Playlists & Bird Songs

More than background noise

Opinion published 23 February 2024

I have a hard time listening to contemporary music, or any music with words, while indexing. So I usually end up working in silence or playing classical music in the background. My Spotify work playlists included “Music For Writing” or “Music for Concentration.” These playlists provided unobtrusive background noise. I believed that silence and classical music were the only options available to me while I worked to minimize distractions. Indexing a memoir about birding a couple of months ago changed everything.

Australian Bird Songs

It was easy to immerse myself while I worked in the author’s words, which were almost poetic and a sharp contrast to the indexing decision-making process. Even though I was deep in concentration, I found her words relaxing. And her description of birds in flight and their songs made me long for the sounds of summer in the woods outside my window.

When I returned to my office after a brief break on that first day of indexing this book, I thought about opening my window in the hopes of hearing bird songs on a cold December day. But not only was it unlikely I would hear the songs of the few remaining winter birds, working with an open window was not a possibility in northern New England in December.

So, I decided to see if Spotify had any bird songs. I didn’t think it was possible. I mean, could there really be playlists that consist of only bird songs? Would you be surprised that the answer is yes? And the amount of playlists was even more surprising. I didn’t know what to choose! But as an avid fan of Liane Moriarty’s books in audio format, narrated by readers with Australian accents, I figured I might enjoy the 23 hours of Australian bird songs.

An Ear-Opening Experience

As it turns out, I made a great choice. The Australian Birdsongs playlist contains a couple of albums by Andrew Skeoch. Andrew is a nature sound recordist and owns his own record label, Listening Earth. Surrounding myself with the bird songs and nature sounds on a bleak December day transported me from my office to the woods and sometimes the seashore. My puppy, Jamie Tartt (yes – named after that character on Ted Lasso), contentedly dozed on his office bed after he stopped finally hunting for the birds that he was sure were hiding somewhere in my office.

Skeoch writes on his website, “Extend our senses. Let nature get to know us, and its own way, to welcome us.” This was the ethos of the birding memoir I was indexing, and this synching of the bird songs, the content of the book, and my indexing process allowed my work to move beyond purposeful to enjoyable and relaxing.

Research on the Effects of Listening to Nature Sounds

Yes, I agree! But what does science have to say about my experience and Skeoch’s view? A researcher from Carleton University in Ottawa, Rachel T. Buxton, designed a study to explore the possible health benefits of nature soundscapes, as well as the distribution of nature sounds in national parks. Part of the paper involved a systematic literature review and meta-analysis of the health benefits of natural soundscapes. Yes! Other people have also studied the effects of nature sounds!

The meta-analysis revealed that “[h]ealth and positive affective outcomes improved while stress and annoyance decreased in studies examining the benefits of exposure to natural sound.” A few of the studies reviewed by Buxton and her team were done in the field, while most were in a laboratory or hospital setting. So, the effect I was experiencing in my office is backed up by science! In addition, Buxton and her team found that among the three types of natural sounds studied (birds, water, or mixed), bird sounds had the greatest effect on reducing stress and annoyance, which directly parallels my experience[1].

My New Listening Habit

Thanks to this experience, I will continue to seek out new nature songs to immerse myself in when I write and when I index. I am enjoying exploring Skeoch’s albums on Spotify, where he has 20 albums listed. There are even more albums listed on his website. I’m also mixing in different types of nature soundscapes—forests, beaches, marshes, and more to find which works best with the different types of indexing projects.

For example, while engaged in a huge psychopharmacology indexing project covering two volumes and 1700 pages, I decided that the repetitive nature of this project could be compared to the endless lapping of the waves on the beach. I found that I indexed more pages per hour while listening to recordings from the beach than bird songs in the forest. Maybe I responded to the more ceaseless, meditative ocean sounds with occasional bird songs than the high and low, fast and slow intertwined bird songs of the forest.

I am always surprised by what I learn when indexing. Sometimes, I tuck away factoids that are very useful in trivia games. But this time, I learned a new way to relax and bring more joy to my indexing work with the touch of a button on my phone.

[1] Buxton, R. T., Pearson, A. L., Allou, C., Fristrup, K., & Wittemyer, G. (2021). A synthesis of health benefits of natural sounds and their distribution in national parks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(14), e2013097118.

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