The Consolations of Music
Music is a human universal. Every known human culture has had music and has found in it inspiration and solace. Amidst a worldwide pandemic that has shut down economies, wiped out millions of jobs, and isolated many of us in our homes indefinitely, we turn to listen to music to curtail our anxieties, vent our frustrations, and alleviate our sorrows. But most of us do this haphazardly, whimsically cycling through different songs and genres. Is there a more scientific approach? Is there music that’s universally relaxing or inspiring?
In 2016, the British Academy of Sound Therapy tried to answer similar questions. In collaboration with the British ambient band Marconi Union, it sought to create “the world’s most relaxing song.” This resulted in a piece called “Weightless,” an ethereal collage of natural sounds, restrained instrumental tones, and gentle rhythmic patterns. The song reportedly led to a 65% reduction in anxiety among listeners, prompting its creators to warn listeners not to play it while driving.
Apart from the ambient nature sounds, there are three things that make “Weightless” so relaxing: its slow sustaining rhythms, its lack of repetitive melodies, and its length. The first of these is perhaps the most important. The song’s tempo (its speed or pace) starts at 60 beats per minute and gradually slows to 50 beats per minute. This is a relatively slow tempo to start with, and as it gradually becomes slower, your heart rate can slow down along with it. Then there’s the lack of repeating melodies, enabling you to tune out instead of trying to predict what comes next. Compare this to, say, the beginning of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. The moment the opening motif plays, we instinctively try to predict how it will be repeated, altered, and reimagined – even if we’ve heard the piece thousands of times before. Our constant anticipation of how the melody will develop is part of what makes the piece so exciting. “Weightless,” though, has no such motifs, and so encourages us not to pay attention. Finally, the song’s eight-minute length, gives us adequate time to settle into an inattentive, relaxed state (the minimum length is five minutes).
The problem with “Weightless,” though, is that, however objectively relaxing it may be, it doesn’t resemble the music most of us actually listen to – even when we’re trying to relax. Consider the piece “La fille aux cheveux de lin” by Claude Debussy, which is often featured in collections of relaxing music. It has countless rhythmic fluctuations and a gorgeous, memorable melody. It clearly doesn’t meet the objective criteria for a relaxing song. When we call it relaxing, we don’t seem to mean that it relaxes us physiologically, but that we perceive it as transcendent and graceful and dream-like. Because of this, the piece has become a landmark in Western music. It will almost certainly outlive “Weightless.” The sort of unwinding we do when listening to it is much more complex than the sort of unwinding “Weightless” induces. As a result, it makes little sense to ask whether this piece is more or less relaxing than “Weightless.”
Still, even amongst the music that stirs more complex reactions in us than just tuning out, isn’t some of it more relaxing than others?
Possibly. There are a few broad generalizations we can make. The first is that our reactions to tempo and volume seem quite universal. Dance music is almost always fast and rhythmic and lullaby music is almost always soft and slow. As a result, relaxing songs tend to be slow, regardless of what cultures they appear in. Similarly, we seem to react to sound itself in relatively universal ways. Everyone reacts to visual cues evoked by sound, which means we visualize water when we hear flowing river sounds and visualize storms when we hear cacophonous percussion rolls.
Our reactions to tempo and volume seem quite universal.
When we start talking about harmony and melody, though, we get into much trickier territory. People don’t seem to have innate preferences for certain harmonies over others. We know this because when MIT researchers played seemingly pleasing note combinations for Amazonian natives (who had little exposure to Western music) they displayed no preference for these combinations over more jarring ones. This is counterintuitive and, for most people (myself included), difficult to fathom. What this means is that the dream-like chords in Debussy’s music don’t necessarily sound dream-like, and the soaring, angelic harmonies in J. S. Bach’s “Jesus, Joy Of Man’s Desiring” don’t necessarily sound soaring or angelic, to people unfamiliar with Western harmony. Take, for example, this recording of pianist Cecil Taylor, which involves him slamming his hands on blocks of piano keys. Most of us will find this piece discordant, and have trouble imagining anyone finding it otherwise. But the MIT study suggests this reaction isn’t universal. People unfamiliar with Western music may find the piece aggressive, because of how loudly and forcefully Cecil Taylor plays the piano, but they won’t recognize the combinations of notes he’s playing as grating. The MIT researchers found that the Amazonian tribespeople didn’t find clashing note combinations less pleasing than more conventional note combinations when they were played in isolation. Consequently, it’s impossible to identify universally relaxing chords or harmonic sequences.
