For some people, the thought of flying in an airplane is terrifying. So much so, that even looking at a plane can result in palpitations. Twenty six-year-old Arshi Sachdev was certainly a nervous flier – till she learned that, on international flights at least, she had the option of listening to soothing music. “The airhostess knew how nervous I was, so even before take-off she handed me a set of headphones, tuned it to a station that had some nice spiritual sounds and told me to close my eyes,” says the marketing executive. “Sure enough, the chants calmed me down and I didn’t pay too much attention to the fact that I was actually flying.” Back home from a long day at work, ad professional Nilanjan Sarkar could think of no better way to de-stress than to pour himself a stiff drink and watch some television. His wife had other ideas. She turned up the stereo with music from Buddha Bar, lit candles all over and poured a glass of wine for the both of them. “In hindsight, while the ambience was perfect, it was the music that did the trick for me,” he says. “The sounds were upbeat, but not fast. Something I really didn’t have to pay attention to in order to enjoy, but it had a soothing effect on my nerves.”
Arshi and Nilanjan listened to two different types of music, but the sounds were from the same genre – ambient music. A genre of music that is known to remove feelings of frustration and anger, consisting of tunes that are supposed to help alleviate tension. Scientifically, music – whatever kind of music it is – has been proven to bring about behavioural changes. According to studies done worldwide, music, by the simple expedient of entering your ear with a definite sound and rhythm, engages with different portions of your brain, stimulating some portions and soothing others. Unscientifically, though we can’t really express how, we feel this ourselves when we listen to music. Loud rock stimulates us, raises our pulses and makes us more energetic. Soft ballads soothe us, inducing us to sit back. Pop and disco music is a given at gyms, because it induces us to keep going rather than collapse in a heap. Chants and spiritual invocations, because of their studied and repetitive nature, bring order to our senses and leave us better able to focus. And natural sounds, like the sound of the tide coming in, definitely induce a sense of calm. Among all these sounds, ambient music is easy listening music. It’s the sort of music that triggers happy chemicals in the body, such as serotonin, to elevate your mood. As a chemical that is transmitted through nerve impulses, serotonin transmits the ‘happy feeling’ through the release of the amino acid tryptophan. It’s chemicals like this that help keep our moods under control by inducing sleep, calming anxiety, and relieving depression.
With sounds from the environment to jazz to electronic beats to chants, ambient music is something that you don’t have to focus on to enjoy. Instead, it’s there in the background, adding to and creating an atmosphere, timeless and packaged for anytime listening. It was English musician Brian Eno who coined the phrase ‘ambient music’ in the ’70s and called it music that is “designed to induce calm and space to think”. We’re all familiar with it, but most ambient music can be divided into four broad
Elevator music: The kind that is played in elevators, hotels and airports. Primarly instrumental with very low tones and no change in tempo. Some of the musicians you could listen to include Truby Trio, Brian Eno and Bollywood Steel Guitar.
Lounge music: This is primarly played in lounge bars, at home and can be heard in cars. The music is a mix of various styles that ranges from jazz to electronic to classical and new age. It’s where the melody is generic but punctuated with different kinds of percussion instruments like drums, etc. Music albums like Buddha Bar, Raaga Lounge and artists like Santa Maria, Shiva’s Daughter and Sympathique fit in this category.
Recreational music: This is played mostly at yoga classes, spas and meditation centres. These sounds are a mix of chants, spiritual incantations and classical, instrumental music. Ben Leinbach’s Spirit of Yoga, Nandakishor Muley’s Spa Song and Gregorian Chant Music are some examples of this category.
Natural sounds: From the chirping of birds to the swirls of the sea to the whistling of the wind, these sounds recreate an ambience that is sorely missed in urban life, bringing you closer to nature. Ocean of Peace, Garden of Peace and At Peace are some great albums with natural sounds to listen to.
Relax with rhythms
“Most of us are so hyper stimulated by the end of the day, that we really need something that allows us to close our eyes and soak in the ambience,” says media manager Misha Halder. “That’s why I’d rather go to a lounge bar for a drink with friends instead of a loud, noisy and boisterous joint where I have to keep repeating myself.”
Lifestyle management expert Dr Rachna Singh couldn’t agree more with the fact that ambient music relaxes you. “All our five senses need to be soothed some way or the other as the day progresses. We listen to a lot of sounds, from traffic to office goings on, to television, throughout the day which keep our stress levels up,” she says.
So listening to atmospheric sounds or repeated tranquil sounds can really relax you almost instantly. “You can even call these sounds mood elevators, just like chocolate is a mood elevator, since they soothe the nervous system really quickly,” she says.
Musician Rohaan Thomas says that one of the reasons ambient music is so calming is that the vocals are not played up, so the lyrics are not important. “Instruments like the guitar, sitar, saxophone and trumpet, which create vibrations from within the body, make this genre of music special,” he says.
The positive effect of these vibrations is not only felt in the mind. It can be felt physically too, in these ways:
Sharper concentration: Ambient music helps the brain shift focus easily – whether you want to concentrate or unwind.
Change in breathing and heart rate: With a change in the tempo of the music comes a change in breathing. If the beat is slower, your breathing will also be slower, and will relax you.
Other benefits of music: lowering blood pressure (can also reduce the risk of stroke and other problems over time), boosting immunity, easing muscle tension, and more.