Auditory Dreams: our growing love affair with sound

From sound cafes to booming vinyl sales, it seems like the world is falling back in love with sound. Our resident futurist, Sabrina Faramarzi, explores the growing rise of sound-led experiences in culture.


There is no accessory more vital to city living than a good pair of headphones. Almost in every carriage, on any form of public transport, in any major global city, commuters will all have one thing in common: the regular use of headphones. Whether for listening to music, the latest podcast, or purely to isolate themselves from unwanted overheard conversation, city dwellers use headphones to block out the constant stream of noise that culminates with city life.


noise pollution is the second largest environmental cause of human health problems after air quality


Back in 2011, a report from the World Health Organisation found that noise pollution is the second largest environmental cause of human health problems after air quality. To put it into perspective — that’s 10,000 cases of premature coronary or stroke-related deaths every year, and around 910,000 additional cases of hypertension; all attributable to the physiological anxiety created by noise pollution. There is even an awards programme for the best products that help lower noise pollution.


Issues such as air quality and noise pollution are not usually the domain of rural or suburban areas, but of cities. Increasingly, the adverse effects of noise pollution are beginning to become a concern for more and more people; a recent UN World Cities report found that around 77 million people each year move from rural areas to urban areas. On top of that, the number of cities with a population of more than 10 million people — dubbed ‘megacities’ — has doubled over the last decade, meaning that more of the human population than ever before are living in incredibly crowded, sensorially overloaded environments.


But mainstream culture is finding new ways to help urbanites deal with these noisy environments. Whether through the podcast boom, listening cafes or online communities that play with auditory-tactile synaesthesia, sound is being used in interesting ways to provide people with enjoyable experiences that help them escape from the busy world.


Discussions around feelings of overwhelm and overexposure to noise are rarely aired — rather, they tend to focus around the amount of visual stimuli the modern world presents. According to Angus Carlyle, Co-Director and Professor of Sound at the Creative Research into Sounds Arts Practice Centre at the University of the Arts London, this hierarchy of elevating the visual sense above all others begins in childhood.


“If you go into a shop that sells toys for children, many of them are tactile but the majority of them are designed are to be apprehended visually. Some make sounds but they don’t make sounds in the way that train us to listen, because a lot of what we do is heavily oriented towards the visual.”


Yet sound and touch are just as important as sight — in fact, qualitatively more so in the womb where these are the first two senses that we experience. Only after birth do the visual, smell and taste senses begin to occur. Some people are paying attention to this, and have begun to understand the psychological stress caused by the high exposure of sounds that urbanites experience, and are combating this stress by using sound as a powerful sensory tool for entertainment experiences.


Sound designer Timothy Adan thinks that more people are engaging in sound experiences to escape from the outside world. “A lot of what we do for entertainment is escape, at least for a short period of time”. But living in a noisy world hasn’t necessarily made us crave silence. Radio numbers are up, doubling from 20% to 57% since 2010, and last year, Nieman Lab (the journalism research unit of Harvard University), declared that 2016 was “the year the podcast business came of age” — amassing over 35 million weekly listeners.


In his article for Vanity Fair, journalist James Wolcott describes the podcast’s recent popularity as “a return to the intimacy, wombed shadows, and pregnant implications of words, sounds, and silences in the theatre of the mind”. But is this just another tentacle of the experience economy, a craving for more immersive encounters?


In 2014, Serial became the fastest podcast to reach 5m downloads and streams on iTunes. The wildly successful true-crime drama show uses exciting audio narratives in a way that brought back the podcast as a legitimate tool for compelling and captivating oral storytelling. Adan thinks that they are replacing a lost art. “Podcasts seem to occupy this weird space inbetween being a kind of radio news or occupying the slot that was vacated, in the case of Serial and a couple of other shows, the space vacated by the original radio dramas”.


Serial Podcast


Carlyle argues that we’ve had a long tradition of using the voice as a vessel for imparting information and knowledge, and an increasing accessibility to recording devices has allowed has allowed podcasting to become more immersive. “I think one of the things that’s interesting about podcasting of a certain kind is when they’re willing to allow ambient sounds to enter the conversation as much as they are the human voice and that has made it particularly immersive because of the technical changes in representing sounds at greater levels of fidelity”.


The true-crime drama provides a 360, fully-rounded auditory experience in lieu of podcasts that only used, and were limited to, the human voice. We forget just how much environmental sounds can add to our understanding of a story. It can be argued that Serial’s success lies in it’s ability to bring in these ambient sounds for enticing and immersive experiences — the sirens of the ambulance, the tinny quality of a phone call, the whirring of a photocopier machine. But these sounds are similar to those that we experience in urban environments, the same environments that cause us health problems because of the excessive noise they create. So why are they so enticing now?


“If you think about it we are exposed to a lot of external stimuli especially if you’re living in a city - all of the honking and the yelling and the buzzing, you end up just kind of starting to tune out. But if you manage to isolate yourself like wearing headphones or being in a quiet area, it gives you more capacity to focus, to hone in on exactly what it is you are paying attention to” Adan says.


There has begun a renewed interest towards more tangible forms of music


To escape from something requires a particular commitment of attention, and human attention has become one of the scarcest commodities in our modern world. In 2015, technology giant Microsoft unveiled a report which found that our attention spans have been decreasing steadily from an average of twelve seconds in 2000, to eight seconds in 2013 — officially less than a goldfish at nine seconds. This was attributed to the increasing use of digital formats and the constant multitasking we are more likely to do every day. But sometimes listening doesn’t always have to mean paying attention, and sometimes the quality and the physiological pleasure of hearing good sound is more important than eight seconds of your attention.


