June 4, 2024

Wang explains the toll of restaurant noise in Washington Post

Blurry photo of crowded restaurant


Acoustics expert Lily Wang was featured in a June 2 Washington Post article exploring noise levels in restaurants.

Wang, Charles W. and Margre H. Durham Distinguished Professor and director of the Durham School of Architectural Engineering and Construction, recently dined with the Post’s Bishop Sand and Tom Sietsema to help them better understand restaurant soundscapes. They met at Pisco y Nazca, a notoriously noisy Peruvian restaurant in downtown Washington, D.C.

Color portrait of Lily Wang

Wang and other experts have pointed to mounting evidence that excessive noise is more than a minor inconvenience — multiple studies show that prolonged exposure can have physical effects such as increased anxiety and fatigue. And restaurant staff risk permanent hearing damage.

Wang, who runs the acoustics program in the Durham School and is the former president of the Acoustical Society of America, explained to her dining companions that sound is created by the vibration of molecules in the air. This vibration moves away from the source not in a straight line, but outward in a growing sphere of sound waves.

When a sound wave hits anything, three things can happen, depending on the materials involved.

“Some gets reflected,” Wang said. “Then, there is some of it that will … continue propagating … and then there is some that is absorbed.”

Wang said she thinks aesthetic changes — such as more industrial design — contribute to restaurants getting louder. She also explained that diners affect noise levels — not only are they sources of noise, but people act as sound absorbers and reflectors.

“You know, concert halls design chairs to absorb the same amount of sound as a normal human body,” she said. “That way, it sounds the same whether or not it’s a packed house.”

Wang is pushing for the Acoustical Society of America to create a standard system for restaurant noise, the Post reported.

Learn more about Wang’s research.

Learn more about the Durham School at Nebraska.

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