"Sound affects the human body deeply," says Julian Treasure, a sound expert and the founder of the Sound Agency. "We experience it faster than any other sense, and our ears are working even when we're asleep." Noise can influence our heart rate, breathing, brain waves, and hormones, as well as our focus, concentration, and mood, studies show. And the right background noise can motivate you, pushing you to PR in a race or finish a tough project at work. It can also soothe and relax you, melting away stress.
But harnessing the positive power of sound has been an inexact science until now. These strategies, newly developed by researchers, will help make it work for you, easily and effectively.
First there was white noise to help you zone out. Now experts are discovering pink noise, a mix of high and low sound frequencies. Adults who listened to pink noise while snoozing spent 23 percent more time in unbroken shut-eye, a study in the Journal of Theoretical Biology found. "Pink noise enhances the naturally occurring slow brain waves characteristic of deep sleep," says Phyllis Zee, M.D., Ph.D., the chief of sleep medicine at Northwestern University. To play pink noise all night, try an app like Noisli ($1.99; iTunes and Google Play).
Find your natural focus.
Sounds of nature increase the resting activity in your brain, calming stress and helping you concentrate, researchers from England report. People are wired to enjoy natural sounds, the study's author says. They blend into your unconscious and block out other noises, letting you zone in on the task at hand. The next time you need to focus, try a playlist of ocean waves or forest sounds. (Here are more ways to use nature to boost your health.) But if you grew up in the city, you might find nature sounds distracting, says study author Cassandra Gould van Praag, Ph.D. If so, try a cityscape playlist.
Music can reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol and increase levels of the antibody immunoglobulin A and natural killer T cells, two of the body's best immune defenses, according to research from McGill University. Nature sounds are even better at helping you heal. A recording of rippling water was more effective than music at cutting levels of cortisol, which has been shown to slow recovery, a study in PLOS One found. When you're sick or injured, play wildlife sounds or relaxing music. You'll feel tranquil, and you may get back on your feet faster too. (Try this guided progressive muscle relaxation technique too.)
Use tone to get into the zone.
During a sound bath (a.k.a. sound meditation or sound therapy), a practitioner uses singing bowls, gongs, and bells to create tranquil tones that significantly reduce tension, anxiety, and pain and lift mood and well-being, a recent study found.
"Certain sound frequencies and rhythms shift your brain waves from a more active state to introspective states akin to meditation," says Nate Martinez, a certified sound therapy practitioner. Find a sound bath near you on spafinder.com, or try it at home by searching for sound meditations on YouTube.
Your workout is way too loud.
The average Spin class exposes you to nearly nine times more noise in 45 minutes than what's recommended over a duration of eight hours, a study by Massachusetts Eye and Ear found. Other fitness studios are just as guilty of cranking up the volume. That's a big problem because less than an hour of loud noise reorganizes the hearing circuits in your brain, leading to mild hearing loss, experts say. If you have to raise your voice to make yourself heard during class or your ears ring afterward, your hearing just took a hit, the World Health Organization reports. To protect it:
Wear ear plugs during loud classes and position yourself in a spot as far away from the speakers as you possibly can.
Soothe your ears by regularly listening to white noise after class with a machine like LectroFan Micro ($35; amazon.com). White noise prevents the changes in your hearing circuits that can be caused by loud noise, the Journal of Neuroscience found.
Limit how often you put on headphones. You need music to power you through a treadmill routine. But around the house? Not so much. Noise-induced damage depends on the duration and frequency of exposure in addition to volume, so skip the earbuds when you can.