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Does Sound Travel Up or Down? Here’s the Answer

Apartment living can introduce you to a cacophony of noises from many sources in all directions. If you’ve ever felt a neighbor’s bass booming through your living space in time to their awful music, then you know the problems this can present all too well. In such a situation, you may be looking to find the culprit and wondering where they live. Are they above or below? Well, does sound travel up or down?

So, which way does sound travel, up or down? Actually, neither. Sound will spread out in all directions unless something blocks or redirects it. It may travel at different speeds through different mediums such as air or solids, but it will continue to expand in all directions equally unless something acts upon those sound waves.

Interestingly, not all types of sounds will travel the same distance. Certain types of sound have much greater reach than others. Moreover, how the sound is traveling will also affect how far it can reach. Is the sound being transferred through solid surfaces such as walls and floors, or is it just projecting through the air? Let’s dig a little deeper into each of these and see how they affect the direction and distance which sound travels.

Does Sound Travel Up or Down in an Apartment

How Does Sound Travel?

Once a sound is created, it continues to project out in the form of sound waves that spread in all directions. The sound travels until it is redirected by coming into contact with another surface, such as a wall. Once it contacts a hard surface, many of the sound waves will be reflected and the wave will continue moving in a new direction with less energy. 

Sound can also be transferred through contact. Sound travels along hard surfaces by way of vibration, which can continue to travel through any surfaces that are in contact with the surface where the sound originated. 

Low-frequency sounds tend to travel more through contact as they have more energy and create more vibration. Higher-frequency sound travels through the air and is more easily absorbed and reflected than the lower-frequency noise.

Do All Sounds Travel the Same Distance?

So, how far can sound travel? As we mentioned, low-frequency sounds contain more energy, which means they also travel farther. On the other hand, high-frequency sound travels less distance overall since the sound waves contain less energy. This is the reason that they are reflected and absorbed more easily.

In an apartment, it’s much more difficult to tell where low-frequency sounds are coming from. The sound travel can be so great with low-frequency sounds that it could be coming from anywhere in your building. Alternatively, higher-pitched noises don’t travel as far. Thus they must be originating closer to your living space. This makes them easier to find and identify.

Do All Sounds Travel the Same Speed?

Since lower-frequency sounds contain more energy, you may expect the speed that sound travels at to be accelerated. However, all frequencies of sound move at the same speed. What affects differences in sound travel speed is the medium through which the noise travels. 

Compared to air, sound travels 15X faster through steel. This means that the pumping bass from a stereo anywhere in your building can easily travel through the structural steel beams that hold your apartment together and travel quickly from one end to the other. This can make it quite challenging to determine where an offending noise is even coming from. 

Water transmits sound four times faster than air, though nowhere near as fast as steel. Interestingly, sound waves even move faster in warm air when compared to cold air. 

In an apartment, this can mean that sound will find certain mediums through which it can travel fastest and allow it to be spread the farthest. For instance, noise may transfer through the concrete floor very quickly and spread across an entire level of the building. However, it may reach the wood used to construct the walls and no longer move as quickly. This may stop the sound travel much quicker, which prevents it from spreading to other floors.

Does Sound Travel Up or Down in an Apartment?

If you live in an apartment, you’re probably subject to a lot of extraneous noise. Footsteps are easy to hear above your head. But, how about that booming bass from a neighbor’s stereo? When you hear that, you’re wondering does sound travel up or down so you can find which neighbor is making all the ruckus. 

Sound will travel both directions evenly through the apartment building. However, the lower floors will tend to have more noise than the higher floors. This is because most of the noise is generated on the floors of the apartments above. 

Once a sound is generated on the floor, it will travel from the floor into the walls that connect. From there, it will spread out in every direction via vibration. That said, often the floor and walls are made from different materials that will transmit the sound at different speeds. 

As you get higher in an apartment building, there are fewer floors above your head where noise can be generated. On the bottom floor, there could be many rooms directly above you that are all starting points for noise generation. On the top floor, there’s nothing above your head to create noise, so you’ll only deal with noise coming up from below you.