A consequence of the digital world is the effect it has had on the way we hear and listen to music. Audiophiles have been trying to find ways to counteract the mass migration to online music streaming platforms such as Spotify and Tidal, and thanks to initiatives such as Record Store Day, 2016 was the first year that spending on vinyl outstripped spending on digital downloads since its inception, according to the British Phonographic Institute. There has begun a renewed interest towards more tangible forms of music because of the superior listening experience that vinyls provide, and this renewed interest has also given way to a rise in ‘listening cafes’ — spaces designed purely for the art of slow listening.


“I think a lot of people are starting to try to backpedal a little bit, we’ve gotten a bit too far in how it is we engage with audio and how we engage with music that I think a lot of people are starting to go wait, this is isn’t as fun as it used to be, this isn’t as interesting” Adan states.


Spiritland is the latest to join this tribe. Opened in December 2016, Spiritland is a cafe, bar, restaurant, music store and radio studio decked out with one of the best sound systems in the world — reportedly costing nearly £400,000. Located in London’s Kings Cross, its founder Paul Noble wanted to set up a space that offers audiences to listen to music through high quality equipment in order to reconnect them emotionally in a world drowning in digital downloads.


“We’re living in a world of degraded listening”, he says. “The compression of streaming services, the miniaturisation of audio equipment, the general lack of attention span means the listening experience is becoming more and more unsatisfying. At Spiritland we’re reversing the trend and putting the love back into the music.”


But Spiritland isn’t the only one. Brilliant Corners, located in Dalston, London has been been dazzling audiences by offering similar kinds of experiences since 2013. It is also host to Classic Album Sundays, a sort of book club for audiophiles where phones and conversation are banned so that the audience gets to listen to an album, undisturbed, all the way through. Other more radical forms of this are initiatives such as Pitch Back Playback, a little like Classic Album Sundays except the albums are played to audiences completely in the dark.


Brilliant Corners


Because we never stop listening, cultural phenomena like the return of listening clubs are a comment on the pleasures of listening to sound, a respite from the usual low-level blocking out of environmental noise we subconsciously engage in. This renewed interest may be a way of rebalancing the hierarchy of the senses or it may just be a way of engaging with our hearing sense in a way that feels new, novel and exciting.


Sound fosters multi sensory links far stronger than imaginative stimulation


Adan explains why sound can have such a novel effect. “If you close your eyes and you listen to something, your mind can take you to places that visually, you probably wouldn’t be able to do as well. For example, if you’re listening to waves crashing on a beach and you close your eyes you can imagine yourself there, you might even be able to smell the ocean. Watching a video just won’t do that”.


For some, sound fosters multi sensory links far stronger than imaginative stimulation. A term coined only in 2010, Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) refers to a series of pleasurable, tingling sensations that tend to happen in the scalp, face and neck in response to certain sounds, such as whispers, rustling, and tinkling. Those who are fortunate enough to experience ASMR essentially experience a low-level sound-induced euphoria; ‘a massage of the brain’, as some experiencers call it. However, because until just a few years ago it was a relatively unknown phenomena, there is little scientific research into the area and it is unknown just how much of the population can actually experience the effects of it.


Chris Walker is a regular experiencer of ASMR. He normally watches online videos specially designed to induce pleasurable effects, mainly comprised of people recording soft sounds and whispering into microphones. Like Walker, most people first experience the effects of ASMR as a child, but it was only a couple of years ago — when ASMR was propelled into a huge online community — that he realised he wasn’t alone. “I suppose a good way to describe it which I’m sure most people have experienced, is when certain parts in a song that can send shivers down your spine. I’m sure it’s all connected somehow.”


Recent thought considers ASMR as a mild form of auditory-tactile synaesthesia, a rare condition whereby sounds induce touch sensations in the body. Whatever it is, many of the 13,000 people polled by ASMR Research and ASMR University use the condition to help them feel less stressed with a portion of the respondents even explaining that listening to ASMR content has helped them cope with clinically-diagnosed depression or anxiety.


Walker explains that “at its best, when it’s really working, it’s like a heightened sense of relaxation that starts in the head and once it trickles down into your whole body, all the tension that you’ve been holding can be relaxed and released”.


BJ Miller, a program assistant who makes ASMR videos in her spare time, also agrees with this sentiment. “I feel that with all the stress and tension in our day-to-day lives, we could all use something that helps us calm down”.


Unlike our visual sense, our hearing cannot be turned off


Whether we’re experiencing heightened sensations in response to ASMR, enriched ambient storytelling, or high-fidelity listening cafes, what is certain is that sound can influence our state of mind more than is often given credit for.


Not everyone agrees this is a good thing; Carlyle criticises the idea that these experiences aid urbanites. “They work in terms of immersion, but at the expense of isolating yourself from the hurly burly of lived experience. Without wanting to sound too critical of people who make real and important choices to engage with those kinds of activity, what they’re simultaneously doing is separating themselves from the rest of the world as it is expressed through the cacophony of sound.”


But maybe these experiences have emerged because we never stop listening. Unlike our visual sense, our hearing cannot be turned off. Our ears never rest because we hear things constantly, we hear when we’re asleep, we even hear in 360 degrees — it doesn’t depend on us turning our heads. Perhaps this increase in availability of immersive and pleasurable sound-led experiences has emerged as one of the many coping mechanisms used to adjust to urban life and shut out the environmental noise we’re bombarded with every day. Sound has effects far beyond just vibrations entering our ears – it might just be worth paying attention to the quality of what’s coming in.

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