The Godfather of the Modern Mindfulness Industry Was an 8 Year Old Birder

A cornerstone of the mindfulness movement can be traced back to a White-Rumped Shama. 

For hundreds of thousands of Spotify users, “Nature Noise,” seemingly, bangs. The most-followed playlist within the streaming platform’s “Nature Sounds” genre offers an hour and a half of babbling brooks, chirping birds and warm summer breezes to over 700,000 followers.

These nature noise enthusiasts must be blissed the heck out, because I listened to, like, thirty seconds of the “Peaceful Forest” track and immediately felt my jaw unclench. But while the allure of long tracks of soothing, but not distracting, sounds no doubt have contemporary explanations — as potential antidotes to open office noise, perhaps, and the rise of the modern the mindfulness movement — they can also all be traced back to a late 19th Century kid named “Koch.” No, not that Koch.

Ludwig Koch was born in 1881 in Frankfurt, Germany, a city steeped in centuries of musical tradition. Koch was no exception, studying violin and vocal performance. But Koch’s aural fascination extended far past his instruments. After being given an Edison phonograph and some wax cylinders — then considered the height of recording technology — young Koch set about documenting his surroundings. This documentation included capturing the sounds made by the number of birds Koch kept as pets. In 1889, at just eight years old, Koch captured the sounds of his White Rumped Shama. That call, currently housed in the BBC’s Sound Effects archive, is considered to be the first ever recording of a bird.

Though Koch continued his career, as first a musician, and then later as a field recordist, his work was always a marriage of music and sound, art and science. He created the first “sound book” of bird calls in 1935, titled Gefiederte Meifterfanger — “Feathered Mastersingers.”

Sound & Science: Digital Histories
Ludwig Koch's first "sound book" of bird calls, "Gefiederte Meistersanger," published in 1935.

He scored a number of nature-focused radio programs for the BBC, ultimately helping lead the BBC Natural History Unit. His autobiography, Memoirs of a Birdman, was published in 1955. Throughout the 1960s, recordings of Koch’s bird sounds were sold as actual records, to be listened to as music.

But bird songs and other natural sounds are more than just bucolic background noise. A 2017 study found that natural soundscapes noticeably shift our brain activity from inward-focused attention, a thought pattern often associated with anxiety, depression, PTSD and ruminative thinking, toward externally-focused thinking. Listening to natural sounds also increased parasympathetic response rates, which help us function calmly and successfully in a variety of social situations, and lowered our “fight-or-flight” impulses.

It makes sense, then, that the mindfulness movement has utilized natural sounds as a key part of their messaging. Calm, an app that relies partially on soundscapes to help people “relax their minds”, hit $88 million in their latest funding round in February; Headspace, a guided meditation platform, is currently at $75 million. The meditation market as a whole is expected to continue booming, with a projected value of over $2 billion by 2020.

But before all the investor rounds and the Spotify playlists and market projections, there was an endlessly curious eight-year-old boy, who saw music in the sounds of his feathered pets. Today, as Earth Day celebrations roll out across the world, remember that Koch’s contributions to the business of natural soundscapes can be traced back to a single emotion: Pure enjoyment.

Media via https://acoustics.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/text/gefiederte-meistersanger, Wikimedia / Jkadavoor