Our acoustic journey begins before our birth and ends with our last breath. As soon as we can hear, sounds reach us and influence how we think, feel, and behave. Some noises we perceive consciously, others unconsciously, some have a stronger effect on us and others less so, but all of them together make up the soundtrack of our lives.
The first sounds of life
Our beginning is profoundly quiet. One day, however, a soft murmur reaches us, and with it brings love. Study results suggest that unborn children perceive their mother's voice as early as the 16th week of pregnancy. One month later, the cochlea is fully formed, and in the 25th week, the complete hearing system. When babies are exposed to music in their mothers' womb, their heart rates increase, and they even move in the rhythm of the song.
We cannot not listen
We are born hearing – but what does it mean to hear, and what influence does it have on us? The hearing process is quickly explained: sound waves travel via the air to the eardrum and the middle ear and on to the cochlear in the inner ear, where they are converted into electrical impulses. These are forwarded to the hearing center in the brain, where they are processed into information.
Hearing, like breathing, is an automatic process. If you are not intentionally covering your ears or suffering from hearing loss, you are processing acoustic impressions 24/7. However, since you would be overwhelmed with the sheer amount of information, you select only the most critical sound signals. The sounds you perceive unconsciously, though, also have a substantial effect.
What effect does sound have?
In his TED-talk, the sound and communication expert Julian Treasure names four levels, on which sound influences humans:
Acoustic signals affect the human hormone release, respiration, heart rate, and brain waves. Just think about what happens when a police siren goes off behind you: you are immediately on alert! The sound of the surf has the opposite effect. Its frequency of 12 cycles per minute corresponds to the one of a sleeping person's breath and therefore enables tranquility and relaxation.
Music, which we will discuss in more detail later, and nature sounds have the most powerful psychological effects. For example, many people perceive bird song as highly positive, as it signals safety. The magnitude of the impact of noise on the human psyche is confirmed by a 2008 study by Swedish Lund University. Researchers at the University's Sound Environment Center have identified six psychological mechanisms and several emotions triggered in the brain while listening to music.
Cognition also suffers or flourishes under the influence of noise: the general hubbub in open-plan offices has been proven to affect your cognitive performance adversely. On the one hand, your concentration decreases and, on the other hand, your productivity. In this case, pleasant natural sounds or soft music from headphones may help.
Last but not least, sounds determine your behaviour, a fact advertising and retail companies use to their profit and benefit. Be mindful of the background music or noise in your favorite store the next time you go shopping. You will most likely find that it is very pleasing.
The sound of our world from north to south and east to west
The sounds and music of your soundtrack depend, among other things, on where you were born and spent the first years of your life. First and foremost, the geographical location is of importance: while church bells ring at one end of the world, a muezzin asks for prayer at the other end. In rural Austria, cows are mooing and chickens cackling, while howler monkeys, jaguars and parrots characterize the noise of the Brazilian Amazon. The German language stands out due to its popping plosives, and in Mandarin, it is not what you say, but how you say it, as tones determine the meaning of words.
The sounds in rural areas are more pleasant than those in urban centers; most people would prefer to listen to humming bees instead of howling engines. But every city has its distinctive sound and leaves its mark on the body, mind, and soul of the person who calls it home. The frequency of the sirens in New York, for example, differs from the ones in Berlin; the foghorns of the freighters are typical for seaports like Hong Kong, as do the clock chimes of Big Ben to London.
How does your home sound?
Not only the country or the city in which someone grows up, but the housing also has its acoustic characteristics. Is it a wooden house or an apartment block? Creaking floorboards may – under certain circumstances and especially at night – cause trouble. Later in your life, however, you might remember this specific sound as homely: your house had a life of its own. The creaking floorboard might have also worked as a reliable alarm system, warning you of your parents' flying visit to your children's room.
