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Ambient Music Isn’t Boring, It Changed My Life

The sound of Brian Eno, William Basinski and Fennesz helped me find calm between crippling anxiety and debilitating panic attacks.

This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.

I’ve always been a worrier. From a young age, I would get pent up anxiety about everything: ambulances speeding past my primary school, the rambunctious sound of thunder and lightning, whether I was going to make it to age eleven because the bones in my chest felt wildly obtrusive.

As time passed and my body grew, so too did my anxiety and in the past few years I started to have debilitating and de-personalising panic attacks. I guess it’s symptomatic of attempting to function as an adult, but in my experience anxiety gets more difficult to deal with the older you get. Your fears are more real and the terror that squeezes your chest and clouds your brain, until it’s impossible to even curl in a ball and breathe properly, possesses a different stranglehold on your life. It can affect your job, relationships, and sense of self - and in doing so, a vicious cycle occurs where you begin to get stressed as a result of already being stressed. And the statistic that 9.7% of Britons will suffer mixed depression or anxiety, shows how not alone I am. So, how does one relax after an hour-long freak-out knowing they've lost time on a deadline?

It’s important to find daily mechanisms that can induce feelings of calm. Cooking is a good one; it uses all the senses - the touch of ingredients and the sight, sound, smell and taste of them blending - to bring you back to the present. If it’s not too new-age, then meditation works in the opposite way by freeing your mind from the present and into a safe space. Even tools like this helpful little gif or muscle relaxation techniques are beneficial - helping to slow your breathing until it reaches a steady pace, letting your body work itself properly.

Alongside seeking help from a therapist, I’ve used all the above techniques and more - like buying so many plants and candles my house resembles a garden centre in a powercut - to help overcome my anxiety. Outside of following the panic prevention handouts from the therapist though, the most easy to employ and helpful daily technique I’ve used to retain a state of calm has been listening to ambient music. Because it’s so simple, I just need to put my headphones on.

Given that ambient music is the base palette for those “Guided Meditation for Stress Reduction” CDs that can be found in the cafe of a National Trust establishment, it seems self evident the genre can help relieve stress. Indeed, the liner notes for Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music For Airports - arguably the album to invent the ambient sound - states “[this record is] designed to induce calm and space to think”. Yet until I eventually turned to the genre as an alleviation for stress, all I could think was that ambient music was boring. It has no words and no chorus - just a challengingly inane sound. Why listen to forty minutes of pan-pipes when I could lose myself in a Drake record instead?

I’d enjoyed some vaguely ambient records in the past - Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works after a night out; Grouper’s discography while on a comedown; Tycho’s Dive when I needed to do work - but Music For Airports was the first album that made me realise the healing powers distilled within the genre. Eno’s record is spacious; sounds float from the foreground to the background without hurry and leave room between. It’s in these pockets of silence, which are punctuated by subtle piano clicks or a whirring synth, where thinking truly becomes easier, more focused and aware. I would listen to Music For Airports religiously because it pulled me away from panic and back into the world.

It’s difficult to enjoy listening to music when anxious; everything blends together into white noise punctuated with paranoid thoughts and harsh snippets of whatever track you’re attempting to listen to. But ambient music is different: it can quiet your thoughts and the space in between each note allows you to experience your surroundings. When I put my headphones on and listen to Music For Airports the general sound of my environment becomes clearer. Within ambient music’s space, simple things like the voice of the self-service checkout at Tesco or a conversation on the tube heralded a new found clarity. It helped me experience the world again.

I knew that ambient music could bring me back into the present but I wanted to know why, so I did some reading. It turns out that the moment of calm I’d been sustaining while listening to ambient music is defined as the “ambient mode”. In the academic paper Approaching the Ambient: Creative Practice and the Ambient Mode of Being, the author, Jaaniste, describes the “ambient mode” as a place where the listener becomes immersed in the raw materials of ambient soundscapes; simultaneously experiencing being in the liminal space where ambient music resides and grounded in the here and now. For example: when I listened to Music For Airports and was transported to a calm, soothing place but felt grounded in my environment - whether that’s the local supermarket or an office - I was experiencing the ambient mode.

