The Therapeutic Benefits of Ambient Music: Science Shows How It Eases Chronic Anxiety, Physical Pain, and ICU-Related Trauma

“In forty years of med­ical prac­tice,” wrote Dr. Oliv­er Sacks near the end of his famous career, “I have found only two types of non-phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal ‘ther­a­py’ to be vital­ly impor­tant for patients with chron­ic neu­ro­log­i­cal dis­eases: music and gar­dens.” The com­ment might not sur­prise us, com­ing from such an unortho­dox thinker as Sacks. But we might be sur­prised by the con­sid­er­able amount of tra­di­tion­al sci­en­tif­ic research link­ing music and men­tal health.

Six­ty years ago, when Sacks was still in med­ical school, avant-garde jazz band­leader Sun Ra had a very Sacks-like expe­ri­ence when he played for an audi­ence of patients in a men­tal hos­pi­tal, and inspired a cata­ton­ic woman who hadn’t spo­ken for years to stand up and say ‘Do you call that music?’” The gig, booked by his man­ag­er, con­sti­tut­ed a fringe exper­i­ment in alter­na­tive med­i­cine at the time, not a seri­ous sub­ject of study among med­ical doc­tors and neu­ro­sci­en­tists.

How things have changed in the last half-cen­tu­ry.

Sev­er­al recent stud­ies, for exam­ple, have linked drum­ming, the old­est and most uni­ver­sal form of music-mak­ing, to reduced anx­i­ety, pain relief, improved mood, and improved learn­ing skills in kids with autism. Lis­ten­ing to and play­ing jazz and oth­er forms of syn­co­pat­ed music, have been shown in study after study to pro­mote cre­ativ­i­ty, enhance math skills, and sup­port men­tal and emo­tion­al well-being.

But what about ambi­ent music, a genre often char­ac­ter­ized by its lack of syn­co­pa­tion, and almost cer­tain to fea­ture as back­ground music in guid­ed med­i­ta­tion and stress reduc­tion record­ings; in slow, relax­ing yoga videos; and thou­sands of YouTube videos pro­mot­ing sup­pos­ed­ly stress-reduc­ing fre­quen­cies and stereo effects? Ambi­ent seems pur­pose-built to com­bat ten­sion and dis-ease, and in a sense, it was.

Bri­an Eno, the artist who named the genre and often gets cred­it for its inven­tion, wrote in the lin­er notes to Ambi­ent 1: Music for Air­ports, “[this record is] designed to induce calm and space to think.” Whether he meant to make a sci­en­tif­ic claim or only an artis­tic state­ment of pur­pose, research has val­i­dat­ed his infer­ences about the salu­tary effects of long, slow, atmos­pher­ic music.

Noisey Asso­ciate Edi­tor Ryan Bassil, a long­time suf­fer­er of anx­i­ety and pan­ic attacks, found the state­ment to be true in his own life, as he explains in the video above (illus­trat­ed by Nathan Cowdry). Music from ambi­ent com­posers like Eno, William Bassin­s­ki, and Fen­nesz helped him “ground” him­self dur­ing extreme­ly anx­ious moments, bring­ing him back into sen­so­ry con­tact with the present.

When Bassil looked into the rea­sons why ambi­ent music had such a calm­ing effect on his over-stim­u­lat­ed ner­vous sys­tem, he found research from artist and aca­d­e­m­ic Luke Jaaniste, who described an “ambi­ent mode,” a “per­va­sive all-around field, with­out any­thing being pri­or­i­tized into fore­ground and back­ground.” Immer­sion in this space, writes Bassil, “can help the lis­ten­er put aside what’s on their mind and use their sens­es to focus on their sur­round­ings.”

We may not—and should not—ask music to be a use­ful tool, but ambi­ent has shown itself par­tic­u­lar­ly so when treat­ing seri­ous neu­ro­log­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal con­di­tions. Foren­sic psy­chi­a­trist Dr. John Tul­ly of London’s Insti­tute of Psy­chi­a­try, Psy­chol­o­gy and Neu­ro­science traces the form back to Bach and Chopin, and espe­cial­ly Erik Satie, who “was the first to express the idea of music specif­i­cal­ly as back­ground sound,” and who had no qualms about music serv­ing a spe­cial­ized pur­pose.