The number of people with whom we share the living space also plays a crucial role in our acoustic scrapbook. People who grew up with their parents, siblings, and grandparents often report that they feel and even sleep better when it is not all too quiet around them. Yet not only distinctive sounds such as the cracking of nuts during Christmas time, the clicking of knitting needles in Grandma's den, and the scratching of the pen on thick paper in Dad's workshop are pleasant to our ears. We include even seemingly unimportant acoustic signals of everyday life – the storming of our hairdryer, the threatening growl of our old washing machine – in our soundtrack of life.
Human noises contribute to the soundtrack of life
Essential elements of our acoustic world are the voices of our fellow human beings – both in positive and negative ways, as they may be quite annoying. The stoic Seneca, for example, thought that voices and music are so unbearable because they not only affect the ear but permeate the soul. If a particular voice causes a tender stir of our soul, however, it will lift us all our lives as soon as we hear it or bring it to mind. It is comforting to remember your grandfather's rich bass and your mother's sparkling soprano, or your best childhood friend's hearty laugh, after all.
No soundtrack without music!
The soundtrack of life is thus composed of many individual puzzle pieces. But what would a playlist be without music?
Music is exceptional – from the philosophers of ancient Greece to contemporary neuroscientists, numerous researchers have tried to solve its mystery. German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer assumed that music is the image of the will itself and therefore speaks to us more understandably than language; Friedrich Nietzsche, in turn, was sure: "Without music, life would be a mistake."
What happens when you listen to music?
It is a fact that several brain regions are active simultaneously while listening to music:
- thalamus (transmission of information, sleep regulation)
- cerebellum (motor skills, learning processes, cognitive processes)
- hippocampus (transfer of memories from short-term to long-term memory, orientation, emotions)
- amygdala (linking events with emotions)
- prefrontal cortex (action control, emotional processes, personality)
- insular cortex (sensory perception, pain, balance, empathy)
- Broca's area (a central component of the language center)
In contrast to the areas addressed by language, these are the primitive brain regions in which, in addition to the original feelings, the centers for motivation and reward are located. It is the prospect of reward, for example, that lets us dance: Our brainwaves synchronize with the rhythm of the music, and we unconsciously anticipate the next beat. If our prediction turns out to be correct, the brain rewards us – and we want more. All in all, the pleasure experienced while listening to music could be explained by the fact that different brain regions work together harmoniously and that we are pleasantly challenged, stimulated indeed.
The secret of music yet is different: Music is the "universal language of emotions", yet not only because it can evoke strong emotions and associations. Above all, it connects humans across borders. People of different cultural, religious, and social backgrounds usually agree on whether a song is sad or cheerful. This fact is proven by numerous studies, although it is still not clear why.
Playlists for all situations
From Osaka to San Francisco, each person has their individual playlist, and each song reflects a specific memory and emotion. You, too, are your DJ all your life, collecting songs on various topics. Love and heartache, homesickness and adventure, friendship and loneliness – your soundtrack is as multifaceted as your emotional life. What makes this even better is that you can share your playlists with other human beings. Your first love might have put together a mixtape of your shared favorite songs, or you used to sit in front of the radio for hours, recording the hottest hits of your youth for your best friend. Today, you are likely to send links to new musical discoveries to your family and dear friends.
How you create the soundtrack of your life
Over time, some songs will cease to touch you, but you'll discover new ones and add those to your soundtrack. Together with the sounds of nature, the typical sounds of your homeland, the voices of people, and many other sounds, they make up the melody and rhythm of your life. You are creating your soundtrack continually while you evolve as a person. Did you keep cassettes or CDs from your youth? Listening to them, you will learn what mattered to you and how you felt. With your soundtrack, you can always examine where you are coming from and where your journey will lead you – individually and side by side with your fellow humans.
Hearing opens up a new world every day
Exploring the wonder of hearing and an individual soundtrack is not to be taken for granted. MED-EL for example not only offers solutions to hearing loss but believes in the beauty of life encompassing hearing and sounds and thus wants to raise awareness for the cause. Each month, therefore, we will create captivating content relating to various topics from the world of sound.
You may look forward to an exciting journey full of acoustic adventures!