Mental Health Awareness: How to curate music for relaxation and meditation
I’ve been interested in how sound and music affect our brains and bodies for a long time.
During my degree in music psychology, I ran experiments using different music to help people complete tasks faster. During my work as a DJ, I’ve seen how music breaks down culture and language barriers to affect an audience - both emotionally and physically. During my work with different brands at Open Ear, I’ve witnessed how businesses can create narratives and build relationships with their audiences using music.
In the last few years, my focus has turned to how music and sound can positively affect our health, mind, and well-being. I’ve also been training with the British Academy of Sound Therapy, and enjoying researching the brain and body from a neuroscience basis.
So how can music affect our health?
Firstly, it’s important to note that all human beings, like everything else on the planet, are made up of vibrating molecules. Our bodies are literally resonating with everything around us, and it is the relationship between external sound vibrations, our bodies and brains that helps us make a sense of the world.
The sounds we hear affect us in multiple ways.
Music triggers a multiplicity of brain responses, which are spread around pretty much every area of the brain. Music is unique in simultaneously affecting our cognitive, reward/emotion and motor senses, often all at the same time. A piece of music can regulate our mood, adjust our physical state, trigger memories from our childhood and help us connect to people and the world around us.
Emotions - Frequency intervals and timbre
Sound transmits a frequency and the relationship between two sounds at different frequencies is called an interval. In Western music, intervals are the 12 notes in a scale, but this way of categorising sound by notes is pretty much universal across all-known cultures.
Certain intervals are widely accepted as being more pleasant on the ear — these are referred to as consonant intervals. For example, the perfect fourth or perfect fifth intervals are commonly associated with pleasantness, harmony and all being well with the world. A dissonant interval such as a minor second or tritone can leave us feeling uneasy or on edge (although can still be exhilarating and alluring when used in the right way). In the 18th century, the church felt the tritone was so powerful that they banned it! Then, it was consequently nicknamed the devil’s tone.
Timbre is the tonal quality of the instruments being used; the quality that distinguishes a trumpet from a violin even if they are played at the same pitch and same duration. Timbre is crucial to creating an overall sound that connects with us emotionally.
Composers know how to use frequency intervals and timbre to create emotions within music to affect us positively and/or negatively. If we respond positively, the music triggers a release of dopamine — the neurotransmitter behind feelings of pleasure. A combination of consonant and dissonant melodies can be extremely powerful if used in the right way, and this juxtaposition is a common method used by sound therapists to treat mental blockages in patients.
Body movement — Rhythm
You may not feel like you are the best dancer in the world, but rest assured all humans are inherently rhythmical beings! This starts from when we hear the steady heartbeat of our mothers in the womb to the early rhythmical utterances that are the precursor to language learning when we are babies. It continues with the way we naturally use music to entrain our bodies to move in time during exercise, tap our toes to a catchy song on the radio, or go and dance all night at a club.
Through a process called entrainment, our bodies naturally and unconsciously synchronise to the rhythms that we hear. So, if a beat is slightly faster than our pace when we run, we’ll speed up, and if a pulse is slower than our resting heart rate, our bodies will naturally slow down — helping reduce stress and make us feel more relaxed.
Music for relaxation and positive mood state
So, listening to music can positively affect our emotions and also adjust our natural body rhythms. This is something I’m very familiar with as a DJ — on a good night, I’ll use a combination of tracks blended together to create a euphoric state within the audience, all bodies moving in sync. This state can be referred to as ‘Flow’, and is one of the reasons I use ‘Flo’ in my stage name Auntie Flo. ‘Flow’ is a term coined by renowned psychologist Mihaly Czitzentmihalyi to refer to a state of ‘optimal experience’, where normal, conscious thought is superseded as the brain goes into an altered state of consciousness. Typically, our perception of time disappears and we feel a certain unity with oneself and others around us. Athletes get into this state during a high-level sport performance, and sometimes refer to the flow state as being ‘in the zone’.
If I, as a DJ, can put people into a euphoric state with my selection, there must be ways in which I can use music in the opposite sense — to create a sense of calm, reduce heart rate, lowering brainwaves and leading to a sense of deep meditative relaxation. I borrowed some of the teachings from my Sound Therapy course, where harmonic instruments such as gongs and bowls are used to entrain the listener into a meditative state by ‘bathing’ them in sound, which over the course of the session becomes slower, more arrhythmic, more intense and therefore almost overwhelming.
I’ve put together a Spotify playlist with some of the most relaxing songs I’ve found. The selection begins with a track called ‘Weightless’ that was created with the help of my Sound Therapy course tutor Lyz Cooper. The track is ranked as being ‘the most relaxing song in the world’ and a lot of the theory I take about above has been implemented within the song - reducing tempo from 60bpm to 50bpm, not using repetitive melodies, using harmonious intervals and soothing timbres.
Here is also a DJ set I recorded as Ambient Flo, which follows the same principles. Ambient Flo, now a 24-hour radio station, started in early 2020 with a series of Saturday morning livestreams I'd do directly from my garden, mixing music and birdsong (as a nod to Biophilic sound theory) for a relaxing start to the weekend.
Every month, Ambient Flo features 300 new songs, co-selected by myself, alongside a guest curator and plenty of submissions from our community of producers.