The pur­pose of what we broad­ly call ambi­ent has evolved and changed as clas­si­cal, min­i­mal­ist avant-garde, and elec­tron­ic musi­cians have penned com­po­si­tions for very dif­fer­ent audi­ences. But no mat­ter the intent, or where we draw the genre bound­aries, all kinds of atmos­pher­ic, instru­men­tal music has the ther­a­peu­tic pow­er not only to reduce anx­i­ety, but also to ease pain in sur­gi­cal patients and reduce agi­ta­tion in those suf­fer­ing with demen­tia.

When he per­formed with his group Dark­room at the Crit­i­cal Care Unit at Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege Lon­don Hos­pi­tal, writer and psy­chol­o­gist Charles Fer­ny­hough found out that ambi­ent music had sig­nif­i­cant ben­e­fits for patients trapped in what he calls “a sub­urb of hell”: the ICU. Stays in inten­sive care units cor­re­late close­ly with lat­er PTSD and what was once called “ICU psy­chosis” in the midst of trau­mat­ic emer­gency room expe­ri­ences. Seda­tion turns out to be a major cul­prit. But music, espe­cial­ly ambi­ent music, brought patients back to them­selves.

Hear the 2016 Dark­room per­for­mance at the Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege Lon­don Hos­pi­tal ICU fur­ther up, and read more about Fernyhough’s research and per­for­mance at Aeon. The sci­ence of how and why ambi­ent works the way it does is hard­ly set­tled. Where Fer­ny­hough found that patients ben­e­fit­ed from a lack of pre­dictabil­i­ty and an abil­i­ty to “escape the present moment,” Bassil’s research and expe­ri­ence uncov­ered the opposite—a sense of safe pre­dictabil­i­ty and enhanced sen­so­ry aware­ness.

Phys­i­o­log­i­cal respons­es from per­son to per­son will vary, as will their tastes. “One person’s easy lis­ten­ing is another’s aur­al poi­son,” Fer­ny­hough admits. But for a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of peo­ple suf­fer­ing severe anx­i­ety and trau­ma, the dron­ing, min­i­mal, word­less sound­scapes of ambi­ent are more effec­tive than any med­ica­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The “True” Sto­ry Of How Bri­an Eno Invent­ed Ambi­ent Music

The 50 Best Ambi­ent Albums of All Time: A Playlist Curat­ed by Pitch­fork

Stream 72 Hours of Ambi­ent Sounds from Blade Run­ner: Relax, Go to Sleep in a Dystopi­an Future

The Health Ben­e­fits of Drum­ming: Less Stress, Low­er Blood Pres­sure, Pain Relief, and Altered States of Con­scious­ness

Why Do Sad Peo­ple Like to Lis­ten to Sad Music? Psy­chol­o­gists Answer the Ques­tion in Two Stud­ies

This is Your Brain on Jazz Impro­vi­sa­tion: The Neu­ro­science of Cre­ativ­i­ty

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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  • D says:

    Any­one with PTSD could self-care more ful­ly with a reg­u­lar immer­sion into sound worlds like those described. Ground­ing is the appro­pri­ate term, but it can serve as far more than that. The mis­take is to equate ambi­ent with peace­ful­ness. Sus­tained, drone-heavy com­po­si­tions get right in there though, or try the pre­lude to Wag­n­er’s “Das Rhein­gold” (there’s a non-singing ver­sion on youtube = !!!). Same the­o­ry & prac­tice as Guid­ed Imagery & Music/G.I.M.

    Unfor­tu­nate­ly, inap­pro­pri­ate & addic­tive meds are hand­ed out all too read­i­ly for PTSD & no GP/Dr will sug­gest music as a mode with­in a self-care pro­gram. If you’re strug­gling & repeat­ed­ly being failed by your health care provider, google around local men­tal-health “advo­ca­cy” ser­vices & approach them direct­ly. They may well be the dif­fer­ence between you access­ing ther­a­peu­tic path­ways & a suc­cess­ful out­come. Stay safe out there.

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