Tranquillity; the image that arises in most people’s minds is a serene environment, complete with soft sunlight trickling in through the foliage or reflecting upon the water’s surface. Often the contemplator is staring out onto the scene in deep and introspective meditation. How can we as artists and music creators create this same sense of calm tranquillity in music?
By reducing the stress of the listener and stimulating the release of oxytocin through slow, steady tempo, consonant harmony, predictable repetition and ambient noise, a musician can simulate the sense of tranquillity in their music. Let’s explore how to implement these compositional traits into your songwriting.
The Body During Tranquillity
The state of calmness within the body is the polar opposite of the fight or flight response, where rather than behaviourally closing off, becoming cautious and distrusting due to fear, a person who is calm will become open, trusting and curious about others. As such, tranquillity is achieved by generating conditions opposite to that of the fight or flight response.
To reduce stress and the fight-or-flight response, people can use meditation, breathing practices, exercise, proper sleeping and eating habits, and listening to music. While there are many conventions to what type of music is considered serene and appropriate for enducing a relaxed state, music considered to be calming is a topic that is often debated amongst the medical and musical communities. Some studies have even indicated aggressive genres of music that deal with darker themes such as metal, emo and punk music have a calming effect on listeners. This would indicate that the calming effect of music is largely subjective to the listener based on their past experiences and environments in which they find familiarity. Despite this, certain characteristics of music are found more often to promote concentration, relaxation and reduced heart rate, all vital components to lowering stress and thereby achieving tranquillity.
The physiological aspect of calmness appears to lie within the hormone oxytocin, often referred to as the love drug due to increased rates that are found during moments of intimacy and empathy. Oxytocin has been found to promote social interaction, and reduced stress and feelings of anxiety when it enters the bloodstream. As a consequence, oxytocin can be released by the body by generating feelings of comfort, trust and familiarity within music. The first method we will explore in order to achieve this is the use of steady tempo.
Creating Calmness Tip 1: Steady Tempo
The key to tranquillity lies within developing a sense of familiarity to the listener, so maintaining steady rhythm is key to developing this sense of consistency. Simple and steady rhythms can often be found within standard meditation music where percussion is mainly found within sparse accents from gongs, bass drums and chimes and some cases not containing percussion at all such as Enya’s Watermark. While simple, steady or unchanging rhythms may not prove to be very exciting from a musical standpoint, they achieve consistency which is integral to creating tranquillity within the listener.
Studies have even surfaced on the effectiveness of using 60-80 bpm tempo songs to simulate the average person’s resting heart rate. For example, a study from Hong Kong found that using songs that ranged within these tempos yielded better sleep in the elderly. Additionally, the use of heart rate entrainment, the use of musical rhythm to match an individual’s heart rate, has also begun to surface within the field of musical therapy. As a consequence, English band Marconi Union worked with the British Academy of Sound Therapy to produce the song Weightless, which was meant stimulate as much relaxation as possible within the listener.
By using steadied tempo, one can help achieve a state of consistency and thereby calm within the listener.
Creating Calmness Tip 2: Consonant Harmony
The second method of achieving calmness in music revolves around the use of consonant harmony and avoidance of dissonance. Dissonance in music 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 stay static or at rest, a music creator may be able to lull the listener into a sense of security within the music, by extension creating means of decreasing stress and tension.
There are a few ways to achieve this state of rest, the most obvious being to remain on the tonic, or root note, of any given key, as doing so will prevent the music from being pushed forward and having too much drive. Only using a single chord in a piece of music is largely unseen, however, certain instruments used for meditation such as the singing bowl are an example. A similar method can often be found in meditation music where chords are shifted only using slight variances for example 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 maintaining chords within any given chord progression for extended periods of time, the ear can become adjusted to the particular sound and harmony, refocusing to it as the key centre.
This effect can be famously heard in Radiohead’s Creep whose verse offers its own version of surrealism and calm.
The flip side to this method is the avoidance of particularly dissonant intervals such as the minor second, tritone, and major seventh. The tritone in particular was once known as diabolus in music or “the Devil in the Music” as early as the 18th century due to its harsh dissonance and difficulty to sing within a choir setting. Meditation music and lullabies will typically avoid these chord extensions and dissonant intervals when building their chord progressions, typically preferring to remain on diatonic chords with tonic or dominant function such as I, V and iii.
Creating Calmness Tip 3: Repetition
Perhaps one of the most effective methods of creating familiarity in music, and by extension tranquillity is the use of repetition. Often seen in minimalist and ambient genres of music, the use of repetition can create an almost trance-like effect where the listener becomes less attuned to the specific notes being played and rather the subtle differences introduced over time, excellently showcased by Steve Reich’s Piano Phase.
Our perception of musicality is based on patterns and the recognition of predictable repetition. By making these long stretch of repeating patterns, the listener may be able to develop sonar familiarity opening up the possibility for a tranquil auditory environment.
Creating Tranquillity Tip 4: Ambient Noise
Achieving tranquillity can also be done through a technique known as mindfulness, where the subject becomes more situationally aware of their surroundings and embraces their present circumstance. This technique can be emulated through the use of ambient or environmental noise. Often seen when creating tracks to induce sleep, nature sounds accompanied by soft chords often evoke a sense of serenity in the listener and that is caused by the effect of mindfulness. Creating an auditory environment that is reminiscent of a calming nature scene can help trick the brain into relaxation.
Other familiar sounds, such as urban environments, given they are not too loud, or white noise can also be quite effective.
Music can open the mind and allow for quiet reflection through the development of familiarity with the piece, simulating a calming response within the body. While a music creator may not be able to allow their listeners to find true inner tranquillity, they pave the way to creating an environment in which an audience may truly immerse themselves in thought and search for their own peace of mind.