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Julian Treasure

The healing energy of natural sound

Too many of today's soundscapes are accidental and unpleasant. There’s a vicious circle in the modern world where people have become increasingly unconscious about sound, so they make more noise, so more people become used to suppressing the unpleasant sound they encounter, so they, too, go unconscious… It’s time for us all to start taking control of the sound we consume – and the sound we make. An excellent first access to auditory consciousness is to rediscover the stress-reducing and health-giving effects of three very old natural sound groups: Wind, Water and Birdsong.



We hear wind in leaves, in grass, overrock, moving sand and dirt, and against the flaps of our ears. Its dynamicrange is huge, from the susurrance of a gentle zephyr that offers a moment’srelief from the heat of a desert day to the deafening roar of the strongestwinds on Earth during the dark winters of the Antarctic. Its sounds subtly defineour natural environment, as for example in the difference between thepercussion of fleshy, mid-Spring leaves, dry, brittle late-Summer leaves andmid-Winter twigs. We know and respond to these tiny signals instinctively; theyhelp give us our bearings every day. I don’t believe anyone has ever done anyexperiments on the importance of these tiny, myriad aural data flows derivedfrom the movement of the air around us, but I would expect that substituting aninappropriate signal (for example the sound of wind in bare twigs on a summer’sday) would create a profound feeling of unease.



Water’s main songs are the sounds ofrainfall, streams and rivers and of course the sea. As with wind, its range isenormous, from the gentlest burbling of a tiny brook to the overwhelmingall-frequency bombardment of a mighty waterfall. Water is life-giving, theessence of our survival; we find its gentler sounds soothing and restful, whichis why fountains have always been so popular, particularly in hot and dryplaces. Many people think fountains are created to look attractive, andcertainly they have been raised to high visual art by the likes of Bernini, buttheir first function has always been to bring the sound of water (the otheressential sound of life, alongside breath) to a place without it.



Birds, and in particular songbirds,densely inhabit the same regions we do: the temperate and tropical regions.Nobody really knows why they sing (notwithstanding the theories you may haveheard about territory and mate selection), or why some birds sing exquisitely beautifulsongs and other just croak or squawk. Birdsong becomes more and more amazing asyou study it: slow down the lightning-fast song of a thrush or of the diva ofsongbirds, the lyrebird, and you find complex, repeating structures thatcombine rhythms that would challenge most master percussionists with pitchsequences and modulations that use more notes, subtler relationships and levelsof vocal gymnastics way beyond any human. It sounds like virtuoso jazz playedat breakneck speed – and then you remember that this is slowed down to onequarter of the original delivery pace.


At the most basic level, birdsongtells us that we are safe. We have learned over the millennia to use theceaseless diurnal vigilance of the birds, turning them into unpaid guards byvirtue of their practice of changing their song, or most often falling silent,if danger approaches. When the birds are singing, all is well. It’s when theystop singing that we need to be on alert. A sudden cessation of birdsong willstill create a release of cortisol and adrenaline, the fight/flight hormones,in a modern human being. The other effect of birdsong is to connect us with theworld. There may be some element of feeling not alone in this, of being in thecompany of other living things that are no threat to us. Birdsong seems toaffirm life and the joy of it. It seems natural for us to take aestheticpleasure in one of the planet’s signature sounds – one that has been here farlonger than we have. Our developed appreciation of birdsong may be there becauselistening to it is a significant physical manifestation of our connection withnature – a connection that modern living has tragically severed for manymillions of people.



The combined soundscape of wind, waterand birds (WWB) is primarily stochastic (composed of many random events)  and, after hundreds of thousands of years’practice, we effortlessly apply a process of differencing to move it to the background;this takes us almost no effort at all. In my opinion we have also developed asymbiotic relationship with this type of sound. It makes us feel comfortable becauseit has always been there. Most of the time it was the only sound: theodd war would make a lot of noise, and there were loud local events likeblacksmith’s hammers or church bells, but all these were noticeable mainlybecause they were relatively rare compared to WWB.


Anywhere you found humans on theplanet, the soundscape was dominated by one or more of the components of WWB. It’sonly in the last 250 years, since the Industrial Revolution, that human beingshave started to live in places where noneof the three primary stochastic sound groups are heard as a rule. In thisperiod the soundscapes of our cities have changed. They are composed of muchstarker, more noticeable sounds, like road vehicle engines, tyres and horns,trains, planes, a plethora of varied warning tones, and other people’s conversation.Most of these are above our differencing threshold; it is only high up abovethe streets when generalised traffic noise merges into a stochastic hum of thecity – the modern equivalent of WWB, and a sound that some city-dwellers feeluncomfortable without.


I believe the removal of WWB and itsreplacement with mainly non-stochastic urban soundscapes have created two results.The first is stress. Instead of using the effortless resources we’ve developedover hundreds of millennia to move WWB to unconscious listening, our sound processingsystem is having to work overtime to suppress a barrage of noise all day. Thisis hard work, and not surprisingly it’s tiring. Many people have to live or workin places where the ambient noise level is high, and there is plenty ofresearch to show that their health suffers; the World Health Organisation hasrecently released an estimate that one million years of healthy living are lostevery year in Europe alone as a result of the adverse health effects of noisepollution. One in three Europeans is having the quality of their life seriouslyaffected by noise. The second result, I believe, is that we are pining for WWB.I think that the removal of WWB has left many people with a vague feeling ofloss: we know we ought to be listening to something, but we don’t know what itis – so we put on music, or the radio, or the television, which do not alwaysradiate positive vibrations.


Mother Nature is still out there if wewant to improve our well-being and productivity. Natural quietness and tranquility have been found to contribute to satisfying lives, especially forolder people, and natural sounds to have a positive effect on wellbeing inpatients who have undergone invasive cardiac procedures. I believe there isgreat scope for bringing natural sound back into our urban environments, forexample delivering it into offices, homes and schools with generative systemsin order to create restorative and productive environments in which we canwork, socialise, play, relax and unwind, free from the stress of constant electromechanicalnoise.

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