A Sound Bath: Ways to Use Sound and Music to Promote Wellbeing
“Sound and music can quickly alter your mood, affecting your subconscious mind. Listening to music is a relatively inexpensive, easily accessible solution to elevate your awareness and your emotional states.”
Sound therapist and meditation teacher Sara Auster share sonic insight from her new book, Sound Bath:
People ask me all the time, “Whose Sound Bath do you go to?” I explain that I craft times in my daily schedule to experience sound and music of all sorts. My meditation practice is sound-based, and I go to see live music almost every week. I also listen to my album often to accompany my meditations.
Music has always been a constant in my life: I am a musician, a concertgoer, a collector of vinyl and vintage recordings. I have always cherished the songs and sounds I’ve collected throughout my life. I choose to surround myself with sounds that make me happy, that soothe me, that are pleasing to me, and that support me. You can do this too.
Everything you listen to becomes part of you. Sound and music can quickly alter your mood, affecting your subconscious mind. Listening to music is a relatively inexpensive, easily accessible solution to elevate your awareness and your emotional states. Think of music as one more tool in your overall wellness kit. Make it a habit to access music when you are feeling tired, overwhelmed, stressed, or anxious.
These are a few of my favorite ways to intentionally bring sound and music into my world:
Wake up with music. The buzzing of an alarm is a harsh sound to wake up to every morning. (Or any morning!) Waking up to a piece of music you find soothing or inspirational, on the other hand, can ease you into the day. Your smartphone might allow you to assign a song as your alarm, or you can program your smartvoice assistant to wake you up to your favorite musical genre.
Once you’re up and moving, turn on some music that puts you in a good mood and helps you get grounded (and skip the network television morning show). The depressing clatter of the latest political quagmire or celebrity breakup probably isn’t supporting you in your quest to start your day in a joyful and relaxed headspace. Instead, create a playlist of music that relaxes and inspires you or gets you going. A positive morning music ritual is a great way to start your day off in a better mood.
Sing—whenever, wherever. Singing is one of the best ways to shift the vibrations of our thoughts and the very cells of our body, helping to slow and regulate breathing and promote relaxation. Sing in the shower, sing in the car, hum before you go to sleep. You can sing acappella or to a recording. Don’t worry if you think you don’t have a good voice. Just enjoy. Pay attention to how different you feel after a few minutes of singing aloud, and note the songs that make you feel best so you can put them on repeat when you need them.
Pair movement and sound. Incorporate music into your daily exercise routine. A morning run, simple stretching—movement becomes easier and more enjoyable when you add music. Choosing the music that works for you may take a little trial and error at first, but have fun finding the right selections that help you feel inspired and energized. If you’re doing intense cardio, look to find upbeat music with 140 beats per minute (bpm) and up. Looking for a deep, relaxing stretching session? Find some slow and spacious music with a bpm of 65 or less.
Whistle while you work. The right background music can help you work through routine tasks in a better mood, and listening to inspiring music on break can help you recharge your own system. (Bonus: Relaxing background music can also help mask potentially annoying distractions in noisier work environments.) Maybe don’t whistle if you’re in an open floor plan, but definitely pop in your earbuds and press play to help you push through your workday and make the mundane more magical.
The Myth of Complete Quiet: There is no such thing as silence
Your body is a working machine that produces hisses, puffs, and rumbles just like a factory, round the clock. Your body creates these low hums and rhythms every day—and usually you can only hear just the bare minimum of them. Luckily, because most of these sounds are on a very low frequency, the way our inner ear works makes it unlikely that you’ll hear your bodily sounds.
People tend to think they need a quiet place to meditate and feel calm and centered, but even on a mountaintop at a monastery there will always be sound— perhaps a bee buzzing around your head. Even in what is quite literally the most quiet place in the world, you will hear sound.
In Minneapolis, there is a little room that holds an interesting Guinness world record. It’s an anechoic chamber, a room designed to completely absorb reflections of sound and electromagnetic waves. This bunker-like place is surrounded by layers of steel and concrete and is filled with absorbing buffers. All of this protects it from something that is very hard to keep out: sound. It is considered the most quiet place in the world.
But even in the quietest place on Earth you won’t find silence. If you were in that room—totally secluded from all external noise—you would still hear noise. It would be the sound of your own breathing, swallowing, digesting, transporting, beating, of your own blood flowing through your body, the singing of nerves—in short, a symphony!
The closest thing we can get to silence is quiet. I think it takes the pressure off to say that—to know that nirvana without sound doesn’t exist, even in the most peaceful place imaginable. Let go of the expectation that Sound Baths and meditation must occur in silence. Allow yourself to “be” with the external sounds that permeate your practice, and welcome them in. It can help you be more tolerant and welcoming of the unexpected in your practice, and also in your everyday life.
The Role of Environment in the Sound Bath Experience
Some of my favorite Sound Baths have taken place in locations that nobody would describe as quiet. Outdoor music festivals, public parks, transit hubs, and busy conferences are hardly places we would consider silent sanctuaries. I am drawn to these kinds of events mainly to find ways to offer participants a new way to engage with the sounds around them. I find that adding another layer of sound, perception, and experience to an environment takes you to an even deeper connection with that space. Something almost magical happens when you stop to pause. By pausing you are able to shift the context of what typically happens in that particular space—pausing helps you to see the space in a new way. As we pause we transform our understanding of what the potential in a particular environment can be. A music festival can be a space to go inward, a bustling transit hub can become a place to find stillness and peace, the public spaces in your city or town have a beautiful music all their own, and all you have to do is listen.
Even in quiet spaces such as meditation studios, museums, and galleries there are going to be additional environmental noises during a Sound Bath. Someone will inevitably cough or sneeze or snore or leave the room. These are not sounds I’ve introduced into the space, but I express to participants that it’s important to invite those sounds into the experience, rather than trying to resist what is happening.
On a micro level, if you can start to soften your response and attitude in a Sound Bath setting—going from “That guy is clearing his throat and it’s ruining my experience” to “That’s just another sound, no reason for me to get agitated”—you can experience a shift in how you react and respond to discomfort in other situations as well.
How we relate to sound corresponds to how we relate to the world.
“SING” WITH YOUR SURROUNDINGS
Pay attention to which sounds trigger a stressful response or a hardening in the body or mind—noticing that is a good place to start. Here’s a practice that will help to get you moving in the right direction.
When you meet and match an annoying sound, you’ll instantly feel less resistance to it. Remember I mentioned that I live near a firehouse? Well, in addition to sirens going off constantly, twice a day the firefighters are required to test all three of their emergency chainsaws—they take them out on the street and let them go. On days when I find the sound particularly bothersome, I make a chainsaw sound out loud myself. It may seem silly to make the sounds of chainsaws, a siren, or your blender, but it is an effective way to lighten the relationship to any sounds that bother you.
It’s like you’re defanging the sound and saying, “I’m not fazed by this! I can make that sound too.”
What you’ll need:
- Your Listening Journal
- Any drone. A drone is a low, continuous humming sound. Drones are everywhere—your washing machine, dishwasher, blender, the engine of your car.
- Your voice
Where this can be done:
- Anyplace where you feel comfortable using your voice
Step by step:
- Find a drone in your environment or create one by turning on a portable fan, for example.
- Listen with eyes open or closed while sitting or standing.
- Engage with the environmental sound. See if you can match the pitch/tone of the drone using your voice.
- Mimic the sound and duration of the drone. Don’t worry about sounding silly; just try to meet and match it.
- Write your observations of your experience in your Listening Journal.
From Sound Bath by Sara Auster, published by Tiller Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 2019 by Sara Auster. All rights reserved.