The true power of sound – from embryonic to old age

Photo of Peter Hartmann
September 26, 2017
Reading time
4 minutes

The wrong sounds will make you and your loved ones stressed, tired and anxious. Get expert advice for creating a healthier, more positive sound environment and have sound work for you – not against you!

Welcome to Part 1 of my conversation with Lyz Cooper, founder of The British Academy of Sound Therapy and who have spent more than two decades conducting research into sound and offering courses, training, sound therapy and music to promote health and well-being.

Peter Hartmann: Why is sound so important in our lives?

Lyz Cooper: Sound is the first thing we register in life. Hearing is the first sense humans develop, even before touch, smell, sight and feel. In fact, our ears are fully functioning at around 24 weeks after conception.

Peter: I know you talk a lot about the power of sound, but can you give me an example?

Lyz: We are hard-wired to react to sound in certain ways due to hundreds of thousands of years of programming. High-pitched sounds such as human screams or animal warning calls would have taught us to associate some of those sounds with danger. Loud and sudden roaring sounds also produce the same effect, sending a shot of adrenaline into the system and putting us in “fight or flight” mode. Low pitches and quieter rushing sounds relax the system. It is no accident that Buddhist monks chant “Om” in a low pitch or a mother calms her baby with a “sshhhh.”

Peter: We hear about sound and noise pollution all the time. How do you define noise?

Lyz: Noise is simply sounds that are nonmusical or discordant. They sound crashy and confusing to us, such as a jet plane passing overhead, traffic constantly rushing by or the relentless roaring of a hurricane.

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Peter: What effect does noise have on our well-being?

Lyz: Constant noise is a stressor to our system, so we brace ourselves against it physically, emotionally and mentally. If you’re constantly in an environment where there is a cacophony of noise – through telephones ringing, multiple conversations going on, alarms, music, traffic, machinery – your heart rate and blood pressure go up and your brainwaves go into an alert or even hyper-alert state.

Peter: So how does that exposure to noise affect our health?

Lyz: No one can withstand noise for too long without some consequences to their health and wellbeing. This can include muscle tension in the neck and shoulders, heart palpitations, headaches, panic and anxiety, high blood pressure, sleep disorders, the list goes on.

Peter: Can’t we just tune out the noise around us?

Lyz: That’s what many of us do, or at least we think we do. But subconsciously we’re bracing against it, which causes stress. We refer to this tuning out as “cocooning,” where we block out certain sounds in our environment. The problem is, if we’re numbing ourselves to these particular sounds, we may also be filtering out good, positive sounds; kids requiring our attention or sirens from an emergency vehicle. In addition, too much numbness may prevent us from listening to our body until it’s too late and we’re by then experiencing health issues from noise-related stress.

Peter: If we can’t tune out the noise around us, what should we do instead?

Lyz: We need silence for our nervous system to settle, cortisol – a stress hormone – to drop and blood pressure and heart rate to go down. So take a few minutes and go to a place where there’s no sound or where there are very natural sounds, like maybe the gentle rushing sound of a waterfall. These sounds are important to our well-being because they remind us of who we are.

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Music can help us cope, too, as long as it’s the right kind of music. Choose relaxing music that’s low tempo and lovely, long and drifty as opposed to uptempo, high-pitched or loud music, which will just wind us up even tighter.

Peter: So relaxing with loud or uptempo music isn’t a great idea?

Lyz: That kind of music is fine to listen to, sure, but it probably won’t help you relax. Loud, stimulating music puts our system on alert and can raise heart rate and blood pressure through a process of physics called “entrainment.” It’s great for the dance tent at a festival, but it isn’t so good for productivity, creativity and relaxation in life, work and play.

Check out the part 2 of my interview with Lyz Cooper, where we discuss ways to create a more positive sound environment.

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