Melody is similarly tricky to pin down – mostly, though, because the way we hear it is inextricably linked with the way we hear harmony. We generally think of melodies as the isolated tunes voices sing and instruments play, and harmonies as the sounds that notes make when played simultaneously, but it’s not clear that we should think of these two things separately. This is because we bring our pre-existing ideas about harmony to all the melodies we hear, whether we intend to or not. When we hear “Happy Birthday” sung unaccompanied, we don’t just hear the isolated melody, we hear the types of chords that “should” go along with it. Our minds infer them in, in much the same way they infer cohesive images from vague shapes. This is why the music of Bach sounds so natural to us; it fleshes out the harmonies we already expect. But, these expectations are cultural ones. Because how we hear melody depends on how we hear harmony, and how we hear harmony depends on cultural conditioning, it’s impossible to identify specific melodies that are universally soothing. Beautiful melodies, like beautiful harmonies, are perceived differently in different places.
People familiar with Western music clearly perceive it in similar ways. Bach’s music may not be universally angelic, but the majority of those familiar with Western harmony automatically hear it that way. Likewise, the average moviegoer knows which musical motifs are meant to convey dream sequences, which are meant to indicate spiritual experiences, and which are meant to imply terror. So, couldn’t we at least pinpoint the most relaxing artists and genres within Western music? Couldn’t we determine whether listening to James Taylor was objectively more relaxing than listening to Debussy?
Unfortunately, even this is impossible because how we react to specific types of music depends on our musical tastes and our musical tastes depend on our genetics and the memories we associate with certain types of music. The first of these factors is easy to understand. Some people are naturally more soothed by James Taylor than Debussy and vice versa, though, at present, it’s unclear which genes predispose us to like what music. The second, though, is a little stranger. It means that many of us have unique connections to songs we heard as children or styles of music that were popular where we grew up. We seem particularly biased in favor of music we hear as teens, because this is a time of many transitions and new experiences. Music is as much a marker of identity as it is a form of entertainment, and we bond with the music we hear in formative times.
We seem particularly biased in favor of music we hear as teens, because this is a time of many transitions and new experiences.
We connect with music in this unique way because music plays off a trait called implicit memory. Implicit memory is a reactive, unintentional form of memory that operates outside of consciousness and associates certain sensory stimuli with certain feelings. Because of it, we’re able “retrieve” past feelings by hearing the melodies of familiar songs. When someone hears a song their grandmother used to sing to them, they don’t just hear the melody or rhythm of the song, they re-experience some of the comfort and affection they felt back then. Likewise, changing circumstances can change how we react to certain songs, as treasured memories can sour, and other memories of things we took for granted can become precious.
Thus, the music we find comforting will always be specific to each individual, and our quest for a universally relaxing song was doomed from the start. A song that reminds one person of a relaxing high school vacation may remind another person of an abusive boss and a song that recalls childhood for one person may do nothing for another. We truly do carry our memories and our personalities in our music collections.
The socially-distanced listeners of the world, though, should not be discouraged. If you just want to tune out, you can always turn on “Weightless.” If you want a deeper form of therapy, you can play the songs you associate with other valuable experiences. For as mystical as it may seem, music carries the past. It conjures people we’ve lost, recalls places we’ve forgotten, and articulates feelings we can’t describe. That’s why it’s so powerful – and so fundamentally human.