It may sound strange that anti-noise campaigners turned a Carnegie Hall concert, “Music for a Sustainable Planet,” into a platform for their cause. Many of the loudest voices in the campaign against excessive noise are, in fact, accomplished musicians sensitive to sound in all its orchestrations.
Excessive noise may be disruptive, but the softer sounds of vibrations and exquisite harmonies are not. In fact, music and sound has long been beneficial and healing. There are countless examples of ways in which music has improved happiness, started movements, increased calm.
The Sound of Gongs: Chants and Mantras
Music is both a universal language and intensely spiritual art. As conduits for prayer and meditation, music and chanting are essential components to Buddhist beliefs and practice. Shinnyo-en Buddhism, headquartered in Tokyo, is no different. In March 2008, the Shinnyo-en Buddhist choir collaborated with the Ensemble Origin Japan under the artistic direction of renowned Japanese composer, Toshi Ichiyanagi. Together, they fused ancient and modern sounds in a breathtaking performance at Carnegie Hall.
It was Ichinayaga who singlehandedly revived ancient Japanese instruments like the “sho,” a form of reed instrument made of bamboo pipes. He believes that instruments like these can transport and audience “into an extraordinary world.” According to the Japanese composer, music “was (always) an attempt to express the inexpressible… driven by the cravings of the soul.”
The euphoric powers of music and sound are not just New Age spin; it’s neuroscience.
Chanting prayers are not just a feature of Shinnyo-en Buddhism. Kadampa (Mahayana) Buddhists chant pujas (prayers) to still the mind and foster connection with enlightened beings; they consider this an important component of training in a spiritual life.
Mantras are also an important component of spiritual practice for followers of Transcendental Meditation and Hinduism, some of whom believe the vibrations of mantras quiet the mind and confer special benefits and protections.
The euphoric powers of music and sound are not just New Age spin; it’s neuroscience. A recent scientific study documents music’s powerful effects on the brain. According to neuroscientists (Salimpoor, Benovoy, Larcher, et al.) who published in Nature Neuroscience in 2011, music induces a psychophysiological response in the nervous system, which triggers the release of dopamine. Dopamine is associated with pleasure and is released during peak arousals when having sex, taking narcotics, or eating:
“Music, an abstract stimulus, can arouse feelings of euphoria and craving,….
“Using the neurochemical specificity of [11C]raclopride positron emission tomography scanning, combined with psychophysiological measures of autonomic nervous system activity, we found endogenous dopamine release…. at peak emotional arousal during music listening…”
Classical Harmonies: Sounds Make Babies Smarter
Some researchers have found that exposing pre-natal infants to classical music may have a positive effect on their intellectual development.
According to a March 2013 article by Health Fitness Revolution, a study that exposed fetuses to 70 hours of classical music during the last few weeks of pregnancy showed that those children were more likely to have more positive physical and mental development after birth. When studied at six months, these babies were more advanced in linguistic, intellectual and motor development than babies who received no musical stimulus during pregnancy.
The Sound of Music
Music has historically been a powerful tool. It inspired the Trapp family to embrace love and oppose Hitler, a story memorialized in Broadway’s legendary “The Sound of Music.”
Sounds that Changed History
Historically, music has inspired altruistic behavior, social and political change. The rousing folk music that spurred the anti-Vietnam War movement in the 1960s helped end the Vietnam War. Many talented rock musicians who followed in their path also left a legacy, including recent Noble Prize winner Bob Dylan (“The Times They Are A Changing”) whose lyrics left an indelible mark on the society at the time, one that can still be felt today. In 1985, a concert tour “We Are the World: USA for Africa” united 45 musicians and, according to USA Today, raised $75 million dollars to help poor African nations.
Whistling Japanese tea gardens
Park, who has done extensive research on the qualities of sound, says the evocative powers of certain sounds are universally perceived as pleasant. These include the sound of a whispering wind or murmuring stream.
Tae Hong Park a composer who helped produce the Noise Gate Festival and created an original score he performed at “Music for a Sustainable Planet.” Park, who has done extensive research on the qualities of sound, says the evocative powers of certain sounds are universally perceived as pleasant. These include the sound of a whispering wind or murmuring stream. Many Japanese tea gardens are architecturally designed to incorporate the sounds of whistling winds and babbling waters.
Restoring Sanity: Sounds of Silence
While harmonious noise can be soothing, silence is also very good for your brain. Recent studies find the brains of people who practice silent meditation work more efficiently than the brains of people who do not. Neuroscientists at Stanford University even claim that when we listen to music the silent intervals in what we hear trigger the most intense, positive brain activity. Japanese culture has had this insight for some time. Japanese gardens and tea ceremonies are strategically designed as quiet spaces that encourage contemplation. Others, like Trappist monks and Quakers, have similar beliefs. The pursuit of silence, like the sweet sound of harmonies, has many loyal followers.