Nothing is noisier than a playground or more tiring than the hubbub of a classroom! reports Laurence, 51, school teacher in the Fontainebleau region (Île-de-France). “In the evening, in my quiet apartment, I remain deafened and my ears ring. »
To counter this tinnitus which has become persistent, her ENT doctor advised her to keep a background sound at home with “white noise”. White noise is to sound what white light is to the visible spectrum: it adds all the frequencies audible to the human ear (from 20 to 20,000 Hz) at the same time and at the same intensity. “I use an application that broadcasts the sound of the wind in the trees and I no longer go without it to fall asleep,” says the teacher.
Since the 1960s, when white noise made its mark, the palette has continued to grow. Thus, other “colored” sounds – corresponding to the way in which energy is distributed at different audio frequencies – are used according to needs: white sounds (resembling a natural hiss or the blowing of the wind) therefore against tinnitus and to make it easier to fall asleep; roses (close to the sound of a waterfall or a torrent) for deeper sleep; brown ones (resembling a deep roar or thunder) for restful sleep.
Noise to cure harmful excess noise? Paradox of a world saturated with noise pollution. These noises of all colors, repetitive or continuous, help to divert the brain’s attention from parasitic perceptions and to better tolerate them, New Zealand researchers confirmed in a recent study*. Benefits… at least in the short term. Because other scientists warn of the potential long-term effects of repeated exposure.
“Sound therapy” is not new. Already in ancient Greece, in the 5th century BC, the doctor Hippocrates played the lyre and harp to treat moods. At the same time, in China, very sophisticated music therapy relied on the benefits of a hundred different sounds linked to the various organs to be treated.
The novelty lies in the enthusiasm generated by practices using sound for relaxation purposes. Thus, the phenomenon of ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, in English, maximum response of the autonomic nervous system, in French) has been the subject of a proliferation of videos on the Internet since 2009, some with millions of views. The acronym would designate a discharge of physiological pleasure aroused by sensory stimulation, generally sound.
*Review Frontiers in Neurology2022.
Same success for “baths” and “sound massages” fueling the new age well-being business. Gongs and “singing bowls” are used. The first are inspired by spiritual or religious traditions, but without proper transmission. The latter were marketed to satisfy the demand of Westerners literally enchanted by the purity of sound since the 1970s.
A deviation revealed very early on by the ethnomusicologist Mireille Helffer*. “The gong, the drum, the bell, the ringing of the bowls do me good,” admits Helena, 46, an iconographer in the Paris region. “These gong baths were suggested to me by an acupuncturist consulted in 2021 due to a long Covid, to try to regain the sense of smell that I lost for eighteen months. No treatment was helping me and this path seemed worth trying. » Lying down with other participants in a room with Zen decor, she lets herself be lulled by the sound of the instruments until she feels relaxed, like after a deep nap. “It’s certainly not what allowed me to rediscover my sense of smell, but I go there from time to time to completely relax, even if the atmosphere seems a little new age. »
Another sign of our contemporaries’ interest in the power of sounds is the reception of the film A bigger world (2019), by Fabienne Berthaud. Cécile de France plays the ethnomusician Corine Sombrun, who became a shaman during an initiation lasting several years in Mongolia. The Frenchwoman thus learned to enter a trance to the sound of ancestral drums from Central Asia, used in healing rituals and to allow connection with the invisible. “The regular rhythm of the drum can induce a hypnotic state, but does not really induce trance,” she confided to the magazine Muze in 2016. “As I recorded the ceremonies, I was able to identify after the fact the particular sequences that moved me. »
How can the sound of the drum change behavior so much? Does it act on the brain? Could no longer feeling pain help in treating it? To understand, Corine Sombrun has since approached researchers wishing to study her case.
While waiting to learn more, Helena and Laurence’s experience was quite successful for them. “Beyond my app which helps me fall asleep, I wanted to reconnect with the sounds of nature,” admits the teacher. Since then, she has spent more time in the forest and has discovered herself very receptive to the soothing concert that takes place there every moment, for free.
*In Mchod-rol. Tibetan musical instruments, CNRS Ed., 1994.