How does sound affect us?

There are many links between the senses and mood. In this short blog though, I want to look especially at the question, how does sound affect us? This is because it pervasive, infiltrating almost every aspect of life.

We have an ancient relationship with sound, which is experienced as frequency and patterns. Frequency can be classified as something that repeats in a predicable manner. For sound there is a push and pull that travels through matter. This becomes a certain note or pitch. The translation to mood (state of mind) is more of a mystery. Consider children playing, chirping bird song, or the resonating crack of crisp apple or potato crisps in the mouth? How does this make you feel and why?


How does sound affect us?

I recall hearing a lion raw in the wild. It woke something primitive in me. Perhaps you have joined a military parade as tanks rumble past, or experienced low-flying jets as they roar across the sky making the body shake with the rumble?


Back in 2015 I was lucky enough to be at the preparations for Singapore’s 50th anniversary of independence, when parades of trucks, amphibious craft, jets, and tanks thundered past. Up until that point the thought of war filled me with visually-based horror and thoughts of pain. Those body-shaking displays added a new perspective.


My father used to tell me of a martial arts teacher he encountered, who could fell a large part of his class with a single shout. Blood pressure crashed and they fell to mat. This is not the only example. Years ago, a lady I encountered documented a study with a medical practitioner, in Townsend Letter for Doctors & Patents (Vol. 168, pages 12-16). The study showed that blood pressure could be lowered by up to 32 points in volunteers using just a single pitch sound.


Evolutionary biologists theorise that pitch became attached to safety and danger signals during our development as the human species: low pitches signalling danger and high ones linked to contented and safe signals around us. As a result, sound ties in to the autonomic system directly, controlling body responses such as fight, flight and freeze. The freeze response can turn us into a rag doll by activating the parasympathetic system in a way that drops blood pressure precipitously.


Sound also occurs as patterns, of course. Such structure provides a basis for communication. We hear and make sound patterns as language. It also underpins music, and the two come together in speech: there is a melody to words that signals meaning.


Let me explain a little. Try saying ‘Sit down’. Does your voice pitch fall on the second word? Such lowering usually conveys authority and command. Perhaps now try, ‘Are you ready?' Does your voice rise at the end? An upward pitch usually indicates a question. However, depending on the context it can also indicate uncertainty or insecurity. Even the way we say ‘hello’ can signal a range of personality and mood traits that affect how people respond to us.


However, we do not need to be passive signal givers. Embodying the emotion that we want to convey changes the sound of the words and phrases that we speak. Try it out for yourself.


As for the patterns of sound that come to us from the environment and cross over into the production of music, these also impact mood, especially our sense of safety. Studies suggest that we find pure silence unsettling, and that discordant and unpredictable sound, even a fast tempo to music, can be as distressing as silence.


By contrast, rhythmic, repetitive patterns calm us, which helps to explain the usefulness of lullabies as a sleep aid for children, and the pleasure of listening to drumming. Predictable rhythms and progressions, running at a medium to low speed, seems to provide just the right amount of information for the subconscious to interpret this as a sound of safety.


State of mind also affects how we interact with sound. When anxious, we can physically lose the ability to perceive a full range of sounds. However, treat anxiety and normal sound discrimination returns. I won't delve into the detail here, since this is a short blog, but you can find it in my book.


So, in summary, how does sound affect us? Both pitch and pattern go straight to the subconscious, evoking an emotional response and affecting our level of arousal. Without having to think about it, these signal whether we are likely to be safe or in danger.


Till next time – B.W. Cribb

#MindHealth #Music #DesignYourMind

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