Within a 24-hour care environment, noise—a steady hum of activity often punctuated by jarring equipment beeps, squeaky medical carts, or even running footsteps and raised voices—is all but inevitable. And there are certainly steps designers can take to mitigate that noise through material choices, patient floor layout, and other means.

Tammy Thompson of The Institute for Patient-Centered Design suggests controllable white noise by patients’ bedsides. (As someone with two separate white noise apps on my phone, plus a sound machine in my bedroom, I’m all over this.) Other sound-masking tactics exist as well, and they're an important part of improving the patient experience. But a couple of examples I've recently come across reminded me that there's more to sound than just noise—and enhancing the patient experience with sound has value, too.

A recent study in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics reiterates evidence that playing recorded music may have health benefits (“the Mozart effect”), particularly in terms of boosting NICU patients’ gains in critical areas such as sucking, weight gain, sleep, and recovery from painful procedures. The new study takes that theory even further, suggesting that live music can have a positive influence on NICU patient cardiac and respiratory functions, as well.  

Does this mean designers need to start allocating space in the patient room for a string quartet? Well, no. Parent-sung lullabies and “the informed, intentional therapeutic use of live sound … applied by a certified music therapist” are the researchers’ recommended course of action. But still, it’s something to think about. My last hospital stay certainly could have benefited from a roving Mariachi band.

And as long as we’re thinking so far outside the music box, check out this amazing example from London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital. The children’s facility was looking for a way to spruce up a 10-story, super-tight space between its 1930s brick Southwood Building and the adjacent, much more modern, glass-clad Morgan Stanley Clinical Building. So it launched a competition for an art installation—and architecture firm Studio Weave (London) showed up with bells on.

Studio Weave’s winning entry, Lullaby Factory, relies on a tangle of materials, with oversized phonograph horns and trumpets shaped from spun metal and aluminum, and an assortment of industrial materials, pumps, and pipework snaking along the brick build­ing’s side. A custom lullaby composed by sound artist Jessica Curry can be heard through some of the tubes or via a special ward-based radio station. Give it a listen: Once you get past the shoomp-shoomp noises, it’s quite lovely and fun, right? I’d call that a positive distraction.

These examples both refer to pediatric spaces, but the integration of music in some form or another into the designed environment could surely benefit patients of all ages—not to mention their families, visitors, and even the staff. Designers have so many tools in their arsenal to improve the healthcare experience. It’s a great practice to remember all angles, and all senses, when considering the options.