Vibes, up.

Cole D Lehman
7 min readNov 29, 2023

How music and nature help us feel good

(previously published on Hencecreative.com Journal)

Imagine that you’re riding up the tram, your favorite lift, or skinning to your stash with music pumping through your helmet. You’re up early, with your favorite people (or by yourself), and there’s a steep ocean of fresh powder waiting for you at the top. Your playlist switches to the next song, there’s a short silent frenzy while everyone gets ready for the turns, and then you’re watching the snow float by underfoot.

Stopped halfway down the mountain with a powder-caked grin on your face, your favorite song comes on, you adjust your goggles, and take off. Entranced, enamored, enraptured … you’re picked up and carried off in the timeless wave of a flow state.

Frozen champagne splashes up at every turn, rainbows reflect on ice crystals in the air, the wind blows through the trees, and all thought ceases. It’s just you, the mountain, and the music. For the length of that one song, all the ravages of late stage capitalism fall out of mind and being alive makes sense again. Then it fades. But you feel better. And you can get through the week, the month, the year on just a few good days like this.

Was it the music? The two feet of fresh? The compersion of seeing your friends get face shots? Would it have been the same if it was a different song? And maybe the biggest question of all since we can’t isolate all the factors, how do I get back to that feeling?

Trying to answer that is like trying to explain life itself — impossibly complex and worth the effort of reaching anyway. If we focus on music and nature, there’s a thread to follow.

That’s because music and nature are scientifically good for the brain, have foundational influences over how we feel, lead us to flow states, and are both shaped by waves, rhythm, oscillation, frequency, and harmonics.

Your brain is made of music

Literally. Your hippocampus vibrates like a guitar string, just at a much lower frequency. The E2 note from the thickest string on your 6-string guitar vibrates at 82 hz. Your hippocampus oscillates between 5 and 10 hz (theta waves). And this rhythmical oscillation directly impacts the amount of serotonin in your brain (1).

A vibrating structure in your brain, a weird flesh-shaped synthesizer, modulates the dancing serotonin molecules that boost your mood, encourage healthy sleeping patterns, and help you feel good about being alive.

Your brain is like a mycelial electric orchestra, all parts playing a symphony that goes on 24/7. Your insula, amygdala, thalamus, cerebellum all pulse to the drum beat of blood flow that’s driven by your heart rate and respiration. They’re all playing music together, entrained with the other nested oscillations of your brain (2). All these different pulses combine, harmonizing into fields of measurable brain wave patterns.

  • Delta (1–3Hz) — Deep sleep
  • Theta (4–7Hz) — Meditation and creativity
  • Alpha (8–13Hz) — Relaxed reflection
  • Beta (13–38Hz) — Problem-solving
  • Gamma (39–42Hz) — Heightened awareness

You might hear the new wave of breathwork practitioners, biohackers, Wim Hoff cold plungers, and psychedelic renaissancers talk about getting into gamma. That’s because increased gamma waves are associated with everything from deep meditation to healing and flow states (3).

And that song’s worth of ecstasy you experience on the mountain, at a Red Rocks concert, or in other outdoor pursuits is almost certainly a gamma-dominant flow state (or low alpha.. or both… it’s complicated). This internal harmonic state is also the humming, golden nectar of ancient consciousness practices that soothes, cleanses, and renews the soul.

So how do you get more gamma waves dancing around in your brain? Short answer — that’s also complicated. But, we do know that music definitely helps.

How music changes your mind

Brainwaves can be altered by external stimuli, and that includes music(4). Maybe more than most things.

The well-loved British neurologist Oliver Sacks said, “our auditory systems, our nervous systems are tuned for music. Perhaps we are a musical species no less than a linguistic one.”

If you want to dive deep into that territory, read Daniel J. Levitin’s book, This is Your Brain on Music.

Religious chanting (the repetitive Om’ing of monks and yogis) is a surefire way to increase gamma waves (5). And music changes the brain dramatically enough to help patients with dementia connect with loved ones (6). These are just the surface of the reasons that sound healing is so popular right now — from Shipibo-lead ayahuasca ceremonies in the Amazon (that rely on healing songs called Icaros) to sound baths at your local yoga studio.

