A Conversation With Tom Middleton

by Ilaria Mangiardi



Sound and the Environment: A Mindful Approach

At MassiveMusic, we believe in the healing power of music and sound.

That’s why, back in 2018, we started our Music x Mind initiative to make ourselves and others aware of the infinite ways in which music can benefit our lives and tackle mental health issues.

We think it’s always time to talk about mental health – even more so now that planet Earth is dealing with a global pandemic and all its consequences.

In this thought piece published on Design Week, Aifric Lennon, MassiveMusic’s Music x Mind Researcher, explored how music can help creatives living with anxiety and depression. We also covered what brands can do to promote mental health through music in this Brandingmag article written by our very own Joe Dodd.

Yet, we’re constantly listening – not only to music but to experts out there who, 100% of the time, confirm what we’ve been preaching since 2000: music has an immense healing power. It boosts our immune system, lowers our stress levels and helps decrease depression – among its many superpowers.

So when we had an internal masterclass with renowned, award-winning Functional Music Composer and Sleep Science Coach Tom Middleton, we were all ears. Literally.

Throughout his career, Tom has carried out an extensive empirical research on the direct and indirect effects music has on our mental, physical and emotional health as well as its impact on wellbeing, productivity and performance.

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He looked externally and observed the effects on human behaviour when playing live music.

“I’ve toured the world and performed to millions and been privileged to share the stage alongside the likes of Kanye West, Lady Gaga and Mark Ronson. It’s been an incredible experience observing the effects of live music on human behaviour. Music is so powerful, it can literally move thousands of people together in synchrony all sharing the same feelings.”

He looked internally and realised the physical changes that happen to his body. Actually, he still remembers the first time he listened to ‘Analogue Bubblebath’ by Aphex Twin.

“The track gave me instant goosebumps, it made me feel ecstatic and I asked myself – what’s going on in my mind and body to elicit this physical and emotional reaction? And why does it deliver the same feeling every time I listen to it?”

He also tuned in to his existential side, exploring the beautiful, ethereal music of ‘Cosmos: A Personal Voyage’ composed by Vangelis which soundtracked the Carl Sagan TV series portraying the cosmic journey of the birth, beauty and elegance of the universe and mankind’s place within it.

“It’s a captivating sonic journey. It encapsulates the magnitude of our story as humans and our place within the cosmos. There’s such beauty, simplicity and emotional potency within this track as it grows to an epic climax.”

To further explore his scientific curiosity around the science of sound, Tom decided to enroll himself in a Master’s Degree in Neuroscience and Psychology of Music (Music, Mind and Brain) at Goldsmiths University – building on a bank of empirical knowledge from 3 decades in the industry that has been the backbone behind a variety of projects.

The ones that left a mark on us? Well, the work he did with meditation and sleep app Calm got him to design functional soundscapes and music to help with relaxation and improve sleep quality. Informed by his training as a Sleep Science Coach, he used both natural environments and designed imaginary ones for users to sleep better, by entraining the body – slowing respiration and heart rate, reducing stress hormones and blood pressure.

For hotel group Yotel, where he was hired as Sound Architect, he attempted to remove the anxiety element of the consumers’ journey through music, paying close attention to each touchpoint – from the moment they arrive at the entrance through to the reception all the way to their bedroom door.

He could do this with confidence because of his understanding of the hormones in our body. “Cortisol keeps you awake and melatonin helps you sleep, and these can be triggered by intentional or unintentional lighting intensity and colour, part of an integrated multi-sensory circadian design system,” he says.

“Instead of seeing spaces such as the lift, hallways and lounges as common areas in which guests make themselves comfortable, I thought to implement a system in which the spaces make the guests comfortable.”

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That’s how he designed a number of bars, workplaces and lounges – including the terrace at The Ministry, applying his psychoacoustic and psychoanalytical tactics. The aim? To create relaxed environments for the public that encourages social interaction, creativity, a relaxed atmosphere and immersive spaces that don’t inhibit communication and increase productivity.

“I asked myself what I could do with soundspace to feel relaxed even if you’re in the middle of south London. I came up with this novel idea of mixing in surprising sounds with nature soundscapes: a farmyard in countryside in the morning, a lion roaring, an elephant calling within a Serengeti soundscape in afternoon, and the Predator snarling within the Amazon jungle at night. All these little sonic details make memorable and magical moments to engage people and add brand differentiation.”

From carefully positioned colour-mood lighting and speakers, coupled with selective colouring, Tom’s approach shows that the user journey must be treated as a collection of congruent multi-sensory emotional interactions to enhance and optimise the experience. “Each sensory element within an environment is designed to synergistically work together in harmony to deliver an appropriate, functional and holistic experience that really makes you feel good,” he adds.

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The research of Tom Cosmos, as he is known, has led him to discover the psychoacoustic properties of the sounds of machines, a discovery that not only he utilised in Yotel’s case but in his work for Nissan too.

Nissan Leaf is a zero-emissions electric car that comes with a ‘Dream Drive’ lullaby playlist designed by Tom using altered audio from the car’s general hum, start-up and AI sounds used in vehicles to help put babies to sleep while being kind to the planet. A win-win situation.

It just goes to show that not every area outside of the home has to be loud and intrusive. We can look to construct our optimum world around us instead of having to manage it and escape it later.

Whilst studying and researching acoustic ecology, psychology and neuroscience, Tom has discovered that there are specific frequencies and levels of noise pollution that are a threat to our overall mental and physical health and wellbeing. If it’s too loud over time it can literally make us ill from the constant stress of prolonged exposure to noise.

For example, we’ve come to understand that most congested cities bring a very high level of noise pollution: anything over 85db is considered dangerous to our health with normal speech around 60db, busy crossroads at 80db and trucks, motorcycles and car horns between 90-110db.

The importance of managing the body’s resting heart rate, stress and anxiety levels and pertaining to our natural circadian rhythm is high. Knowing this, we can create worlds that people are pleasantly surprised by, and that do not add to the noise pollution but seek to take you away from it. If we can do this through the power of sound, why not?

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By joining Tom Middleton’s research on how music and sound can be allies to our mind, body and spirit, our goal is to keep creating cohesive audio journeys along the lines of the ones we ideated, developed and implemented for RTA and Philips, producing a body of work that keeps individuals relaxed, rejuvenated, engaged or motivated when connecting with the brand.

Old advertising techniques taught brands to come out louder. Today, we need to be more distinctive, thoughtful and compassionate.

It’s time for a new approach to service designing with sound: mindful, person-centred and empathetic. Think about the daily human journeys we all experience and how can we soundtrack them with healthier sound and music.

Music is the second most memorable sense after smell – it’s upsetting to think it’s still being overlooked sometimes. The literature speaks for itself: studies show that investing in human wellbeing with preventative health and wellness programs across all sectors can deliver a measurable and impactful 5 to 1 return!

From a corporate social responsibility perspective, improving the quality of people’s lives so they can be happier and healthier increases retention, reduces burnout and absenteeism and boosts productivity and performance.

We know it works. We’ve seen it. We believe it. Now it’s all about showing people the real evidence of why they should be investing in sound.