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Using the sounds we miss to find comfort and community during a pandemic

When the pandemic hit, the partners behind Maverick, a local bar in Monterrey, Mexico, found their business empty. In response, Oscar Romo and René Cárdenas adapted to a new model many bars have turned to — delivery cocktails — to support their struggling staff.

“But that’s not really what the bar is about. There’s a line that Oscar came up with, when he founded the bar. In Spanish it is ‘Maverick, un lugar de encuentros.’ That means, Maverick is a place for encounters,” said Cárdenas, the bar’s marketing partner of the bar.

That’s how the duo came up with the idea for I Miss My Bar, a free, interactive website launched in June 2020 with the goal of bringing the atmosphere of the bar into the homes of Maverick’s locked-down delivery customers. The key to this strategy? Sound.

From its landing page, I Miss My Bar offers users several auditory options, such as “bartender working,” “people talking” and “street ambience,” to re-create the experience of being out for a drink.

Some of the sounds evoke references only Monterrey locals will recognize — like the voice of a particular man selling bread on the street. But the site has found a global audience, drawing 2 million sessions in February alone.

Other sites, including Poolside FM and The Sound of Colleagues, have similarly sought to fill the relative quiet many have experienced at home since Covid-19 drove people away from their favorite communal spaces over the past year.

Creators of the different sites said sound has a unique way of inviting in pre-pandemic life and post-pandemic hope, and can even make people feel less lonely. Experts, however, have said the science behind the appeal of these tools may not be quite so simple.

Sound selections

Created by the Sweden-based sound studio Red Pipe Studios, Sound of Colleagues replicates the atmosphere of a typical office environment through audio. It includes coworkers typing on a keyboard, a bubbling coffee machine and even room tone — which is the silence of a room, similar to white noise.

About 1.7 million people have tuned in to this free webpage since the start of the pandemic, according to Tobias Norman, founder and head of production of Red Pipe Studios.

“I think that we as humans are a bit programmed to actually live in groups … and somehow I think these really familiar sounds that we created, it kind of tricks the mind; you feel like you are among others and that seems to ease the anxiety,” Norman said. “This is quite a big thing for us, because we have dedicated our whole life to sound.”

The owners of Maverick Bar said they chose sound as opposed to creating a visual experience because the latter might require virtual reality technology and would feel less organic. They started with 20 different sounds before narrowing it down to just seven.

“Sound can fill a room with a digital tool, in a really natural way,” Cárdenas said. “And the only thing you have to do is maybe close your eyes — as simple as that.”

About 30% of site users are return visitors who come back to I Miss My Bar regularly as a form of company or sound therapy, he said.

Brand consultant Andrea Hernández, who has worked from home in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, during the pandemic, is one of these regulars.

“ is the best productivity hack working from home, (it) hits incredibly good when listening in the afternoon,” she said. “I like to visualize myself at a crowded bar, something I’m deeply nostalgic for, having not stepped into one in a year.”

After she shared the I Miss My Bar tool on Twitter, thousands liked and reshared her post. She said these virtual tools are something that have really helped her through the pandemic.

“They do give me hope, it’s like being able to see the sunshine after a rainy day, it’s always a reminder that things can look up!”

Sound and productivity

In creating The Sound of Colleagues, Norman’s team made several intentional choices that an applied environmental psychologist said may have some unintended benefits.

Red Pipe Studios selected sounds that would create more ambience — like the coffee machine — and left out sounds that might be more distracting in an office space, such as a car alarm going off down the street.

The developers also knew they wanted this tool to be accessible to anyone, anywhere, speaking any language — since that’s who was being affected by the pandemic. They chose to make the human voices in the background unintelligible without a distinct language at play.

These design choices lend themselves to productivity, according to environmental/design psychologist Sally Augustin, who studies how our physical world influences how we think and behave.

While the workplace sounds tool is a fun way to reminisce about working from the office, Augustin said there may be an even better way to increase your productivity.

First, it’s instrumental that any sounds you listen to do not have words — or at least that they are in a language you don’t understand, she said.

“What I would really be enthusiastic about people listening to while they are working is nature sounds — because that has been tied to enhanced cognitive performance and mental restoration,” she said.

And no, she specified, these aren’t the nature sounds of a rushing waterfall or raging storm, but instead of the more calming variety — a quiet meadow, a breeze, the rustling of leaves or birds singing.

It’s important to be selective with which sounds we use to affect our mood, said William Thompson, a psychology professor at Macquarie University in Australia.

“Whether you are hearing environmental sounds that are frenetic — like traffic or a storm, or someone speaking very energetically, or music that is high tempo and chaotic — all three categories of sound will have the same basic impact on our emotional systems,” said Thompson, who has authored a book on the psychology of music. “In this case, generating high arousal levels and elevated anxiety.”

How sound can — or can’t — heal us

Sites like I Miss My Bar and The Sound of Colleagues are amusing and comparable to looking at old photographs, Thompson said. However, their psychological impacts — and how they address the isolation and longing we have for pre-pandemic society — may vary.

“None of those voices are talking to you,” Augustin said. “In terms of a profound effect on people’s level of personal loneliness, the sounds might not do so much. But in terms of where people could get into a much more profound feeling of isolation … and existential angst of being alone on the planet … these sounds could help with that.”

She also said the potentially beneficial effects may come into play after allowing the sound to play for some time — so it truly becomes ambient and isn’t your primary focus.

Her focus on the health benefits of the sounds of nature just got more backup from recently published research. The study authors conducted a literature review and meta-analysis of 18 publications examining the health benefits of natural sounds.

Exposure to natural sounds decreased stress and improved health factors, such as blood pressure, heart rate, cortisol levels and perceived pain. Water sounds had the greatest positive outcomes on human health, and bird sounds had the greatest impact on relieving stress.

If you’re missing your favorite dive after listening to the sounds of the birds or a nearby creek or waterfall, you can still hear the sounds at Maverick Bar. Romo, the bar’s founder and a partner, said one of the team’s goals is to offer hope for the future.

“One of the core messages here … is how important these places are in the world, for socializing — it’s not about the liquid, it’s about a lot of things that are there (in a bar),” Romo said. “But in the end, they can come back, because once this pandemic is over, all of the hospitality industry will lead the people again in our places — to be alive.”

Article Topic Follows: Health

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