Running Water: Music to My Ears

I love falling asleep to the sounds of rain patterning against my window. It is a soothing, comforting melody that conveys warmth and safety. When I go camping, I always try to pitch my tent near a river or stream so I that the cheerfully babbling waters will cut the eerie silence, and when I am excessively stressed I take an afternoon to sit on the beach and let the sound of the waves crash over me. My tension lessens.

Bridal Veil Falls (My iPhone)

I’m not the only one who feels this way about watery noises. Entire industries have been built on the premise of bringing water sounds into the home. Alarm clocks will put you to sleep with the sounds of distant thunderstorms and wake you up with birdsong and crashing of ocean waves. CD’s have been compiled with hours of looped rain, wave, river and waterfall tracks and miniature fountains have been designed for placement in bedrooms, entryways and lounges. Aqueous utterances communicate peace, tranquility, comfort and safety. It is a universal notion. But why is this?






I did some research, and no one really knows why running water is a ubiquitous symbol of peace and comfort, but here are a few interesting theories that I found.

  1. Our species needed to evolved near sources of freshwater, so our attraction to the sound of running water is a deeply ingrained survival mechanism just like our love for fatty and sugary foods.
  2. Running water sounds reminds us of our early experiences in the uterine environment. The sound of running water brings comfort in much the same way as curling up in the fetal position or listening to a person’s heart beat.
  3. Why psychologically associate water to good things and experiences: a beautiful waterfall, a wonderful day at the beach, a cool glass of water on a hot day, and therefor we find the sound of running water pleasant. Alternatively people who may have had a traumatic experience with water, such as nearly drowning, may be agitated by the sound of water
  4. Our perception of sound is essentially a highly sensitive form of touch. Sound waves oscillate tiny hairs that trigger signals to be sent through nerves to the brain. Soft, repetitive, predictable and continuous sounds (Like rain, waves or music) are like a gentle massage and are comforting to the ears. Irregular and unpredictable sound wave patterns are like being poked. After a while it gets annoying.
  5. Natural water sounds have strong alpha waves which triggers alpha waves in the brain which are correlated to medication and relaxation.

What are your theories?

It logically follows that some people have tried to integrate water sounds into music and compositions. In fact, just this past month the Los Angeles master choral performed a piece called Water Passion by Tan Dun in Walt Disney Concert Hall. I went to go see it, and it was quite the experience. Bowls of water were played like instruments as a part of the orchestra. We tried to watch a little portion of the performance in class but had trouble finding a representative excerpt, so here is a link for a video that might give you a better idea of the performance. What do you think? Were water sounds integrated well into a orchestral arrangement? How did the composition make you feel?

Water Music - Tan Dun

Random Aside

I went on a run this morning, down San Vicente to Santa Monica Pier, and along the way I noticed that some of the trees in the median on San Vicente were decorated with lime green hanging umbrellas. I’m not sure what the message is here, maybe something to do with water conservation or gathering rainwater? What are your ideas?

Umbrella Tree on San Vicente (My iPhone)



Comfort Theories 1:

Comfort Theories 2:

Tan Dun's Water Passion: