“Without music, life would be a mistake.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

You’re rolling down the interstate in your car, early morning. The radio’s on, and suddenly the song changes from humdrum pop songs you’ve heard a thousand times to something that immediately catches you. Your ear perks up, the sounds traveling out of the stereo and into your brain, vibrating at just the right frequencies to give you pleasure, bringing back some feeling you’d lost until that very moment. Perhaps you’re back at your first high school dance, or sitting on the beach with a margarita and a sunburn. Without hesitation your finger rolls the dial to the right, pumping the volume, hands drumming the steering wheel and body moving to the beat. For that moment, you have been captured by music, and taken into a whole other world.

There’s no doubt about it, music has a strong effect on our brains, possessing the power to shift our emotions, energy levels, and ways of interacting with others. It’s as if one can observe this truth in any city, pulsing through the sounds of street musicians and underground jazz clubs. It can be felt at a stoplight when someone loses it to a song, dancing and singing, lost in the feel and rhythm of music, or when thousands flock to see their favorite artist perform, so connected are they with the message and mood of the musician’s world. The recording industry has sold billions of records for a reason.

But elation isn’t the only emotion that music helps us tap into. There are multitudes of ways that music can shift our experience, providing us the space to remember, heal, and connect. Music can even help our anxiety. Researchers at Mindlab International recently did a study on music, anxiety, and relaxation, and found that the top performing song–a track called “Weightless” by Marconi Union–resulted in a 65 percent reduction in participant’s overall anxiety, and a 35 percent reduction in their usual physiological resting rates. This isn’t surprising, though, when one learns that Marconi Union created the song in conjunction with sound therapists to help calm people and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Meanwhile, music meant to calm, relax, and focus the brain has exploded on the internet. A quick YouTube search for “calming music,” “music for studying,” or anything similar will come up with a long list of matches, hours of videos with tracks designed for specific moods. There are binaural beats and isochronic tones for nerve regeneration, mindfulness, and a host of other treatments. How much of this is speculation and labeling is yet to be seen, considering that what one person might find calming, another might find irritating. Regardless, the quest to curate the mind and help people cope with anxiety is one to be explored, especially with the rise of ambient music, a genre that “must be as ignorable as it is interesting” according to Brian Eno. Some people merely find it boring.

It’s hard to argue that ambient music has it’s place though. The article Ambient Music Isn’t Boring, It Changed My Life, which was featured in Noisey in 2015, presents a personal story of anxiety and panic attacks transformed by the curated calm sounds of ambient music, especially those of Eno, often considered the innovator that brought ambient music to center stage. Though the author doesn’t claim that ambient music can cure anxiety, he does name it as an ally in the fight against dread and panic, which is a problem that many in our society face on a daily basis. If music can help in that fight, then sound healing and other practices seem worth looking in to.

In Approaching the Ambient: creative practice and the ambient mode of being, a PhD project by Luke Jaaniste, the researcher claims that this music can lead to what he calls an ambient mode of being, which “is an altered state in which we attune to the all-around-everywhere materiality of the surroundings. This deals with down-to-earth stuff – how we exist in our surroundings and deal with its pervasive material excess.” This sort of mindset seems eerily similar to the “relaxed alertness” that is described by researchers as being the optimal state for learning and productivity. This mindset is one of the goals of mindfulness training, a place where the practitioner can achieve a calm state that is also highly attuned to the world, people, and the processes involved in it.

It’s also no surprise that music can help us recall memories, pick out sounds among white noise, or learn a language. Most people seem to use music to process their emotions, whether that be sadness, joy, or frustration with society. There’s a reason music is included as part of group celebrations like weddings, funerals, and parades. Music is something that helps us define our lives as human beings, making sense of how we feel about the circumstances of our work and relationships or creating environments where we can express the deepest, most primal parts of ourselves. One can observe this in dance clubs around the world, or in the gyrations of a child when their favorite song comes on.

In the flurry of the modern world, the over-saturation of media and influence can be overwhelming, making it ever more important for us to curate sound and music to help us cope with and express our feelings. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said, “Music is the universal language of mankind.” If we all learn to speak and comprehend it better, than perhaps we can grow closer to peace and understanding than ever before.


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