It sounds so easy, right? Reputable vendors and catalogs have such interesting and appealing solutions to add sound healing to your spa and wellness offering, as more research is validating the efficacy of and demand for sacred sound. You went to that conference last month and heard respectable people talk about sound healing, so you want to get on the sonotherapy train.
IT’S NOT AS EASY AS IT SOUNDS.
But too often, money and time is invested in a solution and it falls flat — guests are underwhelmed and a purpose-built treatment space is under-sold. We understand how this happens. It is unfortunately very tempting for businesses to run after "bandaid" fixes and external solutions to address any given situation. After all, who wants to do the more difficult work of deeply understanding the scope of the issue and designing a comprehensive, holistic, and lasting set of solutions that is actually authentic, integral and meaningful to the guest experience you wish to create? Who even has time for that?
When it comes to the concept of sound healing, or sacred sound in the spa and wellness setting, there is a foundational piece that gets missed. Someone reads an article and gets excited about offering some level of sound therapy. They want to invest in a sonotherapy bed, or a binaural beats system, or buy a set of Tibetan bowls or gongs and bring in a sound practitioner to do treatments, all dressed in white linen. Bravo -- we agree that sound has potent healing power! We ourselves are sonic wellness practitioners. Of all the 6 senses engaged in a healing experience, we would argue that sound is among the most important, right after touch and smell. But, too often, this “healing sound” element is layered on without a meaningful evaluation of the ambient sound environment of the spa.
Let me put it more simply: spas are noisier than most people realize. You can’t start healing with sound until you can first stop doing more damage with noise.
Case in point . . . we recently evaluated the design plans of a new spa to be constructed next year somewhere in Eastern Europe. The client’s wishlist called for a sonotherapy room complete with a costly investment in a special treatment bed, however literally nothing else about the spa plan was taking sound into account as an important aspect of the guest experience. Acoustic insulation between floors and rooms? Nope. Quiet flooring that won’t clack with every step of the spa staff? Nope. Sound-softening fabrics, ceiling treatments, drapes, wall treatments, to create a softer and less reflective sound envelope in the ambient spaces? Nope. In fact, the client had also put a wide range of notoriously loud equipment on the wishlist, to be installed just below the sonotherapy suite, and all of these experiences were clustered together around the only relaxation space available in the spa. Magnifying the issue, the floors and walls were all specified to be highly reflective, with the space ringed by glass sauna walls, glass shower walls, glossy subway tile, and smooth tile flooring.
If you believe that sound matters, and matters enough to design a wellness treatment experience around, then you must also logically reason (stay with me) that actual NOISE is stressful, stimulates a negative physiological response in the body, prevents full relaxation, and detracts from the healing journey. A holistic approach to sound for wellness needs to matter throughout your spa facility.
We must paint on a clean canvas if the artful experience is to have the intended impact, and the same is true with sound frequency healing — so start with taking every reasonable effort to prevent and mitigate noise pollution and startling loud noises that would be problematic for your intended goals.
I challenge you — before you invest in any level of healing sound equipment or treatment regimen, before you buy Angel tuning forks or design new Himalayan crystal singing bowl treatments or schedule a mantra chanting group class in your spa — to first evaluate your current state.
Take a mindfulness walk through your facility, through the entire customer journey, and use your smartphone to record the ambient sound levels. Download a decibel meter app to your phone and check the levels and quality of sound in each room. If there is a dominant note “humming” in the building, you can also use an app such as Cleartune to diagnose the pitch or frequency of that humming. Write down every sound you hear, from the heating ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) to the background hum of the electrical system.
Here’s a tangential but really key technical note: in the UK and most of Europe, the electrical grid hums at a frequency of 50 hz. In the United States, the electricity grid hums at 60 hz. If we believe that sound frequencies have an effect on the human body, mind and spirit, then we need to take this very tangible hum into account, and (if we must have it at all) understand whether we are working with it, or working against it.
It isn’t wrong for a sound practitioner to say, “I cannot do sound in this space,” or perhaps, “I cannot play THIS instrument in this space.” If you ever get this from a sound practitioner it is a sign you have a true musician and artist, a truly sensitive and effective practitioner!
As a sound practitioner, I cannot play a B singing bowl in a room that is already singing in Bflat — the result would be a distressing dissonance that can cause both guest and practitioner to feel uneasy or tense. If we want to do a meditation in the key of B, we need to turn off the breaker altogether, or at least the light fixtures that are humming in the key of Bflat. Light candles — it’s nicer anyway!
