Can you describe the sound of your last trip? Perhaps it was the repetitive kiss of Caribbean waves on a beach, or the early-morning chatter of a Roman market. Ours was the quiet, low whistle of wind curling through a Sicilian town square. If you stayed at New York's Sister City hotel prior to the pandemic, the esoteric lobby music might have caught your ear.
In 2020, Sister City - the edgy younger sibling of New York's Ace Hotel - announced a collaboration with Icelandic singer Björk, whose choral arrangements would play 24/7 in the hotel lobby. Remixed using an AI program developed by Microsoft that used data taken from sky activity (the movement of birds, clouds and planes flying over New York City), the symbiosis created a unique, ever-changing soundtrack. It was a playlist moulded by the city - and a distinctive effort to move the ambience of a hotel beyond its aesthetic.
The lobby at the now-closed Sister City Hotel, NY | Image credit: Adrian Gaut
Where, once, complete silence was the holy grail of hotel living - all double glazing, heavily insulated walls and an obsession for tranquillity that tiptoed towards the oppressive - hotels and spas are now looking to the audio cues of their surroundings to entice us. The volume is creeping up. And, while the way in which we experience sound is nothing new, the soundtracks that reach us are striking a more immersive note - especially when it comes to travel.
The vibrations hit new frequencies during the pandemic. Perhaps fearful of former guests forgetting the joys of a stay, hotels began sending out playlists. Soho House offered morning, noon and night iterations to take you through the day; Qantas airlines released its aircraft soundtracks (yes, really) onto music streaming services, hoping to inspire land-locked travellers dreaming of cloud-chasing journeys. Even beyond the world of travel, audio experiences consolidated: podcasts exploded, magazines switched to sound and, in a momentary craze for everything audio-based, the short-lived social media platform Clubhouse boomed - then burst. Two years on, however, the use of sound as a tool has stuck, and we're all still seeking audio to cure our Insta-fuelled visual overload. In travel, guarantees of a good night's sleep at our favourite stays are now being joined by a rapidly expanding selection of curated soundscapes whose aim is to soothe and seduce.
The noise makers
Sister City NYC closed down operations during the pandemic, but there are plenty of new tracks ringing in our ears, as similar projects across the globe look to sound as the next innovation in experiential travel. At London's Page8, a QR code beside a Mashall soundsystem will take you on a sonic journey to the hotel's playlist offering, ready to fill your suite with ambient tunes. Aussie hotel brand QT has taken it further, employing Andrew Lewis, a DJ turned music curator, to develop unique soundtracks for its Australian hotels. As a result, a stay at the company's Gold Coast outpost sounds very different to a stopover in its Perth property.
Curated playlists on standby at London's Page8 hotel
Australia is leading the way when it comes to turning up the volume, as well as with making a track change from simple playlists to in-house experimentation. Adrift in the outback, Unyoked's off-grid cabins offer a tree-cocooned refuge in nature, away from the artificial buzz of modern life. Last year, when the country's borders were sealed shut and the cabins sat empty, the group invited musicians to stay. The premise was simple: try making some music in the woods, weaving the sounds of the wilderness into new compositions. "The Australian bush is a treasure trove of sounds," Unyoked's creative lead, Jonathan Seidler, tells me. "We simply sent artists out with a Zoom recorder to capture the sounds of the wilderness."
Unyoked has released an EP of the results - you can listen to its Field Recordings on Bandcamp. The first track, Ninajirachi's Hate 2 Know, starts with the crunch of footsteps on dry leaves and a neck-tingling cicada chorus interwoven with electric twangs. The tracks have been cut to tape and guests are able to use a lo-fi cassette player during cabin stays to listen.
We’re in a technological climate of algorithmic playlisting that encourages passive over active listeningJonathan Seidler, Unyoked
The idea wasn't just to create an Unyoked audio experience, but to permanently sharpen guests' ears to the world outside. "Sound, like smell, is one of those senses I think we accept rather than nurture," says Seidler, who previously worked as a music journalist for 10 years. "We're in a technological climate of algorithmic playlisting that encourages passive over active listening and that's a real shame. I'd never want to experience Marrakech or Berlin by blocking the city out with noise-cancelling headphones."
An Unyoked cabin offers immersion in Australia's soundscape
Unyoked is currently working on a partnership with Apple Music to use its Spatial technology to bring the immersive nature sounds to life, and Seidler has greater goals in mind. "Our dream would be to put these new tracks onto every inbound Australian flight, so that people could experience the unique sonic imprint of our country before they even get here."
Beats to soothe - and get guests in the groove
Just as the repetition of waves washing over shingle soothes some, the heart-thudding beats and repetitive synth strums of EDM can have a hypnotic effect. Ask any shuffler on the dancefloor of a London club hidden beneath a railway arch and they'll tell you there's something meditative about the nocturnal noise. With such an ability to alter our mood and our outlook, it's less a case of why we're recognising its importance now and, more, why it's taken so long.
Where sound elicits such an emotional response, it's a quick jump to finding ways to use music to shape our emotions, feelings and sense of wellbeing. At London-based Wavepaths, efforts are underway to use music theory in psychedelic mental health treatment. In the simplest sense, music is being used as medicine, in an exploration of the ways in which beats can facilitate transformative experiences.
It's less woo-woo than it sounds. The team is currently supporting clinical research into psychedelic therapy at Imperial College London and Melbourne's Monash University, among others. Head to the website and you can plug into an ethereal, brain-tingling soundtrack yourself and see how it makes you feel. In future, Wavepaths is hoping to offer personalised music experiences to promote mental health and wellbeing - a spa experience via MP3.
While clinical research and evidence-led treatment is in its infancy, the wellness market has roared ahead, with soundscaping having infiltrated spa spaces and sound-bathing opportunities and sound therapy popping up globally. The Maldives' first dedicated wellness retreat, the ultra-lux new Joali Being, opened this year with a resident sound therapist in situ at it's sound "oasis", while on Cornwall's rugged northern coast, nature-fuelled escapes on offer at Kudhva have previously included a sound-healing retreat run in collaboration with a vibroacoustic therapist from Silence + Noise.
And it's not just music. Slip into the sauna at South Tyrol's mountainside Silena hotel at 5pm, and a hearty Bolzanese German-accented voice will take you on an adventure into an alpine pass as you sweat, narrating an intriguing tale about the death of a horse. It's a surreal sauna experience - the voice belongs to the bestselling author Lenz Koppelstätter, who is reading from one of his murder mysteries set in the local area, his books being available in the hotel library. Staff say that the audio is one of the most mentioned details by guests during check-out. Whether positive or negative, it's certainly provoked a response.
Whatever the output of the aux cord, it seems certain that our aural expectations are increasingly going to rival our aesthetic ones. Who knows what sound-focused sensations may play next - but we're certainly listening.