Music has the wonderful ability to take our feelings to different places. Music can take us from a bad mood to a happy one, and from highly stressed to relaxed in just a few minutes.
This is because sound frequencies affect the brain in different ways, causing the brain to shift into different states.
Sound has been used across many indigenous cultures for centuries, and the history of the healing power of music goes back as far as ancient Greece.
As one Harvard paper notes: music can slow heart rate, lower blood pressure, and reduce levels of stress hormones. It can also provide some relief to heart attack and stroke victims and patients undergoing surgery.
Some research also suggests that music may promote the brain's ability to make new connections between nerve cells (1).
So what is it that makes certain music so relaxing?
Science can help us answer this question.
How the Brain Responds to Relaxing Music
The tempo of the music is of primary importance. Slower music is more relaxing to the brain because it causes brain wave activity to slow down. It is low energy, and as such stimulates lower frequency brainwave production.
Secondly, the type of sounds and instrumentation used is another determining factor in how the brain responds to the music.
For example, the brain relaxes in the presence of natural ambience such as the sound of a water stream, gentle wind, ocean waves lapping the shore, and even the sound of Crickets stridulating.
We are innately connected with nature. There is an interconnection between human beings and the outside world. We feel good when we're near water, when we see flowers and trees, when we lie in the grass, when we feel the sun on our face.
Therefore, it is no coincidence that when you go into a spa or massage therapy shop, you hear music playing that uses rainforest ambience, water, wind chimes and other nature-inspired ambience.
These sounds have something key in common: they are consistent and almost hypnotic. They also mask over other distracting sounds in the surrounding environment, allowing the mind to settle and follow the rhythm of that one sound.
This is the reason that the structure of meditation music is generally quite minimal; so that the music is not pulling the brain's attention in different directions.
These sounds are often music with soft instrumentation such as light piano notes or gentle phrases from a flute or a stringed instrument. Soft pads that provide a foundation for the base of the composition are a common feature, too.
How to Create the Most Relaxing Music in the World
Music preference is an objective matter, and to deem one piece of music more relaxing than another a difficult task. However, researchers from a company called Mindlab (UK) took on this task and conducted a test to find out how different people responded to different music while under stress.
They had participants try to solve difficult puzzles while listening to songs on a curated playlist.
One song in particular from the playlist produced a greater state of relaxation than any of the others, resulting in a 65 percent reduction in participants' overall anxiety, and a 35 percent reduction in their usual physiological resting rates (2).
That song was Weightless, by Marconi Union.
Interestingly, this composition was created in collaboration with sound therapists from the British Academy of Sound Therapy, with the goal of helping people relax by slowing heart rate, reduce blood pressure and lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
This stands to reason, because sound therapists and professional creators of meditation music understand the effect that certain sounds and rhythmic content have on the brain.
Listening to the composition of this music, it is easy for us to see why it is so relaxing. In many ways it reflects the music we create here at BBM:
- The use of soft pads that pan subtly from left to right, engulfing the headspace and creating a blanket of comfort and security.
- The use of wind chimes/bell sounds, which we have come to associate with the outdoors and peace and prayer.
- Evolving effects that rise and swirl, leading the mind away from thought trails and into the present moment.
- A soft, repetitive, tribal-sounding drum that reflects the heartbeat of life and is designed to synchronize with the pulse of the listener.
If we analyze the video, the landscape depicts a natural setting by a stream. The lights swirl fluidly like running water, evolving through shapes that reflect the rhythm of the music and the dance of fireflies.
It's a very good track, though it would have been even better to see this track tested against some other meditative styles of music. As it was, a number of other tracks in the playlist study were not nearly as ambient or relaxing.
In fact, many contained lyrics, which is distracting and can stir up unwanted emotions such as those from past trauma. I mean, who's going to relax to Strawberry Swing, by Coldplay; or Someone Like You, by Adele?
