The holiday season is well underway, and with the holidays often come holiday parties! You may have already attended a few gatherings yourself, or maybe you have some coming up. These parties all share some great characteristics: tasty food, festive music, and lots of friends and loved ones.

They all usually have another thing in common: noise.

Why is it that gatherings where we are meant to spend time with those nearest and dearest to us, reflecting on the past year and looking forward into the new one, are often so loud it’s impossible to discuss anything?

What you’re experiencing is a known problem: the cocktail party effect. Unfortunately, more isn’t necessarily merrier if you’re trying to have a conversation with someone in a crowded room. This article by Marshall Long from the Acoustics Today archive discusses why it’s so hard to understand speech in noisy settings (particularly those with lots of folks talking).

While researchers don’t have a solution for this common problem, they have looked into what’s going on in your brain when you’re trying to listen to someone talk in a noisy room. In a different article from Acoustics Today, Adrian KC Lee discusses neuroimaging tools that have allowed scientists to study how our brains understand speech in crowded environments. (Okay, so maybe this doesn’t solve your immediate problem of how you’re going to talk to your coworker or cousin at that party Saturday, but at least it’ll give you some interesting factoids to shout over the music?)

Hosting your own gathering and want to make it as hospitable to conversation as possible? If you’re going to be in a restaurant or other event space, this research from Murray Hodgson, Gavin Steininger, and Zohreh Razavi explains how to predict speech intelligibility in a eating establishment based on the number of people in the space. Plus, that article from Long’s that we mentioned earlier includes tips on how to reduce this annoying effect. Perhaps you can apply some of the ideas to absorb excess noise in your event space!

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