Health & Wellness

Trojans soothe stress with sound

In the first in-person semester since Spring 2020, students face the struggles of coping with studies and post-pandemic healing. USC’s Music Meditation Club and other Trojans have found a sonic solution.

Photo of singing bowl

At this point in the semester, tending to mental health is usually promoted as a form of coping with the increasing amounts of work. In the first in-person semester since Spring 2020, students also face the struggles of post-pandemic healing. USC’s Music Meditation Club and other Trojans have found a sonic solution.

The Music Meditation Club is focused on exposing the student body to the benefits of sound therapy. During the meetings, the group gathers for musical mantra meditations, guest speakers and vegan desserts.

“Different sounds make us feel different ways,” said Danny Etkin, president of the USC Music Meditation Club. “If we heard gunshots, that’s a sound vibration and that would make us feel anxious or distressed. Then you take something as simple as someone saying ‘I love you,’ that’s a sound vibration and how does that make you feel?”

Etkin believes that sound is extremely powerful.

“We try to use uplifting sounds in the Music Meditation Club to bring people into a positive space and provide them with positive sounds,” he said. “Throughout the day there are so many sounds from other people, and even within ourselves, that might not be uplifting. At the club we try to provide people a delegated time where they can be absorbed by positive sounds.”

Sound, and music specifically, has long been considered to have medicinal properties. The Integratron outside of Joshua Tree has been running spiritual sound baths for over 20 years. But this belief became especially prominent during the pandemic when music was used to treat patients of the virus, as well as those dealing with isolation anxiety, according to NPR.

Music can be seen as an extension of communication, which, in a world marked by separation during the pandemic, has never been more valuable. “In many ways, music, especially song, is an elevation of speech,” said Scott Spencer, an ethnomusicology professor at USC. “Adding music to speech equals a further level of depth or response.”

Music and the sounds people associate with, are usually representative of what they’re feeling and vice versa, according to Spencer; oftentimes those sounds can go to say a lot about a societal situation.

“If we look at people’s listening behaviors, especially over the last three years, we see a really dramatic change: lo-fi music, anything involving nostalgia, all these types of music that people use to calm down or chill out, those are the styles of music that are just exploding right now,” said Spencer.

People, especially this generation of students, are seeking solace through the sounds they associate themselves with. “It’s funny, I asked my kid about this, he’s 20, he’s in college. I asked him ‘Why do you listen to smooth jazz? I hate smooth jazz,” Spencer said. “He said ‘Dad, my generation was born right before 9/11, your generation has put us through economic turmoil; I won’t have a job when I get out of college and now this pandemic, what do you expect?”

Other students at USC have come to the conclusion that people today have a special relationship with trauma and sound therapy and these could be revolutionary for coping in today’s social climate.

“We are a music therapy app that uses audio and visual sound to help those with mental illness,” said Brian Femminella, USC senior and CEO of SoundMind, an app he co-founded.

SoundMind’s objective is to navigate people through an accessible form of music therapy during today’s circumstances.

“We want to target trauma and severe anxiety,” Femminella said. “What made us pivot was the pandemic. The pandemic brought so much loneliness and so much isolation.”

SoundMind, however, considers circumstances outside of the pandemic as well, acknowledging that life is lived fast in today’s age, which only adds to stress while getting in the way of healing. “With a lot of college students, the excuse is ‘I don’t have time,’” Femminella said. “Our generation, unfortunately, endures more mental trauma, especially with social media.”

Mental health has grown as a conversation as trauma piles up and sound has proved to be a familiar and welcoming form of healing for a fast-paced generation that may need it even more desperately in the future, according to Femminella.

“Sound therapy is going to be so important moving forward, with our fast-paced world and ‘getting back to normal’, but still struggling with the aftermath of the pandemic,” said Femminella. “But there’s a second pandemic coming, the mental health pandemic, that we’re not ready for. And something as simple and as unique as sound therapy can really provide that additional relief that people need.”