When the Design Blogs Are Useless: a Thorough Guide to Decorating Your Musical Home

So this post has been a long time coming. My “How to Soundproof an Apartment with a Piano” post from a more innocent time (2013) is one of the top hits of this blog, and since writing said post I have learned so much more about making a home with musical instruments (and moved a whole bunch of times). “Write a better, updated post” was on the mental to-do list in the neglected back office of my brain for years.

Getting around to crossing that particular item off my to-do list was not on my list of priorities last week, and then I made a terrible life decision. I visited Apartment Therapy.

I stopped reading Apartment Therapy years ago when I realized the writing was terrible and the advice so-so, but sometimes the “I Want to Live in the West Elm Catalog” bug bites you and you will do anything to scratch that itch. I was delighted when I saw a post titled “7 Ways to Make Your Musical Instruments Feel Like an Intentional Part of Your Design Scheme.”

Just to make it clear, there is a market for articles like this. The world is full of nerds and dilettantes and, oh yeah, actual working musicians with instruments of all sizes, trying to figure out how to integrate things that produce large sound vibrations into their homes in the way that makes at least some sense. I have wrapped my brain around the placement of a grand piano and multiple keyboards in half a dozen apartments now, each time wondering why it was so difficult to solve a problem that surely other people had figured out.

Unfortunately, the Apartment Therapy article was a nasty surprise—beyond not remotely addressing issues with acoustics, it straight up recommends ruining your instruments, as you may have seen in a Twitter thread I popped off. I will save my unpleasant opinions about Apartment Therapy’s content-churning ethos for another time and just tell you, blog reader, this: FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, DO NOT DO ANY OF THE THINGS IN THAT ARTICLE.

Before we go on: I hesitate to make sweeping recommendations to all people with all instruments, but I’m writing this guide because 1) my Twitter replies indicated that a lot of people could use a guide like this and 2) I’m definitely a hell of a lot more qualified than Apartment Therapy. In addition to being a professional classical pianist, I played the violin, took a course on acoustic physics in college (and then promptly forgot a lot of it; please note I am NOT an acoustics engineer), have a visual arts background, and minored in design.

Those are my “credentials”—you can make the educated decision whether or not to take my advice.

I’ve loosely organized this post into sections, based on a hierarchy of priorities:

  1. Is Your Instrument Going to Be Okay: how to not ruin your instrument; folks, this supercedes everything else.
  2. What Do You Do With All That Sound: some quick and dirty basics of acoustics and soundproofing that you should keep in mind when incorporating musical instruments into your home.
  3. Actual Tips on Actual Design With Actual Intention: with a bonus rant on what design actually is, I give actual, practical recommendations for designing your decor around your instrument.

I’ve written this as broadly as I can, and the “expertise level” basically goes up as you read; if you’re not a musician, the first two sections may be really helpful, while professional musicians can probably skip the first two sections completely. Feel free to skim or skip over things as they apply to you, and remember, this is a guide based on my own personal experience and expertise; your needs may vary.

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How to Soundproof an Apartment with a Piano; Unsolicited Love Advice

Update June 2019: I’ve written an updated, more thorough post on acoustics and sound mitigation! Please check it out.

My dear readers, I bring you an obscenely late blog post with loads of extremely valuable information. For the apartment-dwelling pianists, I’ve got a how-to-esque guide on how to soundproof a door while only slightly violating your lease terms; for the perpetually lovelorn I have some romantic advice.* For all the rest of you who are curious about what I get up to, well, maybe my blog isn’t the best place to keep up, because I never update. (Ooh! Self-zing! Ouch.)

*If I’ve learned anything in life, it’s that the best love advice comes unsolicited from unconventional sources. For example, my high school pre-calculus teacher once told me that true love is when you fart in front of someone and neither of you are uncomfortable in the slightest, and, well, I suppose that’s true.

Onward! Ladies (and gentlemen, obviously), when you are on the search for the perfect boyfriend, don’t settle. Don’t just go for the guy who brings you flowers and buys you jewelry. Though yes, my boyfriend does do that. Don’t just go for the guy who surprises you with gifts for no reason or takes you to Disneyland. Though yeah, Bryce does that too.

Don’t stop looking for that one perfect guy until you find someone who cares for you so much that they will 1) have no qualms about moving in with a piano practicing fanatic and 2) will take on a big DIY project to soundproof the apartment—on top of being a full-time accelerated program grad student and having a virtually full-time job, of course, because friends, your perfect guy is an overachiever. (Basically, this whole thing was more Bryce’s undertaking; I mostly stood around and took pictures.)

Also—before you go nuts sticking foam to the walls and getting sound insulation panels that cost more than your rent, 1) do some experimenting to find the weak points where sound escapes most easily, and 2) do your materials research. #1 is especially important—you could get state-of-the-art insulation for your walls and it wouldn’t make a difference if your door let all the sound through.

