From Waves To Wind: How Nature Sounds Support Our Health

Issue # 
May 8, 2024

The music starts with the soft, universal sound of rain. Gradually, hand pans and chimes come in to form a pattern with eventually rhythm and momentum. By the end of the arrangement, everything melds together into an unexpectedly delicious sonic soup.

This nature-inspired track from Spiritune, “Release Control,” proves how captivating, enriching, and ultimately health-promoting the sounds of the outdoors can be once we give them our full attention.

How the brain processes nature sounds 

By now, many of us know (and intuitively feel) that spending time outdoors can boost brain function, ease stress, and lower blood pressure. The role that the sounds of nature play in this equation is less obvious, but Daniel Bowling, Ph.D., an acoustic instructor at the Stanford School of Medicine and neuroscience advisor at Spiritune, has a few ideas. 

“One general thing about environmental sound is that it has a specific shape in its frequency spectrum,” Bowling says. He explains that nature sounds like waves, wind, and certain animal calls carry more low-frequency energy, which gives them a lower pitch. While higher-frequency sounds (think: motors, machines, and television static) demand our attention, these lower-frequency sounds tend to be more stable and comforting. 

Indeed, research shows that natural sounds are better at facilitating recovery from stress than more anthropogenic (human-caused) ones. Plus, certain sounds, like running water, rustling leaves, and birdsong, convey that we are in a safe, resource-rich environment, further promoting recovery and easing worry. Bowling adds that they can also form an “acoustic blanket” that masks less pleasing sounds like honking cars or whirring machines. 

This is why Spiritune weaves low-frequency nature sounds into so many of its personalized tracks. The low-frequency tones of nature are expertly deployed throughout its compositions to help guide the listener towards their desired state—be it relaxed, content, or excited. Spiritune draws upon expertise in music therapy and neuroscience to play these nature-inspired sounds at just the right moments, effectively taking the guesswork out of music medicine for any listener seeking to self-medicate through music. “Listening to nature sounds alone lacks the dynamic journey that music provides. At Spiritune, we understand that to truly harness the healing power of nature, it is beneficial to be woven into a rich musical tapestry,” says Jamie Pabst, Spiritune’s Founder & CEO. “Our compositions offer not only the calming essence of nature but also the depth and variety that keep the mind engaged and the spirit uplifted with other musical features. In doing this in a nuanced way, we can help listeners with multi-dimensional needs with multi-faceted music."

Because, as Bowling caveats, “not all nature sounds are created equal.” While some are steady and relaxing, others can be unpredictable and arousing. A cacophony of insects, birds, and mammals in a jungle will likely raise alarm bells—especially in groups of people who didn’t grow up with these sounds. Just as all cultures have different tastes in food, there’s a level of cultural variability to natural soundscape preferences. This is why Spiritune opts to use universally pleasing nature sounds in its tracks, and stays away from more polarizing ones.

The same landscape can also sound vastly different based on the creatures present. “Organisms evolve to acoustically structure their signals in special relationships to one another—cooperative or competitive—much like an orchestral ensemble,” sound ecologist Bernie Krause writes in The Great Animal Orchestra. This ensemble is constantly playing new tunes as animals change their voices. In The Sounds Of Life, Karen Bakker explains how bats, for example, have dozens of calls they can use in different situations. These can include “territorial songs, courtship whistles, physical distress calls, alarm calls, foraging coordination calls, and instructional calls that guide others,” she writes. Tuning into these extraordinarily complex, layered soundscapes is a way to tune out the sounds of the mind—which can be needlessly critical, fearful, and downright exhausting. 

Coming off winter’s relatively quiet, spring is the perfect time to watch (or rather, hear) the world around you come back to life again.

How to start a nature sound practice this season

Everyone can tune into the sounds of spring to change their perspective and boost their mood. Here are a few ideas on how to get started: 

  • Head to a familiar landscape: As Bowling points out, we all have our own preferences when it comes to nature sounds. The songs of the outdoors can also evoke deeply personal memories. If you grew up vacationing on the coast, you might find the sounds of waves particularly relaxing, for example, so you can experiment with heading to the water to allow your mind to wander back in time.
  • Consider how you want to feel: Since natural soundscapes are so varied, they can make us feel every type of way. Sure, you can head to a trickling stream when you want to feel relaxed, but you can also take a trip to a waterfall when you want to feel energized, or go to a calm meadow when you want to be more focused. Customize your sound practice based on your desired state.
  • Tune into Spiritune: Spiritune makes it possible to feel better using a nuanced deployment of musical features that often includes nature sounds or tones of similar frequencies even if you live in a bustling city or don’t have time to sneak out for a walk. Just open the app, choose what mental state you want to move towards, and listen to an expertly designed track that combines musical features and nature sounds to get you there in minutes.
  • When in doubt, go to the water: Anecdotally speaking, many people find water sounds soothing, and there’s scientific evidence to back this up: In research on soundscapes in U.S. national parks, water sounds led to the most positive outcomes for human health. This makes sense, considering that we depend on water for life and it’s great at masking less pleasant noises. Put this research into practice by seeking out the sound of water—be it from a stream, a park fountain, or a recording—as part of your well-being routine.
  • Give birdsongs your full attention: In the national park study, birdsongs were also found to be very effective at relieving stress and annoyance, and more recent research concludes they can also reduce symptoms of depression, anxiety, and paranoia. Fascinatingly enough, with every 10% increase in bird species diversity in an area, the people living there tend to have a higher life satisfaction equivalent to a 1.53 times increase in income. Live a richer life by turning off the podcast while you walk and tuning into the birdsongs around you instead. 

Nature sounds clearly have a strong influence on us, but we impact them too. As our anthropogenic noises become louder, they threaten natural soundscapes. These soundscapes are an invaluable natural resource like any other, so be sure to cherish them by exploring nature quietly and respectfully.

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