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MAPLE Lab: From the Needless Beep to Better Sleep

(Article courtesy MAC the Magazine)

Michael Schutz’s MAPLE Lab can fine-tune the sound of hospital monitors so health-care providers won’t miss critical alarms, and patients can rest better without a cacophony of noise.

Some months ago, Michael Schutz played recordings of the beeping sounds from various hospital machines for physicians, to see how many of the different alarms they could identify.

Zero. That’s how many.

“They have four of five devices beeping constantly,” Schutz says. “Each alarm was designed in isolation to be loud and noticeable — because it’s an alarm! — but it made such an unnatural cacophony, they ended up tuning the noise out.”

Schutz, an associate professor of music cognition and percussion in the Faculty of Humanities, is the founding director of the Music Acoustics Perception Learning (MAPLE) Lab, where researchers study the interplay of psychology and music.

“When you’re designing alarms in a medical environment, beauty is understandably not your top concern,” Schutz notes. “But a lot of medical monitors beep annoyingly and loudly for no real reason — hundreds per patient per day in a hospital. And people tune out noise when it gets annoying.”

When that happens, critical alarms get missed.

And when patients need rest to recover from surgery or illness, a noisy environment can slow their recovery.

“In the MAPLE Lab, we found you can change the beeps to make them acoustically palatable,” Schutz says. “Adding a brief decay to the original sounds mimics the sound of percussion instruments and makes them less annoying.”

It’s a simple example of putting the psychology of music to use in a broader context, Schutz says. In the MAPLE Lab, Schutz and his team have long studied the work of classical composers, whom Schutz calls “avant-garde psychologists.”

“We have hundreds of years of composers spending their entire lives figuring out what works and what doesn’t, conveying complicated messages through sound. Centuries later, others devote their lives to reproducing those sounds,” he says. “Why does it still work? And what can we learn from the way composers and performers approach music to design alarms?”

Schutz would like to work with the engineers who design life-saving machines. “When you’re designing a machine that breathes for someone, the sound it makes is an afterthought, for sure,” he says. “But there are ways to make it more effective and that could be a huge win for everyone.”

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