Ambient music kind of gets a bad rap, with many occasional listeners equating the genre to elevator music. Yet ambient music is so much more, and its applications are far-reaching. Today, ambient music is growing in popularity and evolving to encompass nontraditional musical instruments and nature-based sounds, including ocean waves, wind, and rain.
Interestingly, experimental ambient sounds are also seeing increasing use in the fields of therapy and self-care. Creating ambient music for concentration, stress reduction, sleep, and more is a growing field of music production. And research has shown that ambient music may even improve cognitive function among listeners of all ages.
One inherent benefit of ambient music is its widespread appeal among all types of people. Whether you prefer punk rock, country, jazz, and soul, or rap and hip-hop, you may also derive pleasure from ambient sounds. In this way, ambient music speaks to the masses and serves as an ideal avenue for bringing people together. As ambient music may even boost our mood, it could ideally be played in the background in myriad institutional settings, from classrooms to hospitals and nursing homes.
The Roots of Ambient Music
First developed in Great Britain in the 1960s and ‘70s, ambient music has seen a number of iterations over the years. Brian Eno is considered the forefather of ambient music, and his 1978 album “Ambient 1: Music For Airports” kicked off the genre’s mainstream popularity. Today, popular ambient artists include Aphex Twin, Moby, and Sigur Rós.
At its core, the genre emphasizes atmosphere and tone in lieu of structure and rhythm, inherent parts of most traditional music genres. And its musicians aren’t afraid to push boundaries between music and everyday sounds. The New York City-based DIY artist Ken Butler, for example, turns common objects including zippers, umbrellas, and tennis rackets into musical instruments.
Butler goes even further in his unique methods, creating hybrid instruments such as a metal detector cello that’s composed of the traditional strings, scroll, and pegbox of a cello, but with a metal detector base. The blips and bleeps of a metal detector make for an interesting addition to an experimental ambient track, whether attached to a cello or used as a standalone instrumental tool.
Ambient Sounds in the Classroom and Beyond
Those who produce ambient music are attempting to create an environment or aura around the listener. Ambient music effectively envelops you in an acoustic blanket that provides comfort while also stimulating your brain. Traditional rock and pop songs are relatively formulaic and easy to follow along with, while ambient music is more anarchic and full of surprises.
Therein lies the reason why ambient music may provide benefits in classroom and hospital settings. The genre doesn’t follow a set pattern, thus acting as a brain stimulant that fuels creativity and improves the ability to process thoughts and feelings in a productive way. Students listening to ambient background sounds may not even consciously recognize that something is playing, yet they still reap the benefits.
Today’s modern technology-dependent society has produced a student body that has shorter attention spans and reduced ability to focus. As a result, the development of innovative classroom curriculum strategies is imperative to student performance. According to Duquesne University, modern instructors need to “create an empathetic, no-wrong-answers, collaborative environment,” and ambient music may just be the perfect soundtrack to a contemporary, interactive classroom. Further, the genre may also foster relaxation and stress relief when used as a form of self-care.
Self-Improvement Via Ambient Sounds
Much has been made of the concept of self-care in recent years, and for good reason. By making self-care a priority, you may become more productive and learn how to better manage stress. Self-care is especially important for touring musicians who are beginning to burn out from being on the road. Along with taking rest breaks as needed and eating a balanced and healthful diet, you can also foster self-improvement by listening to relaxing ambient sounds.
The unique musical style may even improve your memory and help combat the effects of social isolation. Researchers have found that listening to music improves quality of life among nursing home residents living with intellectual or developmental disabilities (IDD). For those residents who aren’t attracted to a particular genre, ambient music may be the perfect solution.
The same could be said for reducing the negative effects of social isolation, including a high risk of developing depression and cognitive impairment, as well as greater susceptibility to common illnesses. Social isolation is widely prevalent among older adults, touring musicians, and producers with a full work schedule.
Ambient music is designed to make us feel rather than think, and in our media-saturated world, that may be exactly what we need — Relaxation rather than repetition and constant locomotion. It’s interesting to note that on YouTube, the “Selected Ambient Works of Aphex Twin, 85-92,” boasts 12 million views and counting. Clearly, ambient music enjoys overarching popularity as a calming, abstract alternative to the constant hum of modern life. And it continues to evolve, infiltrating such varied environments as classrooms, nursing homes, and beyond.