What is Soundproofing: A Guide for Beginners

Are you tired of unwanted noises disturbing your peace? Wondering whether soundproofing can help you eliminate them once and for all?

It’s an unfortunate fact but noise is unavoidable in our lives.

Whether it’s your work or home, you’re bound to hear some unwanted sounds. Perhaps it’s the neighbors next door enjoying their favorite music. Or upstairs neighbors stomping like crazy around their apartment. Or cars and other outside noises make it difficult for you to concentrate at work.

But it doesn’t mean that we have to put up with it, and soundproofing is one way of combating the issue. 

You see, many unwanted sounds can either be reduced, dampened, or even eliminated, and that’s exactly what soundproofing does. 

This page will give you a general idea of what soundproofing is. 

After reading it, you’ll understand the concept of soundproofing and how it can help you stop sounds from entering your house. You’ll also find out which noises you cannot eliminate. 

And finally, you’ll know what different methods to use to block sound and which sound insulation techniques and sound-absorbing materials work best.

I admit that it’s quite a lot to cover. So, let’s get right to it.

What is Soundproofing – Definition

The term – soundproofing – refers to a process of blocking or reducing unwanted sounds from either entering your house, work, or other property or being heard outside of it. 

In practical terms, soundproofing means using various materials and techniques (more on those in just a moment) to reduce or absorb the sound so that it no longer disturbs your peace. 

Before we explain that, though, we must discuss some other things. 

First, note that, in the definition, I referred to soundproofing tackling sounds both entering and exiting premises. That’s because soundproofing can be used not just to keep your house quiet. In fact, the same soundproofing techniques can also prevent others from being exposed to sounds you generate in your home. If you’re a musician, for example, you may wish to soundproof their home or a room in your house so that you could practice without disturbing their neighbors and having them complaining about the noise all the time. 

Most of us seek soundproofing advice because we want to reduce the noise and enjoy a quiet place, and in this guide, I’ll mostly focus on helping you with that.

Secondly, before we dive deeper into soundproofing, we must understand what sound is, and how it works. Particularly, you should know how sound enters your house. That’s because, when soundproofing, you tackle the exact ways by which the sound travels.

The principle of soundproofing.

So, what is sound?

Sound is energy. It’s produced when things vibrate and travel onward, away from the source of the vibration (that’s what we call the sound source, by the way). 

Here’s where it gets important. As the sound travels, it makes other objects and air vibrate as well in the same frequency until it reaches our ears. 

We can hear the sound because the air also vibrates in our ears. It hits our eardrums and stimulates hair cells in our ears. These, in turn, register the sound in our brains. 

Here’s a short video showing how sound travels to the brain.

Another thing that we need to discuss is how sound travels. Because you see, there are two types of sound – airborne and impact – we reduce them differently. 

Airborne noise is created by the sound that travels through the air. The most common examples of that are speech, music playing through the radio, sound from the TV, or the noise of cars passing outside. 

Because this sound travels through the air, it often gets into your house through cracks, gaps in the walls or doors, and so on. 

Impact noise, on the other hand, happens when an object creates an impact resulting in vibrations that carry it further. 

Sounds of footsteps, hammering, banging doors, sliding objects and more are all examples of impact noise. Theor sound happens because the object interacts with another surface. Just like your shoes hit the floor as you walk, generating the vibrations we hear as footsteps. 

This noise enters a room or a house through vibrating surfaces. 

Based on all that we learned so far, we can say that if you want to prevent unwanted noises from bothering you, you have to interrupt sound waves somewhere along that journey. 

How Soundproofing Works

A quick note – To learn more, check out my complete guide to how does soundproofing work.

I like to use the analogy of water when explaining sound. 

You see, both sound and water have no shape. They can shape themselves to their surroundings; they can bend around corners, and find their way through the smallest openings or cracks. 

But also, both can be stopped at their tracks. Now, unlike water, sound can pass through many solid materials – wood, walls, floors, or glass panels in your windows. But others can either absorb or contain it. 

That’s what we use when soundproofing. 

But there’s a catch – Not all soundproofing materials block sound. You can use soundproofing to achieve two distinct objectives, and you must understand the differences between them. 

The two objectives are:

  • Reducing the sound, or
  • Absorbing it to improve its properties. 

Reducing sound (or sound blocking)

I guess that’s the first thing you think of when thinking about soundproofing – blocking unwanted sounds.

When you reduce the sound, your goal is to reduce the sound transmission, and therefore minimize its impact. 

In practical terms, it means that you reduce the amount of sound that enters the room simply. The less noise comes in, the less of it you experience. 

