Words by Daphne Chouliaraki Milner
The healing potential of sound has been channeled by cultures across the world for centuries. Now, as news about the scale and scope of environmental degradation worsens, a new generation of sound practitioners are looking for ways to help us cope.
Kelly Lee Owens can still remember the soundtrack of her childhood. Choral music and spoken poetry is what she describes as the “fabric and bones” of her Welsh lineage. Now an established DJ and electronic musician, Owens has spent much of her adult life reflecting on the importance of sound in bringing people together and facilitating shared moments of creative expression—something that drives every step of her career.
“We need each other, we need to come together,” said Owens, in particular—she adds—when it comes to advocating for the Earth. “You can come together, alone, in a beautiful way through sound. Because music makes us feel very much a part of something.”
In addition to touring and the regular release of new music—most recently her album LP.8, which dropped in April of this year—Owens runs deep listening sessions to help people better connect with their environment. A recent session in Sydney, which included laser light displays and the burning of custom-made scents, was focused on intentionality and empathic modes of listening. The idea is to retrain our minds to actively seek out the nuances of surrounding sounds in order to “become one with the sound.” It’s something Owens believes is particularly urgent in the digital era where many of us rely on constant streams of entertainment to keep our minds and bodies busy.
“People are pushed. People are stretched. We have had enough,” Owens told Atmos. “If you don’t have the time and space to connect with yourself, how can you be conscious enough to take on something as big as the climate crisis? I don’t like to put the onus on the individual because it takes responsibility away from giant corporations, from policy-makers, and from governments. But, at the same time, we are the collective, so we also have to come together to do our bit.”
The Long-Standing Legacy of Sound Healing
Owens is right. The number of people feeling troubled about the state of the world—politically, socially, and environmentally—is growing. A 2020 survey found that over half of U.K.-based children and young adults have cited feelings of distress at the looming reality of the climate crisis. A more recent study by The Lancet that surveyed 10,000 young people from 10 different countries found that 59% of them were extremely worried about climate change, while 84% said they felt at least moderately concerned. As a result, terms like eco-anxiety, a word first used by young activists to give name to feelings of extreme worry over current and potential environmental collapse, have entered the mainstream.
The issue is that targeted treatments remain limited. Plus, experts are split: some psychologists have joined organizations like the Climate Psychology Alliance, a database of resources on tackling emotions triggered by the climate crisis through an intersectional lens, while others don’t differentiate between eco-anxiety and generalized anxiety disorders. For Owens and other sound healers, one possible way of soothing some of the symptoms caused by eco-anxiety is music.
“We need each other, we need to come together. You can come together, alone, in a beautiful way through sound.”
“Anxiety does have a purpose, it tells us when things need to change. Anxiety is there to protect us from danger,” said Farzana Ali, also known as The Sound Therapist, to her clients and on Instagram. “However, if your anxiety is disarming you into inaction then sound healing is a great way to help you build up your mental resilience. It calms the nervous system, slows down your heart and breath rate and can even lower blood pressure. It also slows down your brain waves – allowing you to sink into a calmer, more relaxed state. When our brains are able to fully rest it helps us increase our mental clarity, too. The more mentally resilient you become, the more you’re able to act in a productive way in the fight for climate justice.”
It’s worth noting that sound healing is by no means a new invention. Cultures across the world have been channeling the healing potential of sound for centuries. Spirit beings in Aboriginal communities, for instance, have used the didgeridoo as well as song to re-invoke connections to Dreamtime, the foundation of Aboriginal religion and culture. Today, these same communities use the didgeridoo to bring about health for the player and the listener. Across Asia, singing bowls that date back to the 11th century B.C. have been utilized as ways of creating space for spiritual awareness and healing. In ancient Greece, Pythagoras, most commonly known as the father of mathematics, wrote about the therapeutic effect of musical intervals, while ancient Egyptian priestesses played the sistrum to enhance the healing potential of certain ceremonies.
In the West, the recent uptick in sound healing classes is, in part, connected to the rise of the wellness-industrial complex, which birthed popular mindfulness apps like Calm, Headspace, and Rootd that promise anxious users soothing soundscapes to help settle their fears—as well as conversations around what it means for wellness to be commercialized. “People are so exhausted that they’re seeking out more spaces for healing to happen,” said practitioner Ben Brown, who regularly runs sound therapy sessions. “Right now, the sound healing community is starting to see what the yoga world has already gone through. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I do think we have to pay attention to the extent of the commodification by considering: are we engaging with sound in a meaningful way?”
Commodification is inevitably a concern in a wellness industry shaped by consumerism. But, the long-standing legacy of sound-based collective healing as both restorative and meditative predates the neoliberalism that informs so many recent fads. And this rich history of music as therapy is precisely why artists like Owens and practitioners like Ali and Brown are turning to sound to help build purposeful communities that work to connect with and protect nature.
The Transformative Potential of Listening
For George Macpherson, sound meditation practitioner and founder of Sound of the Times, sound healing is about much more than guided, one-off sessions. It’s about ancient history and oral traditions; it’s about actively listening to, rather than passively hearing, sounds that have been around for millenia.
“These ancient practices only work when they are taught through a lineage,” Macpherson said. “It’s not about picking up a drum and inventing something for yourself. As sound meditation practitioners, we are being offered something that has been handed down from person to person when their ears and hearts and minds are open.”
“Sound is an emergent catalyst that we can use as a way to create space for what comes next, and I think that’s important when you think about climate change.”
The structure of Macpherson’s sound meditation sessions vary, but the instruments he typically uses include buffalo drums, shruti boxes, koshi chimes, tingsha bells, hum drums, reverie harps, rain sticks, and symphonic gongs among others. He also incorporates self-created sounds through vocal toning, humming, and breath work. “Many of us have reached the age where we’ve become accustomed to sound,” said Macpherson. “My hope is to create a space where we allow ourselves to be curious about the journey a sound can take us on. Where we allow ourselves to be open to imagination as opposed to a narrative of, Oh, I’ve heard that before, this reminds me of that sound. It’s about letting sound exist for what it is instead of making us the point of focus.”
It’s why practitioners like Macpherson are quick to stress that sound therapy can exist outside the parameters of a guided session. In fact, community healing can take place just as effectively when we surrender to the sounds around us and allow ourselves to exist as part of our environment—rather than separate from it. When we refocus our attention on active modes of listening—instead of passive acts of hearing.
“Sound baths don’t have to be formalized experiences with a practitioner banging a gong,” said Brown. “A sound bath can be you taking a walk in your local park, sitting on a bench and observing the things about you. Being aware of the sounds you’re hearing five meters away, 10 meters away can be therapeutic. It is more about being present in your body and being aware of your environment.”
It seems simple, but the effects can be transformative. Ecocide, natural disasters, and extreme heat waves are in part the result of humanity’s intentional, systematic estrangement from the natural world. And while any critique that sound therapy is a personal response to a complex, global crisis is fair, it does help create the mental and emotional conditions for people to best participate in the fight for climate justice—and that’s no small feat. “Our planet is starting to buck up under the strain we’ve placed upon it,” said Simon Slieker, a practitioner and DJ who runs targeted sound baths to help people cope with climate anxiety. “And the revolution that needs to happen has to begin with each individual; it’s a personal revolution. That’ll only happen when people start to feel connected.”
Brown agrees. “Sound is an emergent catalyst that we can use as a way to create space for what comes next, and I think that’s important when you think about climate change,” he added. “We need people who are going to be creative in the way they think about our—humanity’s—next steps. Sound healing creates space for that kind of creativity, for that kind of innovation.”