The science behind relaxing sounds

How is it, exactly, that sound affects us, and why? Find out the science behind how sound impacts your health, cognition, and behavior.

How is it, exactly, that sound affects us, and why? Find out the science behind how sound impacts your health, cognition, and behavior.

Sounds affect us more than we know. In the modern world, we are so constantly immersed in sound that we often tune it out. But whether we’re consciously listening to them or not, surrounding sounds hugely impact us. Understanding the science of relaxing sounds – as well as distracting ones – can help us to appreciate why we should care, diligently, about the sounds we’re around. Sound expert and author Julian Treasure has given five TED talks on the topic of sound. In the below TED talk, Treasure explains the four ways sound affects us.

Sound affects us physiologically

“Sounds are affecting your hormone secretions all the time,” says Treasure. “Also your breathing, your heart rate, and your brain waves.” For instance, unpleasant sounds result in an increased secretion of cortisol (the stress hormone). Conversely, studies have linked listening to natural sounds, such as rippling water, to lowered levels of cortisol. A March 2017 study published in Scientific Reports investigated the physiological effects of artificial versus natural environmental sounds on listeners. The study’s results linked natural sounds with an increase in the parasympathetic (“rest-digest”) response. In the parasympathetic response, our heart rate is lowered and our breathing slowed. The study further associated natural sounds with a decrease in the sympathetic (“fight or flight”) response. Artificial sounds, the study found, contribute to an increase in the sympathetic response. This means artificial sounds increased heart rate and breathing rate. In the video, Treasure explains how ocean waves can be especially relaxing to humans. Ocean waves roll in and out at roughly 12 cycles per minute. Notably, another function that naturally cycles at around 12 times per minute is the breathing of a sleeping human. For this reason, listening to ocean waves has a sleepy, relaxing, comforting effect on our bodies.

Sound affects us psychologically

“Music is the most powerful form of sound that we know that affects our emotional state,” says Treasure. Two of the reasons music can be powerful are that we recognize it quickly, and we associate it very powerfully. Many scientific studies link music to significant benefits for both mental and physical health. Music is especially effective at reducing stress. Specifically, studies show classical music or music of your choice can reduce anger and anxiety, and increase relaxation. A December 2018 study published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine found that pentatonic music in particular can help decrease stress. As the Scientific Reports study found, listening to natural sounds relaxes us. Treasure confirms this, and offers bird songs as another sound people find very comforting and reassuring. “There’s a reason for that,” explains Treasure. “Over hundreds of thousands of years, humans have found that when the birds are singing, things are safe. It’s when they stop you need to be worried.”

Sound affects us cognitively

“We have a very small amount of bandwidth for processing auditory input, which is why loud office noise is extremely damaging to productivity,” says Treasure in his TED talk on the four ways sound affects us. As noted above, artificial and distracting sounds can increase our heart rate and stress, whether we actively notice this or not. According to Treasure, you are one third as productive in open-plan offices (or loud spaces) as in quiet rooms. In a unpleasantly noisy spaces, your productivity decreases by 66 percent. Yikes! Treasure suggests that if you must work in noisy places, put headphones on with soothing sounds. If you do this, your productivity goes back up to triple what it would be surrounded by loud, distracting noises. Pentatonic music or natural sounds such as a running brook or birdsong might be excellent headphone audio choices for focus.

Sound affects us behaviorally

At the simplest, you move away from unpleasant sound and towards pleasant sounds. Not being able to get away from unpleasant sounds is extremely damaging for our health. Especially if there are unpleasant sounds we can’t escape from at night, the physiological and psychological effects of insomnia can be devastating to our health and wellbeing. Science shows us that sound affects us in a big and profound way, whether we realize it or not. What you’re hearing is making a difference in your life.

Image credits: Kenrik Mills, Unsplash

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