A woman submerges her ears at a Liquid Sound event. Photo: Linda Troeller

I Celebrated Earth Day at a Trippy Underwater Concert in Berlin

Listening to music underwater is all in your head.

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Apr 27 2016, 4:00pm

A woman submerges her ears at a Liquid Sound event. Photo: Linda Troeller

It's 1 AM and I'm confused. I'm new in Berlin and it's dark and hot and people here are naked and Prince just died and I don't really understand what's happening.

I'm in a saltwater pool straddling a neon-blue noodle, surrounded by 50 floating Germans who aren't saying a word. It's Earth Day and everyone is staring up at an ambient light show dancing on the underside of a domed ceiling as a full moon shines brightly through a large oculus. I can't tell where that dreamy synth music is coming from or whose foot that is on my arm, but I close my eyes, submerge my ears, and decide to ride out this journey on my noodle. I submit, letting it all sink in. Within minutes, everything melts away and I feel completely at ease.

A bather submerges at a Liquid Sound event. Photo: Linda Troeller

This is Liquidrom. Located inside a futuristic building designed to look like a circus tent, this aquatic concert hall is one of Berlin's most popular spas, and one of a growing number of underwater concert experiences popping up across the country.

Every day, thousands of people in Germany descend into 98-degree saltwater baths, watch a collage of colored lasers sway overhead, and listen to live music that's pumped out of underwater speakers. Some nights it's a DJ spinning house music. Other times it's a lady playing a harp. Some days, it's just a person quietly reading a story. And though the spas' float-ees might not know it, these underwater concerts are, literally, happening inside their skulls.

A bather floats with her ears submerged as colored lights dance overhead. Photo: Linda Troeller

"Most people don't realize how deeply humans are coded in the auditory channel," says Micky Remann, the inventor of the Liquid Sound technique behind four of Germany's underwater concert halls. "And the ears are just one part of that whole-body experience."

A professor of immersive media at Bauhaus University, Remann explains that, in the air, the ear converts sound waves to vibrations and transmits them to the inner ear. But when your ears are flooded under water, sound waves completely bypass your ears and penetrate directly into the bones in your skull, which then transfers the vibrations to your inner ear.

I can't tell where that dreamy synth music is coming from or whose foot that is on my arm, but I close my eyes, submerge my ears, and decide to ride out this journey on my noodle.

This phenomenon, called bone conduction, was actually discovered 200 years ago by Beethoven. As the German composer grew deaf and could no longer hear his work, he found that by placing a metal rod on his piano and clenching it with his teeth, the sound vibrations traveled from his jaw straight to his brain and he could perceive its pitch.

Each night, live music is played at Liquidrom and pumped through 12 underwater speakers. Photo courtesy Liquidrom

Today, Remann is using Beethoven's same principle to conduct his subaquatic symphonies.

"When you're listening with your bones, there's also the nice side effect that you can stick your fingers in your ear at an underwater concert and hear the music just as clearly," he says. "It's a very clear, harmonious experience."

Colored lights shine from the underside of the heated pool and reflect on the curved concrete ceiling of Liquidrom. Photo courtesy Liquidrom

It's actually so harmonious that it can also be a little disorienting at first.

In the air, sound waves strike one ear a little sooner and a little louder than the other ear. We're not conscious of this, but the difference is subtle enough for our brains to determine the direction of the source of the sound.

The vaulted dome, oculus, and saltwater pool of Liquidrom. Photo courtesy Liquidrom

But as Remann explains, since sound waves travel 4.3 times faster underwater than they do in the air, they hit your skull so quickly that it's impossible for people at an underwater concert to tell where the music is coming from.

"There's always an initial surprise, but then we recognize that this immersion of the senses is a perfectly natural experience and it's strangely familiar," Remann says. "We all learn to hear in warm saltwater in the womb. It just takes some time to re-learn."

It did for me. But as soon as I let go and let the sound waves wash over me, I knew I'd be back. I could feel it in my bones.