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Soundscapes of Healthcare: How can we shift sound perception for well-being?

musicandcreativetherapyby SarahRose Black, MMT, MTA, RP, CKN Advisory Board Member


So many moments of our lives are bombarded by various soundscapes, a term coined by Canadian composer, environmentalist and musicologist R. Murray Schafer.  Schafer defines a soundscape as “a sound or combination of sounds that forms or arises from an immersive environment” (Schafer, 1977).  Some of these sounds may be helpful while others may be harmful. Take a moment to consider the sounds that permeate your daily activities: what do you hear as you move through your day? You may hear sounds of traffic, or perhaps bird chirping, or maybe children laughing. Your soundscape may include keyboards clicking and coffee makers dripping. For those connected to the health care system either personally or professionally, soundscapes may include the dinging of call bells, the buzzing of pagers, the beeping of IV machines, and the varied conversations that may arise in hallways or inpatient hospital rooms, perhaps even the white noise of a crossed lobby or clinic. As an activity, try stropping what you’re doing and naming four sounds that you hear around you. What do you notice when you start to mindfully listen?


Becoming mindfully aware of the sounds that permeate our environments can be a useful tool in understanding how our acoustic landscapes affect our health. Once we are aware of what we are hearing, we may be able to tune in more closely to the sounds that we enjoy or find pleasant, versus the sounds we find harsh, agitating or irritating.


In a previous Cancer Knowledge Network article I wrote (“Music and our Environment”, March 2014), I discussed the impact music may have in common medical spaces such as nursing stations in a hospital, clinic waiting rooms, or inpatient floors. The connection between musical environments and well-being is one that R. Murray Schaffer has been writing about for many decades, and one that has begun to come to the attention of many health care facilities through the advocacy of music therapy groups, as well as local and municipal guidelines on noise restriction in public spaces. In this article, I provide ideas and suggestions for shifting one’s perception of their sound environment, whether you are in a busy clinic space waiting for an appointment, or perhaps  in an inpatient room alone, or with a loved one.


Some considerations:

  • What are you noticing in your soundscape? What are you enjoying? What are you finding difficult?
  • Can you attune to one sound over another? Can you listen more closely to the sound of the birds chirping instead of the traffic rolling by, or perhaps tune into the soothing sound of a nurse’s voice instead of the beeping of a call bell or constant murmuring of other patients in a clinic?
  • Can you shift anything in the soundscape? This can be as simple as putting on some music (the radio, an iPod dock, a CD player, the television) or turning off the music if you find it problematic or irritating (if possible).
  • Notice your reactions to the sounds in your environment: do certain sounds make you tense up? Are your shoulders raised? Perhaps a certain sound triggers a certain memory or association?
  • Are you able to use mindful breathing to shift your experience of a sound or series of sounds? Perhaps you can try taking 4 slow breaths, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. Through this practice, you may be able to let go of some of the tension in your body and feel more at ease within your current space.
  • If you are at home or at a computer, can you put on a playlist? Some people prefer creating their own playlists with carefully curated sounds that cater to their specific mood or preferences. Others prefer to allow a radio station or an app to create the playlist for them. Can you intentionally use a playlist to shift your soundscape?
  • Some people engage in active music making in their space (homes, offices on a lunch break, in a hospital room, outdoors, in the shower) to shift their soundscapes. Some enjoy playing guitar, singing out loud (alone or along with the radio/CD/iPod or with friends), or playing a favourite instrument, perhaps a Tibetan singing bowl or a ukulele. Gently humming to oneself may create a soothing effect in one’s own body (I explain this to people as an “internal massage”) and in one’s soundscape. Everyone has differing levels of ability and preferences; can you engage in one of these modalities to create your own soundscape?


There are a number of ways in which we can attune to, recognize, and perhaps even shift the soundscapes around us, even in moments when we cannot leave the room (e.g. a hospital room or a doctor’s office). Awareness of the sounds around us, and our reactions to them, can be hugely beneficial to our overall well-being, and slight shifts (e.g. deep breathing, focusing more on one sound rather than another, or perhaps even humming quietly to oneself) can make a slight or a significant difference in one’s experience of their environment.




Schafer, R. M. (1977). The Tuning of the World. New York: Random House.




SarahRoseBlackSarahRose holds a Masters degree in music education from the University of Toronto, and a Masters degree in music therapy at Wilfrid Laurier University. She is the founder and coordinator of the first music therapy programs at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and Kensington Hospice in Toronto. Her clinical work and research is focused mainly on quality of life for acute palliative care, hematology, and hospice populations. She is also a Suzuki music educator, piano accompanist and singer/songwriter.



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