Imagine a serene environment; you’re lying on a beach, soft sunlight reflecting off the water’s surface, and you drift into a deep and introspective meditation. Now, imagine trying to recreate that sense of calm in music. What are the elements that go into producing that tranquil feeling?

Slow tempos, consonant harmony, repetition, and ambient noise are all tools that a musician can use to create a sense of calmness in their music. Let’s dig a little deeper into these compositional elements and explore how to incorporate them into your songwriting to create the ultimate relaxation track.

The body during tranquillity

The term “relaxation” can mean very different things depending on the person you ask, and the same applies to defining “calming” music. There’s no right or wrong answer, but certain musical components promote concentration and relaxation while also helping to slow down your heart rate – all vital components to lowering stress and achieving tranquillity.

Tip 1: Steady tempo

The key to tranquillity lies in developing a sense of familiarity or stability for the listener, which usually comes down to maintaining a steady rhythm. This style is often found in meditation music where percussion is sparse, and the music is accented with gongs, bass drums, chimes or, in some cases, no percussion at all. Enya’s “Watermark” is an excellent example of this. 

Studies have shown that using a tempo in the 60-80 bpm range effectively simulates the average person’s resting heart rate. A study found that listening to songs in this specific range also yielded better sleep in elderly listeners. As such, establishing a steady tempo within this range is a great starting point when trying to achieve a state of calm for your listener.

Hans Zimmer’s “Time” from the album Inception (Music From the Motion Picture) is a great example of this technique.

Tip 2: Consonant harmony

The second method of achieving calm in your music is by using consonant harmony and avoiding dissonance. Dissonance refers to any interval of notes that causes tension in your music and usually demands some sort of musical resolution. Consonance, on the other hand, is when the music feels “at rest”. By allowing the music to remain static, a creator can lull the listener into a sense of security and, by extension, decrease stress and tension.

One of the simplest ways to create this sense of rest is to remain on the tonic (or root note) of any given key. Doing so prevents the music from being propelled forward or having too much drive. A similar method is often found in meditation music where there are only the slightest variances between chords, 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 through harmonic rhythm, the rate at which chords change. Holding a chord progression for an extended period allows the ear to adjust to the particular sound and harmony, and refocuses it on this centre. This effect can be heard in Radiohead’s “Creep”, a song that features a verse that is a perfect example of surrealism and calm.

Tip 3: Repetition

One of the most effective methods of creating tranquillity in music is the use of repetition. Often used in minimalist and ambient music, repetition can create a trance-like effect where the listener becomes less attuned to the specific notes being played and focuses instead on the subtle differences introduced over time. Steve Reich brilliantly showcases this 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. For example, sounds of nature accompanied by repetitious and harmonious chords evoke a sense of serenity in the listener and allow them to look inward, creating that sense of mindfulness.  

Recently, there’s been an explosion of YouTube channels that stream relaxing music played on a loop with background animation and the use of urban ambient noise. One of the most popular is Lofi Girl, a channel that often includes sounds of the city, pages turning, and clocks ticking to create the soundscapes.

—Final notes—

Music won’t always impart that immediate sense of calm in your listener, but a well-crafted composition can create the proper environment in which listeners may be more inclined to leave behind their distracted selves for a while and find their peace of mind.