Imagine a serene environment; you’re laying on a beach as soft sunlight reflects off the water’s surface and you fall into a deep and introspective meditation. Now imagine trying to recreate that sense of calm through music. What are the elements that go into producing that tranquil feeling in music?
Slow tempo, consonant harmony, repetition, and ambient noise, these are all ways that a musician can simulate a sense of calmness in their music. Let’s dig deeper into how to implement these compositional traits into your songwriting so that you can write the ultimate relaxation track.
The body during tranquillity
The notion of relaxing for one person can be very different for another, and the same goes for what constitutes calming music; there’s no right or wrong. But there are certain musical characteristics that promote concentration, relaxation, and reduced heart rates, all vital components to lowering stress and thereby achieving tranquillity.
Tip 1: Steady tempo
The key to tranquillity lies within developing a sense of familiarity for the listener, which usually comes down to maintaining a steady rhythm. This style is often found in meditation music where percussion is sparse, with accents from gongs, bass drums, and chimes or in some cases no percussion at all. Enya’s Watermark is a great example of this.
Studies have revealed the effectiveness of using 60-80 bpm tempo songs to simulate the average person’s resting heart rate. A study from Hong Kong found that using songs within these specific tempos yielded better sleep in the elderly. Establishing a steady tempo within this range is a great strategy to achieve a state of calm within the listener.
Hanz Zimmer "Time" from the album "Inception (Music From the Motion Picture)".
Tip 2: Consonant harmony
The second method of achieving calmness in music revolves around the use of consonant harmony and avoiding dissonance. Dissonance refers to any interval of notes that causes tension in music and desires to be pushed toward a resolution. Consonance, on the other hand, is when the music feels at rest. By allowing the music to remain static, a creator is able to lull the listener into a sense of security, and by extension decreasing stress and tension.
There are a few ways to achieve this state of rest, the simplest being to remain on the tonic, or root note, of any given key. Doing so prevents the music from being pushed forward and having too much drive. A similar method is often found in meditation music where chords are shifted only using slight variances, such as from C to Am, where only one note changes and the tonality of the root is kept to a certain degree.
The same effect can also be achieved by harmonic rhythm, the rate at which chords change. By holding a chord progression for extended periods of time, the ear becomes adjusted to the particular sound and harmony, refocusing to it as the key center. This effect can be heard in Radiohead’s Creep, whose verse offers its own version of surrealism and calm.
Tip 3: Repetition
Perhaps one of the most effective methods of creating tranquillity in music is the use of repetition. Often used in minimalist and ambient genres of music, the use of repetition can create a trance-like effect where the listener becomes less attuned to the specific notes being played and focuses rather on the subtle differences introduced over time. This is excellently showcased by Steve Reich in Piano Phase.
Tip 4: Ambient noise
Achieving tranquillity can also be done through a technique known as mindfulness, where the subject becomes situationally aware of their surroundings and embraces their present circumstance. This technique can be emulated through the use of ambient or environmental noise. Nature sounds accompanied by repetitious and harmonious chords evoke a sense of serenity in the listener and allow them to look inward, creating the effect of mindfulness.
Recently there’s been an explosion of youtube channels that stream relaxing music on loops with animation playing in the background featuring urban ambient noise. One of the most popular is ChilledCow, a channel that often includes city sounds, pages turning, and clocks ticking.
Music can’t instantly make someone feel tranquil, but a well-crafted composition can create an environment in which listeners may be more inclined to leave behind their distracted selves and find their peace of mind.