Let’s Talk – The Power of Sound (Part one) – Chrissy Mullen

Author’s note: It may not come as a shock that us at NHC are a bunch of avid readers and we’re always looking to learn new things. Every so often we come across new facts and information within the areas of our own interests that we find interesting. So we thought we’d start sharing it with you guys as part of a new series of short educational articles to promote discussion and learning! (It’s actually little facts we use to pretend we’re cool at parties) I’m not formally educated in this area but want to promote discussion and learning. This is a topic that fascinates me and I wanted to share what I’ve learnt with you all and give my interpretation. So feel free to correct or elaborate as certain parts are simplified.

What is sound? Have you ever tried to actually describe what sound is basically is without comparing it to another sound? Quite difficult eh?

“Vibrations that travel through the air or another medium and can be heard when they reach a person’s or animal’s ear.”

That’s the simplest definition I found online which translates as “our ears sense lots of tiny things shaking... sometimes.”

We’re constantly exposed to all kinds of sounds and it’s easy to take for granted just how incredible it is. Humans have managed to take tiny vibrations, used them as a means of communication and pretty much mastered them in art and science. So sound is basically just movement and energy. We can only detect a small fraction of all the noise out there so you may not be aware of everything sound can do. So here’s a wee list of how sound can affect humans since we haven’t done any lists in a while. (And we fucking love lists!)

Inaudible Sounds

Humans can generally hear sounds with frequencies between 20Hz (very low pitched) and 20,000Hz (very high pitched). There’s a lot more to it than that but the point is that there is lot of sounds that humans can’t perceive. I think the most common example to use would be dog whistles. We can’t hear sounds as high pitched as that whistle but dogs can as they have a larger range of hearing than us. (40Hz to 60,000Hz for anyone wondering.) So what does this mean? The frequency is how fast the atoms are vibrating. Well, it’s just that any sounds that are extremely high or low pitched aren’t any louder or quieter than what we’re used to although that can be hard to imagine. The sounds are just as powerful but our ears can’t perceive it. Like heat, our eyes can’t see it but we definitely know it’s there and have actually developed tools that can “see” heat in the form of thermal imaging.

Anyway, let’s get back on track.

Ultra-high frequencies and its effects aren’t fully understood yet but there’s evidence to show that there are indeed effects. There has been research that has proven that when ultra-high frequencies are included in music it increases the enjoyment of the music even though we can’t even hear these sounds. It’s all nice and creepy. The sound is still hitting our ear drums and affecting our brain sub-consciously. There’s a lot of debate here and it’s more of a general rule. To be honest, some of the science starts to get a bit beyond me here but it turns out there’s more to music and production than just making a good tune. So all you bands recording out there better start practicing those dog whistle solos!

Infrasound is the opposite and the effects are more obvious and understood. Sounds that have an extremely low frequency can provoke symptoms of fear, sorrow, depression, anxiety, nausea, chest pressure and even hallucinations. So Barry White has basically hit some sort of sexy, sweet spot before things start getting scary! “Loud” Low frequency noises (which we still can’t hear despite the volume) can cause the brain to panic as it isn’t sure what is affecting it but sets off alarms. In certain movies this phenomenon is taken advantage of. Ever wonder why horror movies do that thing where you know something bad is going to happen when the music gets all low and droning in the background. It keeps building up until something jumps out to shock you. Extremely low frequencies are layered within the sound to increase the tension you experience and make you physically uncomfortable. Exposure to infrasound has also been linked to a lot of paranormal experiences. Visual hallucinations, feeling like you’re not alone, increased fear and paranoia can all be attributed to infrasound. So basically I’m just going to go ahead and call brain washing on this one!

Major and Minor Most people have at least heard a mention of major scales/chords etc. in relation to music. Describing exactly what they are and all the differences between them would be a topic unto itself (frequencies again folks!) so I’m again just going to talk about how they affect us. To overly simplify, it’s generally accepted that songs in a major key sound “happy” and songs in a minor key sound “sad.” There are many exceptions to this but that is the general perception in Western Culture. If you want to freak yourself out, take a trip to Youtube and have a look at some of your favourite songs that have been shifted from major to minor and vice versa. Here’s some medieval sounding Metallica for you: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h7FzLX0Ql8M Unlike the with the previous topic, scientists are not totally sure if this is a natural reaction or if it’s been ingrained through our culture. So we’re not sure if the physical reaction of the mixed frequencies causes us to be sad or if the minor music gives us these emotions because long ago it was decided that certain types of music would be associated with sad events. For example, we use major songs for celebratory events such as happy birthday and the wedding march so from a young age our brains are trained to subconsciously associate these sound patterns with happy feelings. We’re exposed to sound very early in our development. I’m talking back when things were carefree and easier chilling out in the womb. We begin learning here based on our surrounding environment without realising. To summarise, we all secretly teach/condition ourselves to trigger emotions based on the types of noises we here – all without even realising it. What crafty little so and so’s we are. Of course, this could all be completely wrong but it’s certainly some cool food for thought.

Main picture accredited to this link