Jaaniste states: “the ambient mode involves engaging with our surrounding as an ambient pervasive all-around field, without anything being prioritized into foreground and background”. In doing so, we achieve what he calls ‘sensorial nomadic curiosity’. In simpler terms, this means that ambient music can help the listener put aside what’s on their mind and use their senses to focus on their surroundings, the present, the here-and-now, which is the place combative anxiety techniques like cooking aim to reach through using all the senses.

Reading about the “ambient mode” in an academic paper felt like quite an impersonal way to understand a heavily personal situation, so I decided to get in touch with a music therapist to find out more about the benefits I’d been reaping when listening to ambient music. Bronwyn Tosh - whose client base suffers a wide-range of mental health issues - works at Nordoff Robbins Music Therapy Centre and she explained that music (whether ambient or other) can help to combat anxiety because it has a structure.

“There’s a regular pulse and a predictability [in music] - you can feel secure and safe within it and explore different things. If you’re anxious, you’re going to be breathing fast and you might not be aware that you’re very scattered, and the way you are in your body can be sharp and your actions disjointed. If there’s a regular pulse or beat, then your breathing does immediately tap into that and your body begins to link and connect more on a physical level”.

Since listening to Music For Airports, I’ve found myself devouring ambient music on a daily basis. Eno has stated the genre “must be as ignorable as it is interesting” and it’s that remarkably uneventful contradiction that has helped me. There’s an emotional character to each sound in ambient music which, in an unintruding manner, can colour or cradle your mood. Now when I listen to music when I’m stressed, it’s more likely to be Fennesz’s Endless Summer, Gas’ Pop, or Basinksi’s The Disintegration Loops rather than hip-hop or rock. Yet I find myself continually returning to Music For Airports specifically. This could just be because it’s a better album than the others, but it's more than that. I think I find myself returning because it’s familiar.

I had recently suffered a particularly bad panic attack that lasted for several hours when I first heard Music For Airports. That particular episode left me questioning my own sanity; it was like I had been gripped with a psychosis that didn’t just last for the period while I was panicking, but went on for days afterward. I was convinced my brain was broken. The depersonalisation hung around and left me wondering whether or not this was the time my body had been pushed beyond repair. It hadn’t been, of course. But because I listened to that record on repeat for weeks afterward and it started to soundtrack me feeling better again, it began to feel like something I associate with being okay. A record that makes me believe there’s a way out of everything. “Music can be linked to certain memories or feelings,” explains Tosh, “and at that stage, if you’re connecting [that sound] with feeling more healthy and becoming more aware, your brain will automatically make those links.”

This isn't huge news by a long stretch, and it's well documented that music has a healing power. Listening to Jazz may ease a patient's recovery after surgery, heavy metal can combat anger and depression, and in a roundabout way a heartbroken R&B album can help obliterate the ennui after a relationship break-up. But the power of ambient music is, predictably, often a little underestimated and overlooked. It has helped large swathes of people - in 2013 Montefiore Hospital in the UK teamed up with Eno to create a Quiet Room where patients can find relaxation and calm; it’s also proven ambience can boost concentration. My own healing experience with the genre litters the conversations of others who have found respite in the back-catalogue of Stars of the Lid and beyond - toward post-rock groups like Explosions in the Sky, producers like Oneohtrix Point Never, and chill-wave artists like Teen Daze.

For most of my adult life I attempted to bury my anxiety. I wasn’t aware I was anything more than a nervous over-thinker. Later it was because I didn’t want to tell anyone or face the idea that my brain, in some way, may be faulty. It wasn’t until I finally sought help from a therapist, and learnt to nurture and cope with anxiety using the thought challenging techniques they teach in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, that I began to feel any relief.

Now, don’t get me wrong, ambient music will not cure your anxiety. It might not work at all for some people, but if it does, you’ll find a value in these sounds that’s astounding and rare. This music, which I used to associate with being incredibly boring and fairly pretentious, has played a small part in ensuring I don’t spend every evening hunched on my sofa, rubbing my hands backwards and forwards and jiggling my knees, attempting to breathe properly. Now when I get home I can put a record on, cook a proper meal, and know I’ve set myself up in a good, safe space.

You can find Ryan Bassil on Twitter.