Friday, 9 March 2012

Listening at the Dentist's...

One of the wallpapers in the sonic wallpaper collection inspired an interviewee to say "that looks like something you'd see at the dentist's".

I know what they mean... many old family homes around the UK have been converted into dental practices or doctor's surgeries, and often some of the domestic furnishings, décor and architecture remain, co-existing with all the required clinical paraphernalia. What were once living rooms now house the magazines, chairs and reception windows of waiting rooms, and distinctly domestic wallpaper designs adorn many rooms now used for patient consultations.

There is a distinctive aesthetic and soundscape associated with such converted buildings; hygienic rubber floorings laid over old wooden floorboards have an instantly recognisable squeaking-creaking sound, and the sounds of parents and children waiting together to be seen reverberate in a particular way in rooms with high ceilings. This is true of both dental practices and doctor's surgeries, however from the point of view of sound, the world of the dentist's is a field-recordist's paradise!

Lying on your back with implements poking at your teeth, you can't help but notice the wallpaper, the old mirrors and the plaster ceiling details which bely the previous, private use of the building. Anything to keep your mind focussed away from the scratchy, whirring, drilling, suction, and other goings-on inside your mouth.

Pursuing this relationship between a certain kind of mid-century wallpaper design and dental surgeries, I wrote to the British Dental Association Museum to request their help with sourcing the sounds of dentistry in action. Because of the vintage qualities of many of the wallpapers in the MoDA collection, I wanted to source slightly older dental equipment for creating the sonic wallpaper equivalent.

I learned that many dental tools need to be plumbed and mains-powered in order to operate, so much of the equipment at the BDA Dental Museum is unsuitable for recording purposes*. To help overcome this problem, the BDA Dental Museum kindly put me in touch with Peter Frost who has been practising as a dentist for 43 years in Peckham. Frost is a specialist in special care dentistry.

Birwood Dental Care is in the process of moving to a new building, and some of the equipment will be relocated to the BDA Dental Museum during the course of this move. I went to record the sounds of this equipment in action before it gets de-plumbed and disconnected from its mains power supply! I am guessing these are some of the dental implements which will end up at the BDA Dental Museum, as I don't think they get much use in contemporary dental practice.

This is the clip of the wallpaper interview which inspired my visit to Birwood Dental Care;

Wallpaper you"d see at the Dentist"s (mp3)

...and here are some of the sounds which I recorded there.

The dentist's chair being lowered, raised, lifted, tilted...

Dentist"s chair (mp3)

The slow air turbine handpiece in operation...

Air Turbine Handpiece (mp3)

The water-activated vacuum suction pump...

Vacuum suction pump (mp3)

The fast turbine handpiece in action...

Fast Air Turbine Handpiece (mp3)

...and the ultrasonic de-scaler in use!

Ultrasonic descaler in action (mp3)

My favourite recording for the purposes of this project, however, is this rather quiet recording I made of just the ambience inside Birwood Dental Care. There is something so distinctive about this atmosphere; telephone calls; people waiting; shufflings-about inside the building; and the squeaky-creaky flooring that I referred to at the start of this post. These longer, quieter recordings are my favourite in terms of creating sonic wallpaper, because they have the same idle pace as those moments when we find our eyes inadvertently drawn to the walls and contemplating their coverings.

Ambience of the Dental Surgery (mp3)

What kind of wallpaper does your dentist have, and do you notice it while you are having your teeth done? What do the above sounds make you think of?

Many thanks to the BDA Dental Museum and to Peter Frost at Birwood Dental Care for helping with this section of the Sonic Wallpaper project!

*although next week I will be recording Victorian foot and hand-operated drills at the BDA Museum!


  1. Felicity
    You have captured some amazing sounds from Birwood Dental Care. Memories of visits to the dentists as a child (and perhaps more worryingly, recently as an adult) came flooding back. Did I notice the wallpaper? No most of the time I had my eyes shut!

    1. Indeed, Richard. But though amazing, thouse sounds are not music to kids’ ears. Honestly, I was never afraid to visit my dentist, even when I was young. Probably, I'm one of those curious kids. :) I've seen dentists that play kid-friendly music in their clinics when there's a kid patient around. And oftentimes, it works. There's nothing to lose if a dentist would try that.

      Trinidad Philipps

  2. Hi Felicity

    It's great to hear some of the sound files, especially from the dentists, which initially made me think if my local dentist outside Birmingham had any wallpaper. I'm pretty sure there was titled walls and nothing else. Infact, all I can recall is a funny poster on a floral textured ceiling with different cartoon facial expressions to distract children. The ambient noise of the room is quite serene, a very quiet dentists!

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