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Celebration Bells and the Role of Sound in User Experience

There are certain sounds that ring so true that it brings a tear to your eye and smile to your lips. I bet if you closed your eyes right now and concentrated, you can hear one of those sounds right at this moment. Sounds that stick in our memories like honey, sticky and sweet with joyful implications. Birds chirping on a spring morning. The sizzle of bacon from Dad’s breakfast bonanza. A child’s laughter. The peal of bells on a Sunday morning. Sounds that touch us at the core, remind us of a meaningful moment amongst

I would bet all the money in my pocket against all the money in your pocket that this sound is etched into the memory of everyone in this room in the middle of Pennsylvania and the millions of people who have seen it online.

For as long as Jimmy Spagnolo can remember, the sounds of the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh have been part of the soundtrack of his life. Diagnosed with a brain tumor at 4 months old, Jimmy and his parents, Lacie and Jim, have marked the passage of time in Jimmy’s battle with cancer with the myriad of sound that fill hospital corridors and doctors’ office exam rooms. The beeps and alerts from monitors. The scuffle of shoes as doctors and nurse race to urgent calls. The anguished cries of patients and their families, as they receive devastating news. Imagine the emotional impact Jimmy and his parents attached to those sounds, how they surrounded each chemotherapy treatment, each check in with their clinicians.

The Power of Sound to Affect Emotion

Seth Horowitz, an auditory neuroscientist at Brown University and author of the book The Universal Sense, describes the impact that sound has on our emotions in a recent NPR interview.

Sound and the mind are very, very intricately linked, and yet we almost never pay attention to sound. Sound is always there. It's our early warning system. It's also our emotional driver. It's our attentional driver. Everything you hear has some kind of an impact on you and changes how you respond to the rest of the world. So since sound provides context, it's operating in the back and is able to give us the basis for a lot of very, very complex cognitive responses.

Twenty years ago, U.S Navy Rear Admiral Irve Le Moyne ended his time at MD Anderson Cancer Center with installing and ringing a brass bell at the facility to mark the end of his chemotherapy treatments. The tradition of “celebration bells” for cancer survivors was born at that moment, and spread quickly across the country to other hospitals. One-time patients who have heard that glorious peal pay it forward and donate celebration bells to the healthcare organizations that supported them through their own fight with cancer.

Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh described the impact of the sound of their celebration bell on those in the room with Jimmy and his family.

The bell signifies so many emotions – it can signify the sound of tears, strength, fear, courage, doubt, satisfaction, relief and happiness all coming through as one as people around them cheer this accomplishment. The sound of that bell resonates in more ways than one. The emotion in the room is just unbelievable.

For a Bell to Ring True

The peal of a bell is born from a balance of engineering and elegance.  Brass and copper are melted and molded, cut and cooled, in a process that hasn’t changed all that much since 2000 BCE, when bells began to be manufactured in East Asia.  For a bell to be considered complete and ready to be rung, it must successfully produce five tone parts (the octave, the fifth, the minor third, the prime, the hum) that come together to produce that jubilant sound.  It is a wonder of manufacturing to take base metals and transform them into these vehicles of glorious transcendence.  Perhaps the completeness of the sound produced by a bell is why so many of us associate the sound of bells with a deeply personal, almost spiritual feeling.     

How Sound Impacts User Experience

Consider the joy Jimmy Spagnolo, his parents, and his clinicians all felt, as he rang the celebration bell and danced happily to acknowledge the end of his cancer treatment.  Consider how that peal of the bell rang throughout the halls of Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, triumphant sound waves absorbed by other patients still in the fight.  Consider the emotional impact the ring of that bell had on other clinicians, as they work to heal those in their care.  How the peal of the bell reminds them of those who rang the bell before Jimmy, or those who sadly did not get their chance.   

Now consider the sounds within your healthcare facility and their impact on the experience of your patients and clinicians.   Alerts that ring so often clinicians block them out. Sounds that interrupt patients as they try to sleep through the night, away from home, alone in their room.  What emotions are these sounds of your healthcare facility inducing?  Joy?  Fear?  What is the clinical impact of the emotional cues you are touching on through the sounds that envelop your enterprise?  How are the choices that you are making about the sounds your providers and patients hear each day affect the effectiveness of clinician burnout or protocol compliance?

So the next time you hear the peal of a bell in the distance, think about the steps you can take to make the sounds of your healthcare facility bring joy to your providers and patients.  Think about the thousands of other cancer patients that have declared with that jubilant sound. And think about Jimmy.