Can you hear it? What? Exactly.

The power of sound. Have we unlearned to live in stillness?

While going downstairs to grab my laundry the other day, I had to take our building’s staircase, which forces me to pass four different doors. Thanks to the fantastic logistics and the very minimalist choice of doors design in our building, each of our neighbor’s doors has a small gap at its bottom, where the door does not quite touch the floor. This enables me to always feel like an active participant in their lives when I am going down the staircase. Oh, the things I have heard…

Nevertheless, last Friday I was invited into what felt like a remix of four different radio stations. One could say that with Dutch construction, what you do is everyone’s business, but in my case, I would have to refine this saying to the following: what you listen to, becomes everyone’s business.

What struck me, while gliding down my deathly steep stairs (the epitome of Dutch houses) was that at the same time, every household was enjoying some kind of sounds. That no one could stay in silence. My neighbors, including myself, were all listening to music while cooking, showering, doing the laundry, or even just sitting on the couch. Basically, any activity ought not to be done in silence. There is this tremendous need to fill what we see as ’emptiness’. We want to avoid stillness. But why?

While being interviewed for the Elite Daily article Why Silence is so uncomfortable, Dr. Danielle Forshee says that: “silence generally stimulates us to be able to notice our automatic thoughts,”(read the more nuanced approach to discussing silence here), which we often do not want to necessarily deal with. This is one thought I had already discussed in my previous post, in which I interviewed a psychology student on what makes social media so addictive (check it out here). She explained that we are looking out for a sort of ‘sugar kick’, a high, while endlessly scrolling through social media. In addition to this, apart from craving this one dopamine kick, scrolling allows us to mute any unwanted thoughts. The same applies to music. One could see it as a refuge, serving as a pleasant distraction. This approach makes silence in an era, in which everything we touch either blinks, makes a sound, or is followed by a vibration, look like the enemy.

I have observed this pattern in other instances as well, after all, don’t we all know the phrase “awkward silence” when referring to a conversation. The last thing you want is for there to be no comeback, no dialogue, no sound. Silence has become quite the luxury, or let me rephrase that. Not silence in itself, but mastering and actually enjoying it in the digital age has. One little search on Google allows us to register the multiple ways in which people in the 21st century try to befriend stillness and unlearn our habit of passive listening. Take the example of The Five-minute journal. In exchange for 5 minutes of just sitting down and writing in silence (and your willingness to pay around 30 bucks), this journal promises to focus “your attention on the good in your life. Improve your mental well-being and feel better every day”.

Well doesn’t that sound promising? Another method that has been heavily promoted on social media in regards to stillness has been meditation. The practice many connect to Hinduism has been enacted for centuries. It takes many different shapes, yet the most common one is supposed to be practiced in a position as shown in the following image.

Traditional meditation pose (used in yoga as well). Image can be found here

The main idea of meditation is to ground yourself and take the time to just be. In other words, detach from the outer world and do the inner work and do exactly the opposite of what I have previously described when talking about the addictive character of social media. Many influencers have embraced this ancient practice and made it into a trend, reaching 36.1 million posts on Instagram under the hashtag meditation.

As I have shown, there are ways in which people have tried to befriend silence, take a moment of stillness in our otherwise rushed, chaotic, and roaring world. Yet, I keep coming back to the earlier asked question, whether we have unlearned to live in silence at all.

This question might carry a negative connotation towards sounds as a whole, yet it does not have to. In a discussion with my grandma, who is a big soap opera fan, she told me that she often just enjoys hearing their dialogues in the background. It’s almost like a companion…one you can turn off when you have had enough, she says, while my grandpa childishly grins in the background. The point I am making here while using my grandma’s passion for television as an anecdote is that for many, sound serves as an addition to what sometimes feels like a lonely world.

Putting this reflection into our current contexts, I believe my earlier described observation regarding my neighbors and the use of digital media specifically for its sound, makes more sense now than ever. The COVID-19 pandemic has restricted our way of socially interacting with one another in tremendous ways and has for long periods of time completely stripped us away from having any contact outside of our own houses. Looking at sound versus silence from this angle, one could say that the world has been in a state of tension for the past year, as on the one hand the world outside, the foreground, the streets seem silent, while what happens in the background, in little apartments and staircases such as in my example, is quite the opposite. Households have been filled with music, neighbors have created quarantine bands and entertained themselves with performance and overall spirits have been lifted through sounds. Just take a look at this collection of videos, which depicts Italians singing and creating music together during the lockdown.

Sound during the Pandemic. Video source here

This thought brings me to my next and final point and that is that sounds are an indispensable part of who we are and how we interact. While many focus on social media as an interactive tool because of its visual characteristic, we should just as much focus on its audible character, as sounds too, influence our perception and way of communication. However, this shall be a topic for another blog post.

As for now, I guess I will just continue enjoying four free live concerts every time I decide to meander down my staircase and appreciate the often forgotten connection we share through sounds.

Want to know more?

  • Click here to see how the brain reacts to music
  • How listening to music can keep your brain young here
  • More on the fear of silence, also known as sedatephobia here