Does Sound Travel Up or Down in Apartments?

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If you’ve ever lived in an apartment, you’re probably familiar with the following situation: you’re minding your own business, but strange noises keep disturbing your peace.

You keep hearing sounds such as people talking or walking around – they're coming from neighbors that live in the same apartment building as you. 

Surely you’ve seen the scenes in movies where people lean on walls to eavesdrop on their neighbors' conversations, but thin walls don't have to be the only cause of the unpleasant occurrence that is noise in your apartment.

eavesdropping

Even though it is less thought about and rarely seen in movies, could it be that floors and ceilings are also to blame for this problem?

This raises another question – if you can hear your neighbors because of thin floors or ceilings, does that mean that sound travels up? 

Could that be the reason behind the noise you hear in your apartment, even though you may be on the last floor of the building, with no one else above you?

And also, which factors determine how loud the sound coming from bellow will be, and what are the measures for minimizing it?

Let’s answer these questions and help you bring back the peaceful atmosphere of your home!

What is Sound?

To truly understand how sound moves, we must first understand what sound is.

By definition, sound is the product of vibrating things. What this means is that what you hear is an object’s vibrations transported through a medium (air, water or solid material).

Vibrating objects produce sound as an energy form that requires a material to travel through, which is defined as a mechanical wave in physics.

This characteristic of sound is the reason why it’s so silent in space. It simply isn't capable of travelling through the vacuum of space, since there’s nothing that sound vibrations can travel through.

The medium sound travels through can be either air, water or even a solid material, which explains why you can hear your neighbors through the walls of your apartment.

In fact, sound actually passes through solid materials much faster when compared to liquid or gasses.

How does sound travel?

After clarifying what sound is, let’s take a closer look at how it travels.

Are you perhaps one of many people who have the idea of sound moving in one direction only?

For example, you're listening to music and imagining sound as waves going out of your headphones in the form of a line directly into your ear?

If your answer is yes, you may be surprised to learn that this isn’t the case when it comes to the way sound travels.

sound travel

The scientific term for the way sound broadcasts from its source point is omnidirectional – meaning “in every direction”.

Contrary to the misconception that sound travels in straight lines or in the form of a cone, the truth is that pretty much the opposite is the case. Sound actually moves all around, supposing it’s not directed in a certain way.

When you think about it, there are plenty of examples in our surroundings that prove this to be true.

Just think about it:

Even if you're on the highest floor of the building you will hear everything happening in the street below you, and the same goes with the apartment noise we mentioned earlier – even the top floor neighbors can have noise complaints although there is no one walking above their heads.

reduce railway noise

Of course, there are ways to direct sound, by with cones – this is the way megaphones work, or by soundproofing, but in all other cases the sound is going to be broadcasted in all directions.

Despite the nature of sound that causes it to have no specific direction it goes in, of course, the direction you point your sound source in will have a saying in where the sound will be the loudest.

Take a regular speaker as an example – you will point it in the direction you want the sound projected the loudest, but you will hear the music no matter where in the room you’re located.

You might also like: How to Deal with Noisy Upstairs Neighbors in 7 Steps

Types of noise

After reading the guide above you should be aware of the main characteristics of sound, but there is something else we would like to point out.

We spoke about mediums the sound can travel through, and mentioned air, liquid and solid materials. Let's focus on air and solid mediums for a little bit since those are the mediums the sound will most likely travel through in your surroundings.

Based on that, the two main types of noise are:

Airborne Noise – As you can probably guess by the name, this type of noise is a result of sound travelling through air.

Think of any kind of sound and chances are you’re thinking about airborne noise – music, nature sounds or speech are all different kinds of airborne noise.

airborne noise

Impact Noise (Structure-borne noise) – This type of noise originates from sound travelling through solid materials or structures, hence the name "structure-borne noise". 

The crucial occurrence that needs to happen for impact noise to happen is the impact itself, naturally – one object collides with another and forms noise as a result. Those sounds of your neighbors walking around in the apartment above are a classic example of impact noise.

The impact noise is actually the one most likely to be heard from the downstairs apartment, simply because those sounds are low frequency and thick floors and ceilings let them through easier than high-frequency airborne noise. 

does sound travel up

With that in mind, think about it – there has rarely been a time you’ve heard people talking from the apartment below, while you probably heard footsteps.

Being aware of different types of sound transmissions are crucial for understanding how you can make your space more peaceful and reduce unwanted noise in your immediate surroundings.

The solution for minimizing noise?

Now that we’re familiar with the basic qualities of sound and the two main types of noise, we can get to talking about ways to minimize the noise you keep hearing from your downstairs (or any other) neighbors, but also the ways of reducing your own noise to make sure you’re not disturbing anyone.

Considering the characteristics of sound, here’s what you can do to minimize its impact in your surroundings:

  • Make sure all holes are sealed – Even extremely small gaps in floors and ceilings can make a big difference when it comes to the amount of noise that is present, so that’s the first step you should think about when planning noise reduction. Here is a guide on soundproofing the holes in a wall.
  • Use carpets, underlays or soundproofing layers – These strategies are very important for preventing impact noise, and can minimise sounds at different frequency levels, depending on the material that is being used. See more soundproof flooring materials here.
  • Be mindful – Being a good neighbour means caring about other people’s needs as well, so think twice before producing any unnecessary noise, especially in rest hours of the day, and only then can you expect from neighbors to do the same.
interlocking-floor-mat

Conclusion – Does sound travel up?

The short answer is – yes, sound does travel in all directions from its source, including upwards.

The long answer is that even though sound can travel up, ultimately the impact it will have depends on various factors, such as the orientation of the sound source, the way of sound transmission, and applied soundproofing strategies.

You might also like: How To Soundproof Between Existing Floors in 3 Simple Steps