Ambient Music Can Calm the Psychic Maelstrom. Here's How.


Ambient music is a broad musical genre that emerged out of 1970s electronic sound experimentation. And listening to it can totally help calm you down. BSIP/UIG/Inglfur Biargmundsson/Getty Images
Ambient music is a broad musical genre that emerged out of 1970s electronic sound experimentation. And listening to it can totally help calm you down. BSIP/UIG/Inglfur Biargmundsson/Getty Images

In times of strife and uncertainty, music fuels both rage and optimism. It stirs us to action and provides catharsis. It also soothes the fissures of an anxious psyche.

The therapeutic use of music goes way back. In India, the roots of therapeutic music traditions extend through ancient Vedic and Sanskrit texts, as well as the epics Bhagavad Gita and Ramayana. Music therapy in Africa may date back at least to ancient Egypt, and currently lives in every African state. Eastern traditions, too, incorporate the power of music. The Chinese Han dynasty's "The Inner Canon of the Yellow Emperor," often considered the fundamental text of traditional Chinese medicine, went so far as to connect specific musical notes to corresponding elemental aspects of the human body.

Yet musical healing isn't mere magic and myth. Modern medical science also weighs in on the subject. As professor Ulrica Nilsson pointed out in "The Anxiety and Pain-Reducing Effects of Music Interventions: A Systematic Review," numerous studies reveal the power of musical interventions to reduce pain and anxiety in hospitalized patients. Nilsson reviewed 42 randomized controlled trials of music intervention and, while the musical genre and durations varied, nonlyrical "slow and flowing music" had the greatest effect on relaxation and pain release.

Today, we roughly categorize such music as "ambient," a broad musical genre that emerged out of 1970s electronic sound experimentation, but has come to encompass everything from the minimalist acoustic compositions of Steve Reich to the electronic soundscapes of Aphex Twin.

Music as Medicine

These sounds comfort us, but why? The most commonly accepted theories define music as a distractor: It draws us away from the experience of negative physical or mental stimuli with familiar, soothing acoustics. Neurological musical therapy professor Michael H. Thaut goes further, however, stressing the effects of music on multiple brain regions related to memory, learning, motivation and emotional states. There is, after all, no music center in the human brain. Be it the work of Vivaldi or Van Halen, music saturates multiple cognitive systems with its influence. For instance, since music shares neural pathways with motor control, it may improve movement in stroke or Parkinson's disease patients.

Music runs deep within us, and so too may our appreciation of ambient soundscapes.

In a 2012 interview I conducted with Hearts of Space founder Stephen Hill, the host of the long-running "slow music for fast times" program shared his own personal take on the power of ambient music, relating it to the evolutionary importance of auditory environmental awareness:

"What happens with ambient music is that the continuous stream of sound, the lack of sudden sound events, the consonant harmonies and the slow pace all conspire to send us the message that 'everything's cool here, you don't have to keep scanning the environment for danger.' This is the 'relaxation response' that is shared by Ambient, Chill, New Age, and some styles of folk, jazz and classical music."

So you can look to evidence both medical and mythological, philosophic and personal, but ambient music demonstrates an ability to soothe our minds in the wake of negative stimuli both immediate and distant, abstract and tangible. Naturally, this doesn't mean we should hide away in our ambient caves and ignore life's challenges, no more than we should denounce the physician in favor of Phillip Glass. But, for many modern humans, the ancient prescription holds true: Ambient music can calm the inner storm, and perhaps provide the clarity we need to make the next step in survival.

And who couldn't benefit from a little of that right now?

Toward that end, I reached out to a selection of ambient music aficionados for listening suggestions — albums and artists to calm the troubled soul. Ambient newcomers and veterans alike, explore the recommendations below and if you happen to use Spotify, you can experience all their suggestions via a single 6.5-hour playlist.

The Recommendations

Musical Suggestion: "Salero" by Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie (2016)

Suggested by: Mary Anne Hobbs, U.K. DJ and Music Journalist 

"Adam's exquisitely beautiful music has healing properties. I listen to the music he makes with Stars of the Lid, A Winged Victory for the Sullen and his solo work at night when I need to cool my heart rate, and I find peace in the space he creates in the sound."

Musical Suggestion: "Tsotsitaal" by Ten and Tracer (2014)

Suggested by: Keith Kenniff (AKA Helios), American Musician

"To me this album is in the top five ambient albums of all time (although you may not know about it). It's a beautifully conceived, mixed and produced album that is entirely consistent. Every song on the track list contributes to the collection as a whole — the ideas are simple and unpretentious, but engaging. Every time I listen to this album it centers me and grounds me, I am able to take myself out of my world and gently place myself in this warm blanket as my thoughts and emotions become easier to digest."

