The Effects of Sound/Music on Human Digestion

January 1997

Introduction

I´m indebted to Richard C. Windeyer (windeyer@inforamp.net (Richard C. Windeyer)) for stirring the pot on this matter of sound and digestion. I´m on the email list of The WORLD FORUM FOR ACOUSTIC ECOLOGY (WFAE); see below for a brief WFAE description, history, and mission statement. The stimulus for this essay came from Windeyer´s email message to WFAE members in search of information on the "Effects of sound (?) on human digestion." Thinking about the subject moved me so much that I´m devoting this section of my site to soliciting, collecting, organizing, and making public the thoughts and experiences of people concerned about the relationship of sound to human digestion. Please submit any pertinent information for inclusion. A bit of consciousness-raising on this subject should benefit all of us.

The WORLD FORUM FOR ACOUSTIC ECOLOGY (WFAE)

"The WORLD FORUM FOR ACOUSTIC ECOLOGY (WFAE) is an international interdisciplinary coalition of individuals and institutions concerned with the state of the world soundscape as an ecologically balanced entity.

WFAE was formed on Friday, Aug. 13th, 1993 by over a hundred people from many parts of the world and from such differing disciplines as architecture, audio art, communications, education, film sound, geography, music, physics, psychology, radio broadcasting, sociology, and urban planning. It was created on the final day of the Tuning of the World, the First Conference on Acoustic Ecology at the Banff Centre for the Arts, Alberta, Canada.

As Acoustic Ecology is the study of the relationship between living organisms and their sonic environment (soundscape), it is WFAE´s main task to draw attention to unhealthy imbalances in this relationship, to improve the acoustic quality of a place wherever possible and to protect and maintain acoustically balanced soundscapes where they still exist."


Windeyer´s Email Message

To: ronpell@microweb.com (Ron Pellegrino)
From: windeyer@inforamp.net (Richard C. Windeyer)
Subject: Effects of sound (?) on human digestion

>I am curious if anyone out there can lead me to research being done
>specifically on the effects (both harmful and beneficial) of sound (and in
>particular, music) on human digestion.
>
>For a while now, I have been doing some work as a music consultant for a
>few restaurants here in Toronto. If such research is available, I believe
>it may prove very useful in my work.

My Reply = The Essay

Richard:

Please keep me on your email list for findings on this subject; it´s been a concern of mine for years. I´m convinced humans and other creatures are predisposed genetically to natural, peaceful, non-threatening environments for the promotion of good digestion. Sunlight, moderate temperatures, plus the sounds of birdsong, wind in the willows, running water, and children at play combine for an unbeatable environment for good digestion. Picnics, camping meals, and outdoor food intake of almost any sort remain strong magnets for people today despite the current culture of fast food and frenetically to and fro fuel shoveling that often substitutes for meals. The best meals are always communions with nature and those communions are biased toward good digestion. The best indoor dining environments are based on the same fundamental principles.

Your query set me off on an introspective research frenzy. My explanation of the principles of appropriate sound for good digestion has evolved over decades of considering this question as it surfaced often in my private conversations and public presentations.

Fundamentals

The following definition of rhythm is not to be confused with the vernacular expression "That kid´s got rhythm," which usually means that kid knows where, how, and when to move/play to the beat (or in an extended sense, the phrase )- front, pocket, or back. Rhythm in the context of this essay is used in its generic sense - the regular or irregular pattern of strong and weak events occurring in the combination or arrangement of structural elements that have shape, duration, and relationships in time. In musical terms, this includes melodic, harmonic, timbral, and purely percussive structural elements. In digestive terms, it includes chewing, swallowing, and peristalsis.

Events that serve as elements for the rhythms of food consumption and digestion.

1. Bringing food to the mouth with a utensil or a hand.
2. Taking food into the mouth.
3. Biting or drinking.
4. Chewing. The rhythm of chewing is accompanied by a fairly complex rhythmic counterpoint of the tongue moving food in and out of chewing position and setting it up for swallowing. For an edifying, consciousness-raising experiment, pay attention to what happens in your mouth while chewing.
5. Swallowing.
6. Closing the epiglottis (the flap of soft tissue that prevents food from entering the larynx) as food passes into the esophagus.
7. Peristalsis, the wave-like contractions in the esophagus that move food into the stomach.
8. Churning, caused by muscles in the stomach, to break food into successively smaller pieces.
9. Two phases of food leaving the stomach to enter the small intestine. First, the upper stomach contracts pushing out the more liquid material. Next, the lower stomach contracts pushing out the more solid food.
10. Peristalsis in the intestines keeps moving the food along mixing it with digestive juices and enzymes and breaking it down further so it can be absorbed through the lining of the small intestine into the bloodstream.
11. Peristalsis continues to move the food through the small intestine to the large intestine by which time most of the nutrients have been absorbed and ...well, you know most of the rest of the story.