There is a range of materials and techniques to use, far too many to cover in a single guide. However, in general, you reduce the noise by creating a natural obstacle for the noise so that you reduce the amount of it getting in. 

Think of any airborne noise – someone speaking, for example. That sound can get to your home in many different places. It can seep in through poorly installed windows. Gaps between the wall and the window frame can let air in but also the noise. Insulating windows with soundproof materials can drastically reduce that noise. The same rule applies to doors and other entrances. 

You can also reduce sound by coming through the walls or ceilings by installing acoustic plasterboards, various isolation strips, and more.

Example of a soundproofing method used to block sound.
Soundproof door sweep used to block sounds seeping in through the door.

Absorbing sound

Sound absorption works differently. 

For one, it does not prevent sounds from entering or leaving your home. Instead, what it does is improving the acoustical properties of the sounds in the room. 

Sound absorption is ideal if you want to build a home theater or a music practice room. In that case, you must reduce the echo in the room and improve how sound waves travel through that space. 

In simple terms, this will create a much better listening experience for you and improve the overall sound quality. 

(Note – You can also couple sound absorption and sound blocking. This way, you enjoy better sound in the room, and unwanted noises do not contaminate it from outside.)

Acoustic treatment

Finally, you may also hear this term – acoustic treatment – while learning more about soundproofing. 

Acoustic treatment aims to enhance and direct the sound to where you want it to go in a room. Again, home theatres, home recording studios, mastering studios, and similar spaces would require acoustic treatment to reduce the echo in the room and ensure that the sound waves do not bounce off the walls. 

Acoustic treatment focuses on installing foam-based materials like panels that prevent sound from being reflected. 

Example of acoustic treatment used in a recording studio.
Acoustic panel on the wall in my home recording studio.

Important Question – Does Soundproofing Work?

I admit – I get asked this question a lot, and quite understandably so. 

A lot of people I know struggle to cope with noises from their neighbors or with outside noise. Many have long lost hope that their quality of life can be improved in any way. 

Well, and it always pains me to say this – Soundproofing works, but it doesn’t always manage to block the unwanted sound completely. 

It’s not all bad news, though. Soundproofing can significantly reduce the noise, and bring it to a bearable level. 

(I prefer to mention this as I don’t want you to get an impression that soundproofing can kill that noise from upstairs entirely. But if you’re looking to minimize it to a level where it doesn’t bother you anymore, then soundproofing is definitely a way to go.)

This is because many sounds cannot be blocked completely. Also, often, if you manage to reduce one type of sound, another might still persist. 

A good example is eliminating voices from the house next door. You can do it. You can bring the sound of their conversations down to a level where you barely hear it. But the materials you use to soundproof the wall might not block all low frequencies. As a result, you might still hear the rumble of the bass in their stereo.

For that reason, one of the most important things to do as you begin researching how to soundproof your house is to assess noise levels, the type of sounds that you want to reduce, and how they, potentially, might be getting into your house. 

Speaking of which…

Which areas of the house can be soundproofed?

Sound waves can enter your house through many different places:

  • Doors, 
  • Windows, including glass panels, 
  • Walls,
  • The floor, 
  • The ceiling, 
  • The roof and so on.

And all of these can be soundproofed using various methods. Because this guide focuses on giving you a basic understanding of soundproofing, I prefer not to go too deep into explaining these here. 

Having said that, here are the most common soundproofing methods used to block the noise coming from those places:

Increasing the distance from the noise source. Not always possible, of course, but still worth mentioning. 

Creating what’s known as a room within a room. This is a quite complex method that’s suitable only if you want to block aggressive noise and achieve high levels of sound insulation.
In this method, you create a dedicated, soundproof room inside an existing room in the house. 

Damping sound with materials like PVC or various underlays to reduce vibration and bring the level of impact noise down.

Deflecting sound, so it does not enter the room. This strategy works best to reduce noise from outside. In this method, you place an obstacle between you and the noise source. 

Here’s an example showing how a sound barrier can deflect the sound, so it doesn’t reach a house. 

Example showing how sound blocking works.

(Image source)

What’s next for you

On this page, you learned what soundproofing is and how it helps eliminate or reduce unwanted noises in your house. 

But like I said in this guide, soundproofing a house takes more than picking up some materials and going with it. 

The first step is to identify the noise that you want to block. Next, find out whether it’s airborne or impact noise. 

Then, identify how it gets into your house and the level of the noise. 

Only then, start looking at soundproofing materials and techniques that you could use to block it. 

Good luck!