And while many of your local crunchy sound healers spit snake oil out of their mouths, the people in their sound baths are still experiencing positive life-changing events.

You know that a single concert can change your life forever. A single song can make a commute more bearable. Did you know that a simple new rhythm can transform a whole culture? The 4/4 beat of rock and roll rearranged the consciousness of the US in the 1950’s. That tends to get lost in the wave of psychedelics that entered the picture around the same time.

But it was arguably the 4/4 beat that got it off the ground and drove everything forward. And that came from the drums of West Africa.

Ritual drumming and trance traditions reached the US via the slave trade and shaped blues, jazz, and rock n roll. It wasn’t just Elvis’s moving hips and stolen songs that had the youth going wild, it was the trance states induced by the repetitive 4/4 rhythms (7).

Those rhythms entrain human brain waves and lead people to wildly different states of being. They’ve been used for millenia for ritual, ecstatic celebration, healing, and culture-building. And where did the ancient peoples that the “New World” colonized get these rhythms from? The living world. Nature.

The quiet music of nature

Some days it’s easier to reach for your favorite playlist or a podcast when you go outside. But one of the most healing and transformational forms of music is already playing in the wild. It’s a symphony that’s conducted by the circadian rhythms of night and day. The cycles of the moon. The changing seasons. Hot and cold. Light and dark. Wet and dry. And compared to music in our headphones, it sounds oddly like silence. Or a herd of deer running away in the pre-dawn light.

But that silence has an underlying sound, too. A tone. It’s vibrating around 7.32 Hz — the Schumann Resonance — which is very similar to the hippocampus oscillations from 5–10 Hz (that modulate serotonin).

7.32 Hz is the frequency of the earth’s magnetic field, and it has a sound. Indigenious people from around the world know that when we take time to just be in nature and resonate with the rhythms of the Earth, we change. Scientific language and study just hasn’t caught up to explaining it. But, we’re working on it.

According to researchers at The University of Utah, being in nature at least 120 minutes a week is associated with good health and well-being (8). And if you spend four days backpacking, you’ll have more capacity for attention and be 47% more creative when you get back to the world (9). There’s a long list of the benefits of being in nature — from Japanese forest bathing reducing stress to being nature making us more kind and generous (10).

All that comes just from being outside in the song of the world — no human-made music required.

Music and nature both make us feel better

Remember, a symphony of oscillating structures and nested rhythms in your body and brain are constantly playing a kind of music. That internal song dictates how we feel and is heavily influenced by the outside world at every moment. Your mood, sleeping patterns, and general well-being take on the rhythm and melody of what you pay attention to.

If that’s the insane pace of always-on work, TikTok, news, or the fracturing of the American psyche — you’re going to feel bad. If you make it a point to listen to good music, go to concerts with friends, and spend more time outside you’re going to feel better.

Typically our brainwaves entrain with the grind of traffic, the flat sensory landscape of screens, and the incessant, distracting tempo of the human world. It’s a kind of music, too — but it’s generally making us sick. When we go outside, we give ourselves the chance to entrain with the same rhythms that life itself evolves out of. It’s like tuning a piano, except you’re tuning your heart rate, brainwaves, and neurotransmitters to the source of renewal itself.

This article is your permission to go spend 4 days in the backcountry (or continued justification). It’s a gentle reminder to spend 120 minutes a week in nature at a minimum. And a nudge to listen to more good music whenever you can. It’ll help you be happier and more enjoyable to be around.

Sure, it might make you more productive, too. But feeling better might also make you quit your job. So let’s leave that capitalistic justification inside with the computers, and go outside to be healthier, happier, kinder humans. And whenever you can’t get outside, you can always turn on some music.

Sources:

1: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3110562/

2: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fncom.2020.00047/full

3: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5261734/

4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6130927/

5: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-40200-w

6:https://news.northwestern.edu/stories/2022/08/music-helps-patients-with-dementia-connect-with-loved-ones/

7: https://open.spotify.com/episode/2o5t6aKSs4PhNZiHF7T3Bj

8: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-44097-3

9: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3520840/

10: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_nature_makes_you_kinder_happier_more_creative

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Cole D Lehman

A little bit Dionysus, a little mad scientist. Desert rat, animist, contact improv dancer, writer, and bodyworker. Eats chocolate for breakfast.