Swimming in Sound

What we know about the sound environment in the womb is quite limited. But we can make some approximations.

In humans, we know that the fetus develops the faculty of hearing by 24 weeks (six months of gestation) as the middle and inner ear are formed. By 26 weeks the fetus responds to sound stimulation with an increased heart rate, indicating that they are sensitive to sound.

However, the eardrum of the outer ear doesn’t function in the amniotic fluid of the womb. So the sound waves reaching the middle ear do so via the skull. The whole surface of the fetus’ body is sensitive to vibrations transmitted through the amniotic fluid.

This is something we can replicate by listening to sound underwater. Underwater we all hear through the skull and entire body surface – not our outer ear. Sound is transmitted 4 x faster than in the air and across a much broader frequency range. You can actually try this in London by going to a Wet Sounds event.


Julian and Aude did. Eyes, closed and with their ears underwater, listening to nature sounds and choral music diffused from the bottom of the swimming pool, they found that sounds have no specific location in space – they appear to come from every direction. More intriguingly, with plugs protecting their ears, and thus a heightened sensitivity to their own heartbeats, there seemed to be no difference between inner and outside sounds – no sense of self as separate from one’s acoustic environment.

If consciousness arises from a sense of separateness, what if the Sonic Womb project could return a listener to some kind of pre-consciousness state?

Sonic Womb Ladies

Rarely has a multi-disciplinary collaboration drawn more varied profiles than the Sonic Womb research project. Here are portraits of some of the individuals involved. Ladies first.

Aude (Thibaut), co-Founder

Eric and Julian’s original idea for the Sonic Womb soundtrack consisted of a “sound walk”, the walk of a pregnant opera singer to her place of work, the opera house. We would follow the singer as she wakes up, brushes her teeth, chats with her family at breakfast, walks to the tube (an extraordinarily noisy segment included an encounter with a jackhammer). As she arrives at the opera house, she starts with piano rehearsals then moves on to a stage performance with orchestra reaching a pinnacle of glorious applause.

This would allow the listener to experience the full range of sound sources involved in the fetal environment, external sounds, internal bodily sounds, and most intriguingly, the mother’s voice, whose pathways are both external and internal to the fetal experience.

A financier by training, Aude had the wonderful privilege of working for several years at the Royal Opera House, basking in its music, which even in the administrative departments, literally pours out of the walls though an internal speaker system. No less of a privilege, Eric delivered her twin babies, who were just a little too impatient to meet the world, and had to spend a few weeks in a neo-natal intensive care unit (NICU) incubator. Having spent her pregnancy exposing the twins in utero to the high culture sounds of Wagner, Mozart and Britten – with Bottom’s bass voice in rehearsal a particular favourite of “twin 2” – she was amused to find her newborns enjoying their NICU feeds to the frequency of Kiss FM.


Aude fell in love with the idea of exploring the auditory environment of the womb, hopefully leading to a better sound-optimised design for neonatal incubators.

Aurelie (Mermod), Sound diffusion system, concept & technique

Aurelie is a sound artist. After graduating from the MA in Sound Arts at University of the Arts London she is now a teaching assistant at the University of the Arts in Zurich. Her current project, Detroit Effect, experiments on the fascination with visual decay, towards a more complex and critical approach to the situation and future of Detroit, with sounds/noises aiming to be heard with the body rather than the ears.

Aurelie joined the project in 2015 to design the audio system inside the Orrb. She found it really interesting and challenging to articulate the research and ideas of the team into practice. It was a long process with interesting discussions on the high expectations of a sound concept and its diffusion system. She also really enjoyed meeting and learning from sound professionals to work on the concept and production: sound technicians, sound artists, professionals in acoustic, sound foam producer, and also designers.

The Origins

What happens when an obstetrician and a sound artist meet? Well, they want to re-create the sonic environment of the womb of course!

The story starts in 2012 when Professor Julian Henriques, a leading topology researcher at Goldsmiths, University of London and a sound artist approached Professor Eric Jauniaux, an internationally known fetal medicine specialist at the Institute for Women Health at UCL. The meeting was to ask a fundamental question, that all parents-to-be ask during pregnancy: “What does a fetus hear in utero?”

For the sound artist, the question validates an important intuition: hearing, which, unlike vision, develops in utero (from the 24th week of conception), is the only sense that connects the fetus to the outside world, and thus the first means of perception for humans. Recreating that sound environment could transport listeners to a place long forgotten but eagerly rediscovered, the origins of perception.

For the fetal physiologist, the sound environment of the womb, and therefore the auditory exposure of the fetus in utero, despite incredible advances in physiology research, is not well understood. Important clinical and societal implications follow from this. For example, the ability of neonatologists to recreate womb-like conditions for premature babies in incubators, which is important for normal cognitive development, is limited if those conditions are not known. Also, a lack of understanding of what a fetus hears in utero hinders mothers-to-be from making fully informed decisions about modern artificial sounds to which her unborn child can be safely exposed.

Although it remains impossible, for obvious ethical reasons, to experiment with human beings, advances in computer modeling and sound diffusion technology can help us better simulate how and what a fetus hears in utero.

Over the last two years, Eric and Julian, joined by Aude, an entrepreneur and a mother of now thriving but prematurely born twins, reviewed the most up-to-date academic research, complemented it with their own proprietary experiments, and worked with state-of-the-art audio engineering to re-create the experience of hearing in utero in an acoustically optimised enclosed space.


(Left to right, Aurelie, Julian and Aude in front of the Orrb at Goldsmiths workshop.)

On May 26-27 at the Brain Forum in Lausanne for the first time the Sonic Womb Orrb listening experience will be offered to an audience of neurologists and to the public, courtesy of W Investments, a leading Zurich-based R&D investor, who provided Sonic Womb Productions Limited with a wellness and learning capsule, the Orrb, developed by Lee McCormack Designs and his team of engineers.