With the world in lockdown, millions online turn to the sounds of rainforests, rivers and oceans
A world in quarantine is listening online to natural soundscapes, amid global restrictions on local and international travel. For sound artists, the trend not only confirms something they’ve long known about the nature of sound, but it also gives them new insights into wider society’s relationship with sound.
The fight against the spread of Covid-19 has meant one-third of Earth’s human population being put under lockdown. Public parks and beaches around the world have been closed and flights have been cancelled.
But since lockdown measures began, a burst of listening activity has been taking place online. March and April have seen abnormally high numbers of web users with an appetite for the sound of natural spaces.
Google Trends data shows search terms like ‘ocean soundscape’, ‘nature sounds forest’ and ‘rainforest soundscape’ have become ‘Breakout’ topics, meaning those search terms are experiencing new, significant growth.
On YouTube, natural soundscape channels have seen a marked increase in traffic. Comments sections have been awash with high-ranking messages about life in quarantine. “[W]ho else listening to this since they can’t step out because of the quarantine smh … stay safe everyone! [sic]” one comment reads.
Artist Johnnie Lawson, who runs a natural environment and soundscape YouTube channel with over 300,000 followers, said he’d seen an increase in traffic of as much as 20% since the middle of February to early April.
“I have always had a very strong viewership, thankfully, though I have seen an increase in viewership in recent weeks as more and more people are being asked to remain indoors,” Johnnie said.
“I am absolutely delighted that more people are finding my virtual alternative to being out in nature. It will help people through this very difficult time.”
“I know from the thousands of messages I receive that these nature experiences are helping many many people from all walks of life and every corner of the world … that I am very grateful for,” Johnnie continued. “I am saddened that people cannot get out into nature as it is such a wonderful experience for both mind and body.”
The positive effects that the sound of nature can have on listeners is no myth. Scientists have shown listening to natural soundscapes can help our mental wellbeing.
Dr Cassandra D. Gould van Praag — a postdoctoral research assistant at the University of Oxford and co-author of this pioneering study, published in Nature Scientific Reports, on the psychological and physiological effects of listening to naturalistic environments — told Contemporary Sound Art that “listening to natural sounds changes the way different areas of your brain work together.”
“When listening to natural sounds, your resting brain uses networks associated with a passive, but alert and ‘watchful’ state, with an outward focus — you are paying attention to what is going on around you,” Cassandra continued.
“You also experience increased ‘rest and digest’ autonomic activation, and conversely your ‘fight or flight’ response is dampened.”
Of course, the exact nature of the relationship between the increase in listeners to natural soundscapes and coronavirus lockdown measures remains to be examined.
For Cassandra, “[i]t is not clear whether this increase is because people are feeling a need to reconnect with nature while their movements and interactions are restricted, or whether people are reaching for the sounds of nature to specifically calm their anxieties.”
“Either way, our own research and that of others have shown that listening to natural sounds can have a positive calming effect, so whatever the motivation, I’m delighted to know that people may be effectively using this method to find comfort.”
While, indeed, people’s reasons for seeking natural soundscapes online may be multifarious, sound artists can draw important insights from the phenomenon in their artistic research.
The recordings of artists who work in natural spaces, Annea Lockwood and Chris Watson to name just two, have long been embraced and celebrated in the culture of sound art.
With the right means of technological distribution, it’s clear that sound can have a direct application to alleviate stress.
For sound artists, this trend reaffirms that the sonic aspect of any place is integral to its affective experience.
But, crucially, the trend also shows that increased numbers of listeners will actively delve into the abundance of high-quality audio and video representations of nature.
People who cannot visit natural environments to draw from them the soothing, healing effect of nature, can under difficult circumstances make do with the sonic component alone given no other choice.
When spatial experience becomes significantly limited, thankfully, we will always be able to visit nature vicariously through sound.
Contemporary Sound Art thanks Johnnie Lawson and Dr Cassandra D. Gould van Praag for their contributions to this article.
Visit Johnnie Lawson’s YouTube channel to experience his soundscape videos.