Because that’s what we found out, through thorough experimentation in which we took turns repeatedly running in and out of the apartment while one of us banged out Chopin on the piano. The walls are actually quite solid and don’t let that much sound go through—it was the door that needed some work. Which was a relief, as we were afraid that we would have to shell out tons of money on covering the entire wall.

So while we researched materials and brainstormed a million crazy ideas, this is what we did:

Yes, we clipped a blanket over the door. No, I don’t think it actually made that much difference.

Based on internet research, some helpful information from the university studio professor, and the few things I remembered from my physics of music class, we came up with a few layman’s-terms basic facts about sound insulation:

1. Air is, funnily enough, extremely sound-insulating; the ideal soundproof setup would be to create a “room within a room,” or to have sandwiches of air between walls. (It’s why double-paned glass, with a pocket of air between the panes, is more than twice more insular than single-paned glass.)
2. The more dense your material, the more soundproof it is. Thick concrete walls are great. Drywall is pretty good.
3. The most effective acoustic insulators are materials that absorb sound and turn it into heat.

Now, there are a lot of acoustically insulating materials on the market. There’s acoustic foam, which according to internet research isn’t all that effective, for the reasons above. I found a lot of rave reviews for Green Glue, which seems super effective but gets pricey for large areas. We found out about mass-loaded vinyl, which seemed promising, and operates on a similar concept to Green Glue.

We (and by we, I mean Bryce) came up with a design that used all three points as effectively as possible within our budget. The concept? A sliding panel that rolls in front of the door, with a frame to create a pocket of air between the door and the panel, using a layer of mass-loaded vinyl, and a panel of drywall.

This plan was particularly genius because a sheet of drywall is only $8 to $9, and we discovered that Home Depot sold a roll of 4’x8′ mass-loaded vinyl for $29.99, which is insanely cheap compared to pretty much everything else we were looking at. We ordered two rolls—one to go in the panel, and one to go between the two rugs under the piano. (We live in a third-floor apartment, so we have to be considerate of the person who lives below us, or something.)

Anyway, enough talking! On to the pictures, which tell the whole story:

The materials, ready to be loaded up into my little car. Bryce had to take the drywall back into the store to be broken up into little pieces because they didn’t fit, even with my back seats folded down.

The wooden frame on load-bearing wheels, lined up against the door.

This is what mass-loaded vinyl looks like. It is one heck of a [WORD THAT SHALL NOT BE PUBLISHED ON THIS BLOG] to work with. The stuff is dense—it’s so heavy that just getting it laid out flat on the floor is a significant endeavor. But it magically absorbs sound, so…worth it?

The frame sitting on top of the vinyl.

Laying out the drywall pieces over the vinyl and the frame.

Drilling them in. Thanks to a number of factors, Bryce had to take all the screws out, adjust things, and screw them back in, at least twice. Splitting a solid sheet of drywall into five pieces, and then trying to put them back together, greatly complicates matters, believe it or not!

There is something quite apocalyptic about having a giant ugly screwed-together panel covering your door. This thing is eight feet tall, so it was quite formidable and eye-torturing in real life. Oh, and I forgot to mention—there’s a metal hook on the inside of the panel, and it keeps the thing on that industrial steel rod that Bryce put together. No, we’re not sure if screwing giant steel elbow-joints into the wall is allowed in our lease, and we don’t care because THAT IS HOW WE ROLL.

Here’s a pro tip—if you need a sheet of drywall in one piece for your project, save yourself a lot of trouble. Borrow someone’s van or truck and just haul it in as one piece. Not only did breaking it into pieces make construction surprisingly headachey, it also meant we had to buy all sorts of additional supplies to join the pieces back together, and it delayed progress by…a lot. This is what it looked like after the first layer of joint tape and joint compound, and before extensive sanding.

Bryce had the genius idea of turning our giant behemoth of a soundproof sandwich into a functional chalkboard—this meant that we had to prime the thing. The primer we used had crazy fumes, so I tied a T-shirt over my face as a mask. Bryce thought it would be funny to take a picture.

And then…we painted it! With chalkboard paint!

And this is what we ended up with—a lovely, humongous sliding chalkboard that lives a secret double life as a soundproofing panel over our extremely acoustically-leaky door. It’s pretty effective; it doesn’t block 100% of the sound, but when you’re outside, the sound of the piano is very faint (!) and when a car drives by, it drowns out the piano. (!!!)

(We also got cheap weatherstripping foam and sealed in all the space in the doorframe; it made a big difference!)

An added bonus: the neighbors across the hall have an extremely stir-crazy German shepherd that stays in all day and barks manically, non-stop, from early morning until past midnight. I have no idea how that thing is able to sustain such dedicated barking without stopping for oxygen. But when we’re inside the apartment with the panel over the door, we totally can’t tell that the dog exists. It’s magical.

Oh, and we haven’t gotten any complaints about the piano.

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.

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