The Real Reason Your Upstairs Neighbors Are Always So Loud

updated Oct 4, 2022
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It’s late at night. You’re just about to fall asleep. Then, like clockwork, a crash of marbles roll in every direction in the apartment above yours—or at least that’s what you think you’ve heard. It’s true, the neighbors upstairs are somehow always the loudest, least considerate people you’ve ever heard in your life. The reality, though, is the noise that echoes through your apartment has much less to do with the tenants upstairs and more to do with the outdated architecture and infrastructure of the building itself

Why Your Upstairs Neighbors Sound So Noisy

Let’s say you live in an early 1900s building or even a newer build erected more than 10 years ago. There’s a good chance the pipes need to be replaced, fittings have come loose, and strain is put on interior systems—so things are bound to naturally go bump in the night. Not to mention, the acoustics of apartments aren’t built to insulate sound. Lots of people lay rugs down to help stop an echo effect inside, but you don’t mount them to your ceiling to keep sound from getting in, either. 

While the dragging of furniture or clomping feet are exacerbated by floorboards not insulated for sound, one acoustics issue still puzzles people—what’s going on with the damn marbles? Moving furniture seems reasonable enough, but who’s rolling around metal balls this late?

The sounds are primarily coming from the pipes in most cases. Air can get trapped in the network of pipes as water passes through them, and the force can cause the pipes to jostle and disperse the air pocket, creating a sound like marbles rolling.

Preston S. Wilson, a professor in the Acoustics and Dynamic Systems & Control programs of the Walker Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, told Curbed that something called hydraulic shock or “water hammer” might be the source of the sound, but not the direct cause of it. A water hammer is a banging sound in the pipe when water flow is shut off harshly.

“I think the marble dropping sound comes from the pipe being excited into motion from the water hammer effect, and then banging on another pipe, the floor, a beam, etc,” Wilson says. “It’s the sound of the pipe hitting the nearby object, rather than the sound of water running within the pipe.”

So, What Can You Do About It?

Unless you’re in the building of the world’s greatest landlord, the odds of having old pipes completely replaced because of this slight noise is not in the cards. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other ideas you can execute in your home if the problem persists. Interior designer Jessica Davis, of Atelier Davis, suggests adding some insulation to the ceiling to keep the noise more muted. 

“Noise reduction is all about soft surfaces,” says Davis. “Rugs are great, but even flooring like cork is better than something hard like stone or wood as far as sound goes. Layer a rug over a cork floor and you’ve got a great base.”

The stomping, dragging, and dropping likely won’t stop anytime soon, but softening the sounds is a step in the right direction.