Musical Suggestion: "Rainbow Dome Musick" by Steve Hillage (1979)

Suggested by: Kevin Foakes (aka DJ Food), U.K. DJ and Recording Artist

"Steve Hillage has had a wide and varied career, from playing in Canterbury scene bands like Egg to appearing in early line ups of Gong before going solo, becoming a music producer and then forming System 7 with his partner Miquette Giraudy off the back of the resurgence of interest in ambient music in the early 90s. His 1979 'Rainbow Dome Musick' album consists of only two tracks, in fact the album could be seen as more of Giraudy's as she has the sole writing credit on side 1 and shares it with Hillage on side 2. It was intended as a soundtrack for the Rainbow Dome at the Festival for Mind-Body-Spirit at Olympia, London and the track 'Garden Of Paradise' is my pick of the two. An absolute classic of the genre, totally out of step with the times it was released in, I recently opened a 4 hour set at new London venue, Spiritland, with it. You can hear the full set here and, while not all as chilled as the opener, it's a very relaxing set of music to sooth you through these next four years."

Musical Suggestion: "Ani Hu Empathy with God" by Robert C. Jameson (2005)

Suggested by:

William S. Hufschmidt

"This one hour track offers a hauntingly inspiring and enveloping musical journey that brings me through a doorway to the realm of majesty, reverence and awe. Many times when I listen to this music, I am calmed and soothed to my core. It inspires me to feel faith grow inside of me that I am not alone in this universe, and that I am worthy of experiencing the presence of the Divine."

Musical Suggestion: "Lifeforms" by Future Sound of London (1994)

Suggested by: Josh Clark, Stuff You Should Know co-host

"One of the features that make Lifeforms so impressive is that it's a double album. Since the entire album flows uninterrupted from beginning to end, it's quite a feat that it still manages to leap from one record (or CD back in the day) to the next without any major interruption. This is largely due to the fact that the music has you so far out of your skull (or so deep within it) that your motor cortex is likely the only thing actively aware that you have risen from the couch to start disc 2."

Musical Suggestion: "Nightmare Ending" by Eluvium (2013)

Suggested by: Dave Striepe, writer and Timid Futures blogger

"It's hard to pick my favorite album by Eluvium; Matthew Cooper's got a specific approach to piano-led drone that's really unique to him and his extensive discography. I've got an eight-hour playlist of his work that keeps me calm and mindful when I'm stressed and need to relax but can also keep me focused and productive when I'm overloaded with ideas. For me, though, 2013's Nightmare Ending is the jewel in the crown. Unintentional appropriateness of the title aside, this album is a perfect blend of strong but gentle piano lines, sweeping orchestrations and beautiful, building noise. The piano cycles of "Don't Get Any Closer", the warm drone of "Unknown Variation", that atmospheric build during "Sleeper", the tear-jerking chord progression of "Rain Gently" - they all work together to build a unique world. It's quiet and it's loud and it's spacious and it's crowded and it's urgent and it's patient all at the same time. But above all, it's peaceful. It's world that I hate to leave."

Musical Suggestion: "First" by Clouds In My Home (2009)

Suggested by: PK, King Deluxe

"I discovered this blissful track on a minimal dub techno mix a couple of years back, and have been using it to focus my thoughts and to self-medicate ever since. The entire mix is perfect for when I want to separate myself from the noise.

Recently I decided to source the artist, and found "White Black Blue," the only EP ever released by the mysterious Clouds In My Home, freely downloadable on archive.org."

Musical Suggestion: "Yume" by Helios (2015) 

Suggested by:

Stuff to Blow Your Mind

"Helios is but one of American composer Keith Kenniff's various musical projects but, as the name implies, the music takes us on a sunward journey. I first heard Kenniff's ambient sounds on the 2006 album "Eingya," and each subsequent release has taken us on a slightly different orbit, each vibrating with the comforts of solar resonance, but each distinct in its revolution. His latest full-length album "Yume" maintains that balance of energy and ambient similarly reached by recording artist Tycho. Earlier this year, Kenniff released the EP "Remembrance," which is also excellent, though takes us, perhaps fittingly, back into colder regions of solar influence." 

Crave more suggestions? Check out Pitchfork Magazine's recent "The 50 Best Ambient Albums of All Time," and I frequently cover ambient electronic music for my Space Music blog series at Stuff to Blow Your Mind.