In concert with the forking, spooning, biting, drinking, chewing, swallowing, and peristalsis are glandular secretions of enzymes, acid, and other juices needed for digestion. The various glandular secretions are triggered in sequence by the senses of smell and taste, the muscular activity of eating, and the progression of food from mouth to large intestine.

Structural Fundamentals

Given that we humans share the same basic digestive process, intuitively we should all be able to understand the fundamentals. Namely, there is an inherent musical structure to the process of consuming and digesting food. That process when compared to music operates in a relatively narrow rhythmic band. The process of consuming and digesting food is shaped by setting, materials, flow, direction, progression, simultaneous and overlapping interactions, triggers, frequencies, amplitudes, rhythms, intensity variations and evolutions, and time envelopes. The structure of all music, even the seemingly innocuous Muzak type, is shaped by exactly the same elements. And therein lies the problem. Given that the food consumption and digestion environment and the sound environment are both musical in nature, the two environments must be in harmony for beneficial digestion. If the sound/music environment conflicts with the food consumption and digestion environment, the latter will suffer.

Because sound/music completely fills a space (body cavities) and travels along (bones) and through (tissues) what it´s not filling, it has the power to entrain or force the digestive system to conform to the structure of the sound/music. Entrainment is an established physical principle; at the root level it´s the foundation for all communication. In a nutshell, the music of sound forces the music of food consumption and digestion to conform to the dynamic structure of the sound. Regardless of style or period, dinner music is an oxymoron. There is no music that will promote optimum digestion; there are too many variables to harmonize, synchronize, and create the appropriate resonances. Even the least obtrusive music at mealtimes should be pianissimo, as soft as possible... or, maybe even a little softer.

A Personal Perspective

I have plenty of personal experience avoiding the harmful side of sound/music on human digestion. For decades I´ve been leaning on friends and restaurateurs to give more thought to the effect their sound environments have on the human digestive system. Most music in restaurants is not chosen with the diners in mind. Often the music is a designer´s idea of what´s suitable for the decor. Just as often it´s a stimulant for the staff who are all on their feet racing around the restaurant earning their keep. Any music that´s appropriate for energizing restaurant staff will be a long way off the mark for promoting good digestion.

I´ve noticed that there are a number of classes of frequencies that are particularly troublesome for my digestive system. Frequencies felt in the body, i.e., low frequencies, with high amplitudes and throbbing, pulsing envelopes make me sick to my stomach...so the expression goes. There definitely seems to some connection with the resonant frequencies of body cavities.

Any continuous or highly repetitive sound structures in a dining environment are always a source of general irritation which ultimately contributes to impaired digestion. Such structures probably cause phase disruption with peristalsis. The process of consuming and digesting food has a rhythmic structure all its own. Any sounds that conflict with that structure will upset digestion.

Any sounds that are at the aggressive extremes - loud, pounding, abrasive, complex multiphonics, screeching, insistent, repetitive, explosive, (the list could go on and on) - will lead to poor digestion. The principle of entrainment becomes operative.

Any sound that creates a high tension environment would definitely not be conducive to good digestion. The muscles in the digestive system work best when relaxed.

Body music, i.e., any music that makes you feel like moving your body, such as dance music or marches, will undermine good digestion. Entrainment, again.

The best sounds for human digestion are the cheerful sounds of friends and family. My mother, a great cook even with limited means, absolutely insisted that peace and harmony prevail at our meal gatherings which included six children. She maintained that any deviation from peace and harmony poisoned the food she spent hours preparing. One of my strongest childhood memories was the time my father broke the dining rule disciplining one of the children. Without uttering a word, my mother stood up, raised her end of the table and sent everything on the table sliding in the direction of my father. The dining rule was never broken again.



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