The vast majority of us ( and I include myself in this list ) are completely unaware of the role that sound – and silence – plays in our lives and mental well-being. I was made aware of this recently by a BBC documentary about an App developed by some whizz kid in response to a peculiar Covid phenomenon. People working from home apparently missed the usual buzz of office sounds and felt disoriented. Some smart kid has now developed an App that has a graphic equaliser which can stream the usual office background sounds- the chatter of colleagues, ringing of phones, whirring of photo-copiers, clicking of typewriters- which simulates an office environment and makes the person feel comfortable and therefore more productive!
This demonstration of how “surround sound” shapes our state of mind is telling in a number of ways, not the least of which is the manner in which we have allowed human-generated sounds to replace the cadence of nature, with unhealthy effects on our mental well being. Numerous studies have proved how the tyranny of ceaseless sound- especially in cities, in which 40% of the human population now resides- causes stress, hypertension, high BP, and most of the time we are not even aware of this hidden killer. It is time to understand what we have given up in our fruitless quest for a materialistic Valhalla.
It is time we began listening to the Universe again, as our forefathers ( in the not too distant past ) did. We must go back to hearing the silence beyond the background noises and cacophony of modern life. To do so, however, we must first understand the true quality of Silence.
There is no such thing as complete silence. The universe is producing sounds all the time and has been doing so since time immemorial. It’s we who are not listening. To prove this, a famous American music composer and musician, John Cage, wrote a composition in 1952 titled 4′ 33” or Four Minutes and Thirty-Three Seconds, which stunned the music world. The score consists of three movements- of complete silence. The musician sits on stage before an open piano without playing it, there is complete silence and quiet in the hall for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. At the end of this period he gets up and walks off the stage.
In this total quietude, the audience discovers the existence of sounds they had never heard before- the sound of blood circulating in the arteries, the muted beating of the heart, the soft whispers of one’s breathing, even the rustling of the fabric against fabric as one moves. Which was precisely the point John Cage wished to make- that sound permeates every fibre of the universe, that it does not exist only outside us, but also inside, if only we would care to listen. It is as important to listen within, as it is without.
Every environment and soundscape in the universe has its own unique sonic signature. There are basically three types of sounds: Geophony ( sounds of the non-biological natural world- the wind, flowing water, the rustling of leaves, the creaking of tree branches moving against each other); Biophony (the sounds made by living creatures such as insects, birds and animals); and Anthrophony ( sounds generated by humans and their contraptions). The tragedy of modern life is that we have been allowing the anthrophonic signature to dominate and eclipse the other two, and are consequently losing touch with the natural cadence and rhythms of the universe.
A natural environment is musically generative, it is alive with musical expression: just think of the symphony played out by the hidden cicadas in the monsoons, the honking of a wedge of geese flying overhead, the rat-a-tat of a woodpecker, the plaintive baying of a lonely pack of coyotes or wolves, the cooing of a wood dove or a “papiha”, the roar of a waterfall, the moaning of the wind through the trees. This is the stuff and lifeblood of music, from the ancient bagpipes to the modern orchestra. A healthy environment has birds, animals and insects that occupy the high, medium and low-frequency bands of sound, like a symphony. When we take out any of these ” musicians” we forever alter the music of the symphony itself.
The “silent” forests have other sounds too, which researchers are only now beginning to discover. Did you know that trees “talk ” to each other? In his fascinating book THE HIDDEN LIFE OF TREES, Peter Wohlleben reveals that scientists in the Western University of Australia have registered roots of seedlings crackling quietly at a frequency of 220 hertz! The roots of other seedlings, when exposed to these crackling sounds, oriented their tips in that direction. That means the latter were registering this frequency, they were ” hearing” it. Some day we too may hear it, if only we could escape our man-made surround sounds.
In our corrupted and degenerated modern lifestyle, we call this ” silence”- the silence of the forests and nature, because we have got accustomed to hearing only the anthrophonic sounds. And to escape the tyranny of anthrophony the lucky among us escape occasionally into the realm of nature. But that is not enough. We must also learn to listen to, and preserve, this silence, which is no silence at all, but the music of a universe that is billions of years old. It is the music of “OM”, of Pachelbel, of the Buddhist chanting, of our venerable and ancient Ragas. And unlike the sounds made by man, this “silence” has the ability to calm, to soothe, to rejuvenate, to connect us with the eternal. This is what meditation, Vipassana and Pranayam are all about, realigning our antennae to the world within us. Listen to the Silence – for it has all the answers you are seeking.