How Ambient Music Helps Quiet the Mind
For as successful as Radiohead’s Kid A was, it is still a rarity to find any sort of ambient music entering the mainstream.
The 1975 — arguably the world’s biggest indie pop group — have dabbled with ambient tracks on their records, from the title track of I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it to Having No Head off their most recent album, but even then their most popular tracks tend to be the poppy ones.
And there’s good reason for this: Ambient music is weird. It’s off-putting, and maybe a bit uncomfortable. It’s experimental electronic music, and if you’re not familiar with the genre (if you can call it a genre), you might have a reaction similar to SpongeBob in the episode “Krab Borg.” You know, the one where Mr Krabs gets really into that song “Electric Zoo,” and his employees think he’s a robot?
Scientifically speaking, our brains are hardwired to enjoy music. The human brain loves patterns, and music falls solidly into that classification. Each repeated progression of notes, chords, and rhythms fits into that pattern, which causes our brains to release dopamine.
This, of course, doesn’t consider the type of music, but speaking about it as a whole we can come to at least a base level understanding of why human beings are so attracted to the noise that comes out of plucking a metal string attached to a piece of wood.
Ambient music doesn’t fit the typical musical patterns our brains are accustomed to, however. It’s strange and experimental, often consisting of ghostly, droning, static sounds somewhere in the distant background, and a series of bleeps and bloops up front that alternate between your left and right earbud.
On top of that, sometimes the tracks are nearly 20-minutes long with little variation. For many people, this would be exceedingly boring to listen to.
So, why do people listen to it?
To answer that question, we should take a look at what the genre’s founder has to say about it.
In 1978, Brian Eno coined the term “ambient music” when he released his album Ambient 1: Music for Airports, which he describes as “as ignorable as it is interesting.” It’s about as perfect a description as you could write.
Eno wanted ambient music to be a reflective experience that would “induce calm and a space to think.” Like white noise, ambient music is there to provide an alternative to silence without being a distraction. Still, if you take the time to actually listen to the things going on in Eno’s music, you’ll notice quite a bit.
But Brian Eno isn’t the only person creating ambient music. In fact, the list is so big that it would be impossible to name them all here. The ambient scene has become a respectable genre in its own right with prominent figures Sigur Rós and Japanese artist Hiroshi Yoshimura bringing the genre worldwide with their own unique spin while Tycho has brought ambient into a more modern, dance-y era.
As I’m writing this, I’m listening to Hiroshi Yoshimura’s album, Green.
Ambient music isn’t just more pretentious jazz or ultra-minamilist classical, however. While those genres have certainly come into play, depending on the composer, ambient music differs from other genres in that it isn’t meant to be deeply listened to.
The entire intention behind the genre is to occupy the background, but surprisingly, this also means it can be a useful tool in ways other musical genres can’t.
The Therapeutic Benefits of Ambient Music
From a personal standpoint, I’m a highly anxious person. I’m also prone to bouts of depression that can last days or weeks. With both of these things going on, my brain is typically a cacophony of self-deprecating noise and negative thought cycles that are, more often than not, hard to escape. I’ve found in the past that music has always been a fantastic way to escape my own head, whether it be listening to it or playing it.
The problem with this is that I like to listen to lyrics as well, which can be horribly distracting when I’m trying to, for example, write.
And there are, naturally, other forms of instrumental music to listen to: jazz, classical, lo-fi, fusion, even forms of rock, indie, and electronic can be without words.
What separates ambient music, then, is the intention. Even many other instrumental forms of music (well, except maybe lo-fi hip hop) are trying to draw your attention in some way. Mozart wasn’t exactly subtle in his compositions. Kind of Blue is one of the best albums of all time, but it implicitly tries to evoke emotion (and not a positive one).
While not everyone’s experience may be the same, ambient music has been shown to reduce anxiety and even ease agitation in dementia patients.
In a thread on reddit, one user likens ambient music to “audio clouds washing over [them.]” There is no urgency in the music, and very little emotion. It is, in a way, an escape from the noise of your own mind.
There is actually a term for this feeling. It is called “ambient mode,” and it isn’t just a setting on your Samsung TV. Ambient mode describes the feeling of calm that someone experiences while listening to ambient music: the sense of being totally grounded and in the present. It’s why you find many ambient tracks on yoga/mediation playlists.
I don’t recommend that anyone put on Ambient 1: Music for Airports while they’re driving to a bar with their friends on a Friday night (in fact, I don’t recommend anyone drive to a bar with friends during the pandemic). It’ll probably throw off the whole vibe of the evening, resulting in a bunch of bored, weirdly-at-peace people finding themselves suddenly uninterested in getting drunk.
It’s not that kind of music.
But for anyone having a stressful day or in need of a quiet, focused environment, the psychological effects of ambient music can be life-changing. Sometimes, it’s nice to just have something on in the background to help you get out of your own head for a while.
And while ambient music isn’t a total replacement for medication or therapy, it can be a wonderful aid to stifle anxiety and depression.
For anyone looking for an introduction into some great ambient works, I highly recommend Brian Eno’s Ambient series, Hiroshi Yurishima’s Green, Tycho’s Dive, and Ágætis byrjun by Sigur Rós.