by Laura Hanke
Since its origins in the early twentieth century with the likes of Erik Satie, ambient music has evolved steadfastly, becoming a mainstay in film soundtracks, television programmes and an accomplished genre in its own right.
After Brian Eno coined the phrase “ambient music” in the mid-seventies, the genre has been interwoven with other types of music, leading to unforeseen uses and innovations. Japanese ambient, for example, found a way to intersperse the genre’s delicate soundscapes with religious-inspired new-age sounds and natural field recordings. The result, combined with the ever-evolving world of electronic music, was a sound that propelled the genre into modernism, lending itself to a wide array of uses.
While ambient aficionados enjoy the genre on purely musical terms, modern musicology and science has found that ambient, alongside its common partners in religious music and natural sounds can be an important tool for self-care and healing.
Ambient Music: an antidote to stress and anxiety
Music research can get quite complex and convoluted, but simply put, people typically associate natural and ambient sounds with calmness. As music therapist Bronwyn Tosh states, “[music] can be linked to certain memories or feelings, and at that stage, if you’re connecting [that sound] with feeling more healthy and becoming more aware, your brain will automatically make those links.” The genre’s tropes – a lack of any sort of explicit melody, non-volatile sounds and slowly developing sounds – lends itself well to the contemporary interpretations of “calmness”. The result: our brains immediately associate the sound with a state of contentedness, facilitating an almost zen-like attitude.
A study in 2009, for example, compared treatments between two sets of pre-surgery patients experiencing anxiety prior to an operation. One group were given anti-anxiety medication, whereas the other was given relaxing sounds to listen to. The result was surprising: those who listened to relaxing, ambient-based music, experienced a greater reduction in anxiety symptoms than those who took the medicine. The study is one of many which prove the efficacy of ambient and natural sounds, along the lines of these playlists, as medicine for both mental and physical ailments.
Religious Music and Existentialism
Religious music also helps relieve anxiety, especially the existential variant centred on the afterlife. Findings suggest that the frequency of listening to religious music has a direct correlation with a decrease in death anxiety and an increase in happiness, life satisfaction and feelings of control listeners feel they have over their lives.
However, this tends to impact those who are later in their life, fitting in with established patterns of mental health and anxieties in old age. Religious music mends and soothes by ironing out these worries in older people, where the pitfalls and effects of stress are much more pronounced.
Music and Meditation
Calm, natural music is the foundation of many religions. In modern times, meditation is often complimented by religious and natural sounds to facilitate the process of becoming present. Even Ludwig van Beethoven, who clearly had no link to the tenants of meditation or Buddhism, said that “[music] is the mediator between the life of the senses and the life of the spirit”, a statement which reads as distinctly meditative in modern times. What old Ludwig was alluding to, though, was the connection between music and introversion, which is a state of mind that meditation practitioners are always trying to cultivate.
Commonly, meditation practitioners opt for music from classical Indian music, Gregorian chanting, Buddhist music and Christian music. Those who practice meditation find religious-based music such as those listed to help, thus becoming an essential component of the soothing qualities of meditation.
Much like ambient and natural sounds, religious music helps during meditation as it doesn’t simply relax, but cultivates introversion and self-reflection.
Natural Sounds are the New Chill
It’s easy to find field recordings and stock sounds of nature now which mimics the experience of being out in nature. For a long time, researchers understood that sounds from nature had a restorative effect on the mind, but it wasn’t until recently that science discovered why.
A 2017 report, though, pinpointed exactly why this occurred. It turns out that natural sounds and music affected the bodily systems that control the flight-or-fright and rest-digest autonomic nervous systems, which, in daily life, catalyses a sense of relaxation.
When listening to natural sounds, brain activity tended to flow in an outward-directed focus, associated with feelings of calmness, whereas listening to artificial sounds causes brain activity to focus inward, which is associated with feelings of anxiety, paranoia and depression. If you don’t have time to take a walk, then stick on some nature sounds and wind down.
In Eno’s words when he created the phrase in 1975, ambient music “is intended to induce calm and a space to think.” Since the genre’s symbiosis with elements from religious sounds and nature, Eno’s ambition with the genre has certainly come to fruition in ways even he couldn’t envision as a tool of healing.
Laura Hanke is Music Supervisor at Universal Production Music. She handpicks tracks for clients and makes sure the right brief is met with the right track(s)!