Here is the playlist used in the study:
- Marconi Union – Weightless
- Airstream – Electra
- DJ Shah – Mellomaniac (Chill Out Mix)
- Enya – Watermark
- Coldplay – Strawberry Swing
- Barcelona – Please Don’t Go
- All Saints – Pure Shores
- Adele – Someone Like You
- Mozart – Canzonetta Sull’aria
- Cafe Del Mar – We Can Fly
Could it Be More Relaxing?
As noted, this is a lovely track. However, there are some notable elements that could have been better considered, to make it more effective for the listener.
The composition uses quite a lot of high frequency content. There are high-pitched, piercing sounds (see 2.40 and 5.40) that are a little jarring.
The human brain generally perceives high-pitched sounds as threats (alarms, screams, etc.,) which is why meditation music is largely composed in the mid-register.
Despite containing a fair amount of high-end frequency content, wind and stringed instruments tend to be processed (EQ and compression) so that they don't startle the listener, and so that the higher end frequencies don't disturb the meditative/relaxation process.
These sounds could have been softened to make the track gentler on the ears.
The track also gets a little chaotic around the 5.20 mark.
This isn't conducive to lowering anxiety levels and relaxation in general. Relaxing music should always be spacious. Even when complex in composition, it should sound fairly minimal and spacious to the ear.
In fairness, the track is more of a catchall relaxation piece, and not specifically aiming to address one particular issue. It has broad appeal for general relaxation, and it does that well.
But we can take this type of music a step further and more targeted for specific purposes.
Using Music to Target Specific Areas of Relaxation
Now that we understand the properties of relaxing music, we can address the question of how we can tailor relaxation music for different purposes within the genre.
One way to do this is to consider the type of instrumentation used. But an additional, and more scientific way is to use brainwave entrainment.
Brainwave entrainment, also referred to as brainwave synchronization and neural entrainment, refers to the hypothesized capacity of the brain to naturally synchronize its brainwave frequencies with the rhythm of periodic external stimuli, most commonly auditory, visual, or tactile (3).
Brainwave entrainment music (binaural beats, for example) uses frequencies to entrain the brain for specific states of wellbeing and self-improvement.
The brain hears the frequencies in the track and begins to produce brainwaves of the same frequency, and subsequently moves into a different state of mind.
For example, if you feel stressed out and unable to relax, you can put on a Theta frequency track. The frequencies encourage the brain to produce lower frequency brainwaves, which are conducive to a calm state of mind.
These frequencies are usually played underneath meditation style music, like that discussed above. So you benefit from the relaxation properties of the music, and from the sound frequencies. It's a dual-pronged approach.
Changing Negative Behaviors
We can use the same principle for other areas of wellbeing such as sleep, focus, memory enhancement, and pain relief.
One of the key differences between this type of relaxing music and general music for relaxation is that regular/daily listening encourages habitual brain behavior. This means that the brain gets used to moving into and remaining in a particular state.
This is particularly useful for those who habitually suffer from anxiety, poor sleep, or lack of focus.
These negative states are often triggered by environmental stimuli or thought processes. So when a person senses that they are entering a negative state of mind, they can combat this by listening to a track that addresses the brain's behavior and moves it into a more positive, beneficial state.
The key properties of relaxing music are:
- slow tempo
- repetitive / hypnotic
- mid-register frequency range
- natural ambience and soothing instrumentation
Sounds and ambience that reflect the natural world create a feeling of comfort and calm, and instruments like the piano, various types of flute, the harp, wind chimes, meditation bells, and soft, evolving pad sounds contribute to feeling present and peaceful.
Additionally, by using headphones – closed-back in particular – the listener can create the perception of being enveloped and secure from external threats.
When combined with specific frequencies, such as those found in brainwave entrainment music, relaxation music can be taken to a new level. Such frequencies equip the music with the capability of targeting specific states of mind conducive to better mental health and wellbeing.
If you're looking for music for meditation, relaxation or stress relief, you can see a selection of music here.