concert halls, houses of worship and, yes, homeowners, including his own household. “The design of a residential space for live music practice or performance often involves not just the quality of sound within, but also the containment of sound to and from.”
“It’s very important to understand the needs of both aspects and then focus in on the acoustic needs of instruments and/or voices that will be present,” Haas advises, adding, “For example, the approaches for achieving balanced sound quality for acoustic instruments, such as strings or brass, differ from amplified instruments such as electric guitar.”
The biggest acoustical challenge is often the biggest instrument, he observes, pointing to grand pianos, including seven- and nine-foot models that are placed in homes by serious players. A pianist himself, Haas has set up a studio at his Connecticut residence. “My main home practice space is a relatively compact studio of about 300 square feet where I have multiple keyboards, along with audio gear for practice, recording and occasionally remote streaming. When I bring others over to jam, I move some of my equipment into a much larger home theater. Of course, both spaces have been acoustically engineered to be optimized for amplified music practice!”
Daley agrees with the need for acoustical barriers. After the drain, soundproofing the walls and ceiling was their music room’s second priority. “Jamie has three drum kits. It gets quite loud at times and the soundproofing has definitely helped with that.”
Climate control was another must-have, and not just for comfort. A humidity management system is needed to ensure the air is consistently regulated for the guitars, the designer explains.
Musician comfort is also important, and finding a tall chair with a back was a goal of her husband’s for playing his guitars. (Knowing the right type of seat for playing your instrument is crucial! So is allowing the proper space clearance around the seat so that your instrument, its components — be they drumsticks, bow, etc. — and your arms are unencumbered.)
Daley has her own chair and a vintage music stand for practicing and performing on her flute. The couple often invites groups of 12 or so friends and family members to the music room to play and enjoy musical sessions together. A new sofa and chairs brought from elsewhere in the home keep everyone tunefully comfortable for hours.
“Location of the space, lighting (or lack of lighting) should be taken into consideration; knowing what exactly will be happening in the music space are important,” the designer says. “Storage is also something that needs to be considered for the equipment the instruments require.” There may also need to be storage for sheet music, albums, and possibly collectibles related to a homeowner’s musical hobby.
The Listening Room
Many homeowners who don’t perform music themselves enjoy listening to it and want the sound fidelity that serious musicians enjoy. They may even have a dedicated room for this pursuit. Haas refers to those as “two-channel listening rooms,” and notes that they are as popular as ever. “Even vinyl records have been making a comeback, with so many high-quality turntables and other equipment available to support the sonic euphoria of listening to one’s favorite recordings,” he observes.
If you’re considering adding a music room to your home – or screening films with soaring soundtracks – adding an acoustical consultant to your project team will reap benefits, both in experiencing music in that space and, just as important, blocking it from escaping.
Daley has seen increasing interest in having an enhanced listening room, she says. “Almost every client wants their own space to listen to music, read or just get away from the busy open spaces in their home.” She works with home theater companies to ensure that the surround sound features will work with the layouts she designs.
Most clients are listening to music from their phone, computer, or TV and new WiFi-based whole home sound systems have been a big trend, the designer declares. “Having control over the speakers in every room allows them to only have music playing in one room at a time and this is a big plus for the client with a family.”
“Some people like to have an intimate experience with sound and want to be close to the sound they create,” Rohlfing observes. “Others like to hear it interact with the outside world, to feel more connected externally. I think it’s all about experimenting with what affects you the most and gives you the greatest range of emotional experiences.” Whether that’s mastering your musical craft or appreciating your favorite musical masters, creating a home space to support your passion enhances the experience.
Contributors Daley, Haas and Rohlfing will be sharing more musical space insights in an hour-long Clubhouse conversation tomorrow afternoon (July 19, 2023) at 4 pm Eastern/1 pm Pacific. You can save the date and join this WELLNESS WEDNESDAYS discussion here. If you’re unable to attend, you can catch the recording via Clubhouse Replays here or the Gold Notes design blog here next Wednesday.