Ambiance and mindfulness: Making a case for ‘boring’ music

Graphic by Catherine Ward

Music is often used to escape the present.

Sometimes I listen to Lana Del Rey while walking to my philosophy class, thinking about the glory of 1980s Hollywood while imagining myself as beautiful and glamorous. In real life, I’m probably wearing leggings or sweatpants, but in my mind, I’m in a white dress on a beach house balcony. This is a mindset I search for when it’s raining outside or I have a 10-page essay due next class.

Music does not usually pull me closer to my surroundings. My earbuds are either noise-canceling or cranked up so high that I don’t have to listen to the conversations of the people around me and the motors from the cars on the street. While this is sometimes optimal, I began to wonder what else I was missing: the wind between the trees, or maybe distant music from someone’s dorm room.

Essentially, normally, if I’m plugged in, I’m tuned out. Then I found ambient music.

Ambient music is often thought to have been invented in 1978 by Brian Eno, who described the genre to be “as ignorable as it is interesting.” If you’re not sold yet, I get it.

Ambient music is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “a style of gentle, largely electronic instrumental music with no persistent beat, used to create or enhance a mood or atmosphere.”

The key word here is “enhance. I began to wonder: What if listening to music could make me more mindful of my surroundings and change my perspective on the environment?

As it turns out, it did.

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“On the Other Ocean” by David Behrman, the first ambient song I found and actually enjoyed, made me think about the relationship between humans and technology, something my usual music choices have yet to offer. Ambient music is mysterious, eerie, warm, processed, electronic. It is strange and evocative, two words I usually do not use to describe my playlists.

Music in general is a helpful tool for listeners struggling with anxiety, providing them with the potential to reach states of relaxation and mindfulness when experiencing a panic attack.

One study even found that music is scientifically proven to reduce pain. Professor Ulrica Nilsson from Orebro University in Sweden studied 42 trials of music intervention, and found “non-lyrical and flowing” music had the biggest impact on relaxation and pain release. This is the beauty of modern day ambient music. The human mind ceases to scan the environment for danger when the music is continual and soothing.

None of this is to say ambient music will ever make for great pregame music. It will, however, make you think about the world without telling you what to think, something that many college students seek in their everyday lives. And if you’re tired of needing a different headspace to enjoy the present, ambient music may combine the best of both worlds.

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Ella Boyd SC ’22 is from Maine. Besides writing, she enjoys listening to music, discussing pop culture and making art.

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