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The Best Thing to Listen to Backstage for Reducing Anxiety?


Whether it’s the gentle fluttering of butterflies in your tummy that you wake up with on the morning of a performance, or the frantic churning of butterflies that you feel backstage while waiting to play, figuring out how to manage pre-performance nerves can be a real challenge.

We’ve previously explored a variety of strategies that can help with this, from the research on cognitive reappraisal (i.e. interpreting anxiety as excitement), to studies involving breathing (here), coloring books (here), and expressive writing (link).

But I stumbled across a new possibility this week, that I thought was kind of intriguing.

It involves birds. Or more specifically, the warbling, chirping, cooing, singing sounds that birds make (apparently, “birdsong” is the technical term for bird chitchat).

And maybe this won’t work for everyone (my wife, for instance, gets freaked out by birds), but it kind of makes intuitive sense to me. As a child, whenever we went to visit my grandparents (who lived in a warm, tropical climate, where windows were generally open 24/7), I would wake up to the sound of pigeons cooing and birds singing. Which was a rather nice way to start the day. And even now, when I hear birds making these kinds of sounds, it does make me feel more relaxed.

So is this really a thing? Could birds help us be less stressed and anxious?

A study of birdsong effects

Previous research has found that green spaces (aka nature 😂) can decrease anxiety and improve mental health (you might remember we looked at one of those studies here). And some have suggested that one of the reasons for this, is that green spaces typically include birds.

To see if the presence of birds – whether visually or through the sounds they make – might really have a positive effect on mood and stress levels, a team of researchers (Hammoud et al., 2022) recruited 1292 participants from around the world and randomly pinged them several times a day for two weeks, asking them to respond to questions about their mental well-being in that moment.

Among other things, they were asked to report on their mood (i.e. are you feeling happy?) and stress (i.e. are you feeling stressed?). And, they were also asked if in that moment they were able to see or hear birds.

So…was there any connection between the presence of birds and the participants’ mental well-being?

A few answers…

The short answer is yes – there was a significant difference in their mental wellbeing ratings when they reported being able to see or hear birds in that moment.

Additionally, this boost in mental well-being tended to last for a decent bit of time, at least through the next checkin point. So it’s not like the effect faded as soon as they were out of earshot of birds.

The researchers also noted that the effect was stronger when people were outside. And if you’re thinking that maybe this is because there are trees, plants, or water outside, the researchers wondered about that too. But when they controlled for these factors, the positive effect of seeing or hearing birds on their well-being was still significant.

Meaning, there does really seem to be something about seeing or hearing birds that enhances mental well-being beyond the greenery itself.

But this still leaves us with a few questions…

More questions!

Like, is it the seeing of birds, or the hearing of birds that has the greatest impact on our mental well-being?

Also, because you’re probably not going to want to wander around a performance venue looking for birds 15 minutes before you play, would listening to a recording of birds singing and cooing still have a positive effect on mood?

And beyond mental well-being, does listening to birdsong have any effect on anxiety, specifically?

Another birdsong study

Well, another 2022 study (Stobbe et al.) provides some additional insight.

In this study, 295 participants were asked to complete a 20-question depression and anxiety assessment.

Then, they were randomly assigned to one of four different groups. Two of the groups spent six minutes listening to traffic noise, while the other two groups listened to recordings of bird sounds.

Then, they completed the depression and anxiety assessment a second time to see if there were any changes in their mood and anxiety levels.

And was there a change?

Birdsong effects on depression & anxiety

Yes!

After just six minutes of listening to bird sounds, there was a significant reduction in the participants’ anxiety levels. Meanwhile, listening to traffic noise had no particular effect on their anxiety levels.

(And for what it’s worth, the bird sounds had a positive effect on depressive symptoms as well, whereas traffic noise tended to make participants feel more depressed.)

Umm…so why do bird sounds seem to have such a positive effect on mood and anxiety, anyway?

Why do bird sounds enhance wellbeing?

Well, ultimately, it’s not clear yet exactly why listening to birdsong has this calming effect, but the authors of the second study do make a few suggestions.

For one, it could be because this sound reminds us of nature, or makes us feel less threatened, and calms us. Or it could also be that this sound just does a good job of shifting our attention away from stressors both internal (e.g. our worries or physiological stress response) or external (e.g. Ack! So-and-so is in the audience!) at that moment.

Either way, how could you apply this to your own day-of-performance routine?

Take action

Some musicians have said that they like going for a walk on the day of a performance. And this could indeed be a nice day-of-performance activity for a number of reasons – but the research suggests that one ought to make a point of walking through some green spaces if at all possible, even within the city.

Later in the day, when you arrive at the hall (especially if you’ve had to navigate public transportation, or traffic, or parking), rather than unpacking right away, maybe a few minutes of listening to birdsong could help you get to a more centered place before taking your instrument out and going through your warmup routine.

And while waiting backstage or in the warmup room, if at some point you find your thoughts and anxiety starting to spiral to the bad place, try put on your headphones and take a moment to listen to your birdsong soundscape again, and see if that helps to recenter you a bit!

Where can I get some bird sounds?

If you’re wondering if the authors provided a sample of the track that participants listened to, the answer is no. But there are tons of pre-composed bird soundscapes on YouTube already. And they did share the source (here) of the individual bird sounds that they used to create these recordings, if you’d like to create your own.

For this study, they chose bird species common to the central European region (the study was conducted in central Europe). And I’m not sure how much it matters whether the birds are native to your region or not, but maybe don’t make the pūteketeke (aka great crested grebe) the basis of your birdsong soundscape. Even if you did vote for it as New Zealand’s bird of the century 🤣. Oh, and if you’re not sure what this is all about, click here for some context.


References

Hammoud, R., Tognin, S., Burgess, L., Bergou, N., Smythe, M., Gibbons, J., Davidson, N., Afifi, A., Bakolis, I., & Mechelli, A. (2022). Smartphone-based ecological momentary assessment reveals mental health benefits of birdlife. Scientific Reports, 12(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-20207-6

Stobbe, E., Sündermann, J., Ascone, L., & Kühn, S. (2022). Birdsongs alleviate anxiety and paranoia in healthy participants. Scientific Reports, 12(1). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-20841-0

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