When you do your facility walkthrough, note what you hear, from buzzing LED and fluorescent light fixtures, to humming machines, to chattering staff, to squeaky wheels on the housekeeping cart, to flushing toilets, to the feet of chairs that make loud noises when shifted. Sit on the couch in the relaxation area. Does the pleather upholstery squeak against your bathrobe when you shift? Walk, as your guests do, in damp spa sandals. Do they loudly squeak or slosh or squish with every embarrassing step?
Book a massage and have the experience. Do the product bottles land on the counter with a clatter? Do the oil bottles make rude squirting noises when dispensing oil? While you’re laying on the treatment table, do you hear guests talking and laughing as they proceed down the hallway?
What is the music in the treatment room? If you’re just popping in for a management walk through of the spa and wellness facility, it might be easy to either ignore the music or just catch a two minute sample of generic new age spa music. But book a lengthy treatment, perhaps a 90 minute massage or a 120 minute signature spa ritual. Believe me, when you’re wrapped in a seaweed cocoon and weighted down with blankets, this is not the moment you want to listen to “Here Comes the Sun” played on synthetic Peruvian pan pipes for the second time in the playlist — once was bad enough.
[Note: Should it ever happen to me again, you’ll see me rolling down the hallway in that thalassotherapy cocoon, wriggling for the exit and leaving behind me a trail of soggy seaweed imprints.]
Even worse is the engineering situation in your thermal and hydrotherapy treatment zones. How about the racket of your hydro pumps? What is that awful sucking sound that arises every time someone enters your indoor infinity edge vitality pools? When’s the last time you actually swam in that pool and had the drain sucking sounds loudly resonate in your ear (hint: it sounds different from ten meters away)? How about the unharmonious clatter of your experience waterfalls, the startle of intermittent experience shower blasts, hydrotherapy jets, and so on?
What about the random clicking on and off of motion-sensor lighting?
Do the spaces have any acoustic mitigation to reduce adverse sound reflections, or is your entire spa a giant resonator for machine noises and adverse sounds? Is your spa a soft chamber of healing, or an echo chamber of sonic harassment?
Take notes, and later on, I encourage you to plug your phone into a high quality set of speakers and listen to the playback of the sound environment of your facility. I also challenge — really — for you to go through an entire workday or three listening to the livestream of your treatment room music playlist, and ensure you can get through it without throwing office equipment in fury.
There may be limitations to what we can do to mitigate adverse noise in an existing spa facility, but make an effort — sometimes it is just a matter of opening your ears, identifying high priority problem areas, and taking small steps to solve them.
Too often, we are so acclimated to the work environment in the spa that we don’t even hear the noises anymore, but trust me — your guests will surely be affected, whether they mention it or not. And when it comes to a project that is in the initial design phases, then have a thought to noise mitigation and noise pollution prevention. Get clear with your architects, engineers, interior designers, and spa consultants that sound matters as one of the six senses.
If you’ve read this far, I appreciate you investing the time to learn about the use of sacred sound or healing sound in the spa and wellness environment. Awareness and curiosity are the perfect places to begin creating more powerful and positive guest experiences.
Wherever you are now, take a moment and open your ears. What do you hear?
I hear . . . .
the fan on my laptop — this blog post must be heating things up!
the hum of the air conditioning
a different hum, this one the vibration of a refrigerator
an airplane passing by outside my window
the rush of a car going by outside
a dog barking across the street
the light fixture in the next room making a slight buzzing
the voice of a neighbor scolding another neighbor, in a language I do not understand
footsteps: someone is ascending the staircase outside from where I am
my own keystrokes on the laptop as I type this — amazingly loud, now that I notice it!
Make your own list of what can be heard over a minute or two of deep listening. If you cannot hear anything, then consider turning off the breaker, so you can notice the absence of the electrical background noise.
MORE ABOUT US
We are spa and wellness consultants, but we are a little different than the others. We believe that every detail of the experience — including what you might call subtle energy — matters to the guest experience (whether or not that is something they could articulate to you). Our specialty is concept creation and ideation, including theme, brand direction, and bespoke signature treatment design. We love to do mystery shops and audits, including for customer service, treatment quality, and sonic audits. We also love to help developers, builders, and investors avoid costly mistakes, or wasted investment, that too often occurs when they are buying products and services that they do not well understand.
Make sure your spa consulting partner actually frequents spas and destination wellness retreats, and gets treatments and spa services on a regular basis. Ask them what they absolutely love about spa, and also ask them about their wellness pet peeves. What do they hate about bad spa experiences? What drives them crazy? What is missing from their favorite spa? What is the spa industry getting wrong? This will help you figure out who you’re dealing with, and what their perspective is for creating the ideal spa environment.