Can upstairs neighbors hear downstairs neighbors? Not normal sounds like walking and talking. Generally, a thick concrete floor will separate you from the people below you. This floor transmits sound from contact very well, but that noise won’t travel as well up the walls since they’re constructed from wood. This is the reason you hear the footsteps above your head, but your upstairs neighbors don’t hear you walking around. 

Can you Direct Sound?

Sound can be directed, deflected, and absorbed. Sound waves carry energy which can be dissipated, reflected, and nullified. Once you kill the energy, the sound wave dies and the noise stops traveling. Of course, different frequencies respond differently to each of these methods of redirection.

High-frequency sounds can be reflected quite easily. All it takes is a hard surface. Since high-frequency sound waves don’t contain much energy, they don’t have enough power to cause vibration, which will transfer sound. 

When a high-frequency sound wave hits a hard surface, it’s reflected off the surface and moves away in a new direction. This deflection does absorb some of the sound wave’s energy, though, which means the reflected sound is quieter and has even less energy.

Sounds in the higher frequencies can also be absorbed fairly easily since they don’t contain very much energy. Instead of a hard surface, for absorption, you’re looking for something soft such as studio foam, blankets, even furniture can help absorb high-frequency sounds. 

Low-frequency sounds have different characteristics because they contain so much more energy and can create vibration. This means they can’t be deflected very well. The wave won’t bounce off a hard surface instead of being absorbed into the surface as vibration, which will transfer the noise.

Although they can’t be reflected very well, low-frequency sounds can still be absorbed. However, nullifying these high-energy sound waves will take a lot more than with the high-frequency noises. Lower sounds will require a lot of dampening material to absorb. 

Products designed to absorb higher-frequency sound waves tend to be 1” thick to about 3” thick. This is plenty for absorbing the energy of the higher sounds and nullifying them. The high-energy low-frequency sounds will require more in the line of 6”-12” thick sound-absorbing material to cancel that much energy.

For more information on controlling low frequency noise please see our articles How to Keep Bass From Going Through Walls, How to Block Out Low Frequency Noise.

 

How to Direct and Control the Noise

Many products exist to help absorb, deflect and redirect sound. Sound control panels come in many sizes, shapes, and colors. They can match your decor and will do a great job of containing the higher frequency sounds. Noise-control curtains can also prevent noises from coming in or out through windows, doors, and other weak points where sound often escapes.

Low-frequency sounds are much harder to get rid of. Since these high-energy sound waves are transferred most through contact, it’s best to decouple any low-frequency noise generators from any hard surfaces. For instance, subwoofers and large speakers should be placed on rubber risers or mats. This will help stop the transfer of sound through the floor and will reduce the amount of noise spreading to your downstairs neighbors. 

Conclusion

Apartment living can be a noisy situation that’s hard to control. If you’re like me, you’ve probably been wondering if sound travels up or down, trying to determine where the worst noise is coming from. Hopefully, now you understand how sound travels in all directions but moves at different speeds through different mediums. You’ve also got a few ideas for how to mitigate the issue, which I hope will help you find some peace in your home.

If you found this information useful, please share it with others who may also have too much excess noise in their lives. I will respond to any questions or comments left in the comments box below, so feel free to ask me anything.

 


Eugene Sokol

Hi, I’m Eugene. I work with noise all day, so I enjoy any peace and quiet I can find. I began looking at ways to improve the sound quality of my home and to make a soundproof office for myself. As a DIY enthusiast, I looked for solutions I could do. I created this blog to share what I learned and to make it easier for you to improve your quiet space too.


10 thoughts on “Does Sound Travel Up or Down? Here’s the Answer”

  1. My neighbor has some kind of high frequency machine that is going through my floor he has been harassing me for 2 months. And I think after this he has a low frequency machine or something that does both cause sometimes my floor rocking and it’s not music and it kinda makes me feel weird and sick. The other one makes a terrible high whining noise it gives me a migraine and makes my ear hurt even through ear plugs. HELP WHAT COULD I USE TO EITHER stop, send back to him or deflect or something to do with sound and vibration.??????

    Reply
    • Hi Jolene,

      Sounds like fun? Your second best option is a heavy wool rug with 1/2″ RugpadUSA underlayment available from Amazon. I am not sure what is causing the floor to rock.

      Your best option is to get him to turn everything on and invite him to your place to hear and feel it himself. Maybe he does not understand what is going on.

      Good luck,

      Terry

      Reply
  2. Hi Eugene, I live in a neighborhood in the rolling hills of California. We live at the top of one of these hills in a adequately sized suburban area, lots of houses. The past two weeks, I’ve been unable to sleep because someone in this area is playing loud bass all night. It’s not a direct neighbor, I don’t think otherwise it’d be louder, but I can hear it still. It sounds like it’s coming from far away. I’ve driven my car around for hours trying to find the culprit to report their address to the police, but it’s weird, I can’t find the location and the sound seems almost louder inside my house. Do you know if any way to locate the source of a loud bass that’s farther away? I mean it seems like this bass travels from miles away. How far can bass travel? And would it help to soundproof my windows? I’m going crazy and feel like the only solution at this point would be to move away. I need my sleep. This crappy person is destroying my life. I’m surprised no one else has reported them to the police.

    Reply
    • Hi Channing,

      Bass sounds can be a real problem because they are such a low frequency with long sound waves. The fog horn on a ship is bass sound and can be heard for miles–partly because there is nothing to stop it. Bass does not travel any further than other frequencies. Higher frequencies are just dissipated by any thing they encounter. Walls, trees, glass. Soundproofing your window will help some because it is the weakest point. But bass travels through walls also. You might want to take a look at our article ‘How to Keep Bass From Going Through Walls‘.

      Terry

      Reply
  3. My downstairs neighbors are constantly complaining of noise. When they first complained I thought they were noticing more noise because we were all working from home so I got new rugs and thicker pads, I added some sound absorbing panels. Yet it hasn’t helped.

    They say it happens at all hours of the day and at the same time every morning. The sounds are described as rhythmic banging, stomping and furniture being dragged across the floor.

    I’ve known them a while and believe they are hearing something but it isn’t coming me. The banging might be a water hammer since we live in an older building with steam. I hear banging occasionally too but it isn’t terribly loud in my unit.

    For the other sounds i am at a loss. I asked them to call when they heard a noise but they only did once. i put them on speaker and walked through the apartment where there was no noise but they still didn’t believe me. They’ve now taken to pounding on the ceiling or banging on my door. (Sometimes waking me up yet still refusing to believe I was not moving furniture.)

    Do you have any idea what might be happening here. They are becoming increasingly aggressive in their complaints but I don’t know what I can do, They complain of noise when I’ve been sitting on my couch for the past hour working with no TV or radio on.

    I am at a loss as to what to do next.

    Thanks.

    Reply
    • Hi Edward,

      The only thing I can think of is flanking noise coming through the floor, ceiling, or wall cavities into their unit from other parts of the building. If it happens at the same time every morning, why don’t you offer to pick up coffee and a box of donuts and go to their suite when it is happening. If you are there, you are not making the noise. And if you all hear it together maybe you can figure out what it is.

      Terry

      Reply
  4. Help, we have a vacant apartment above us and people next to and underneath us don’t work. There are at home being a disturbance to society and collecting checks instead of working. We work from home most days and they are deliberately making noises all times of the day. There sounds like a child running above me, banging on the walls, slamming closet doors; every day there is something and they don’t go nowhere. One flushes the toilet all day just because. Is there a way that this noise can travel above our heads. It is getting quite annoying how buildings are letting anyone live and also grandfather apartments to peoples relatives that have had the apartment for over 50 years.

    Thanks in advance for your thoughts,

    Cassie

    Reply
    • Hi Cassie,

      My first thought is that you should get the landlord, manager, or condo board involved. Invite them into your place for a visit when you think the noise will be at its worst. Maybe something good will come of it.

      My second thought is to move out. It does not sound like things are going to get much better, and the cost of soundproofing your entire home is going to be pretty steep. Probably thousands, not hundreds–depending on how many ceilings, walls and floors you need to work on.

      Terry

      Reply
  5. can you please tell me when soundproofing filler became building law in the uk, i know that holeds around light fittings and the sealing of plaster boards do reduce noise can the local council not take meter readings to learn the noises

    Many thanks
    regards eugene

    Reply

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