The principles of relaxing music

The  properties of relaxing music

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Image via Flickr – (Author: life_is_bella)

What makes us feel relaxed?
We feel relaxed when we don’t suffer from any stres. Not having any physical pain, obsessive thinking, pressure, fear, hurry, excessive workload … Not good.

To be relaxed is to be in a state of health without any physical pain or stress.

Just list all things that are related to “not beeing stressed” and you will arrive at a list of nice situations in your life.

What makes music relaxing?

Of course this topic is as general and widespread as the people who like any kind of music in this big world. But there are some commons features any music has to have to get it to the relaxing music label.

  • Relaxing music should not make your brain work too hard
  • You feel relaxed with music you understand or know well
  • Relaxing music should not stress your body increasing your blood pressure or heartbeat
  • Music for better heart beat and blood pressure ranges between 60 and 80 bpm
  • The rhythm is constant and shows no disruptive or sudden changes
  • Instrumental music seems to be more relaxing than voices or singing
  • Relaxing music has to be pleasant for you and make you feel good
  • Relaxing music has to feel human
  • Relaxing music has to be listened to in high quality or lossless audio formats.

What do we know about the effect of music and sound on us?

Let’s pick up some statements that are not self-evident like music we like or slow music.

Relax your brain through good audio quality

We have conscious thoughts and vegetative reactions. If we try to relax while thinking on our problems it may not be relaxing at all. But what happens when we are not thinking and still can’t get relaxed?

It may be due to poor acoustic quality of the sounds we are hearing.  Bad audio quality can cause stress for the brain. A stress we don’t perceive at a conscious level. Bad audio could lead to totally unrelaxing music, even if the music itself was relaxing. It could even lead to headaches or tiredness due to an increased brain activity by hearing low quality audio for long hours. And beware that “low quality audio” is not “uggly sounds”. You can perceive very disgusting sounds in high quality. The stress will be of another type.

There is an ongoing discussion about sound compression formats like mp3. This compression does not only compress, it also surpresses audio data. In the theory you don’t notice the difference. Maybe you would hear it if you compare the sound to a high quality Hifi equipment.

Scientific experiments have shown that people listening to low audio quality showed increased brain activity compared to the same words and sounds played in high audio quality.

This is surprising, as we don’t hear the audio signals that are filtered out with a mp3-compression. For our consciousness, it is the same sound. But our big unconscious and savvy brain recognises a low-quality audio signal and works to interpret the missing data. And after a while we get tired by low quality audio signals in music, tv or a phone calls. They gets on our nerves. Call center companies know this.

So this adds one feature more to our list of relaxing music properties: High audio quality.

Relaxing music has to be human

There is some discussion about the same effect applying to electronical music and music made with synthesizers and computers. The problem here is not related to compression or audio quality but to excessive perfection.

Any beats that are programmed with software and that are too precise are unnatural for human brains. We are not expected by nature to be accurate and precise like machines. Even the best professional drummer will always have some minimal deviations. They may be just 10 or 20 milliseconds that can only be measured but not “heard” consiciously. But our big brain can tell apart a human drummer from a drum machine.

To avoid this effect, computers and syntheziser composers use the humanizing functions in music software. This function emulates the minimal human variations. The problem is that the software humanizing functions often randomize this “human factor” . But real humans do not play random, they always follow some patterns in their little deviations, even if they are not aware of them. It’s human nature. There is structure in human unpreciseness. And this structure is very similar along the whole performance, like a fractal pattern.

Software music has to follow these fractal human patterns in the humanizing factors to really perform in a human way. The brain shows increased activity while listening to randomly humanized music. It is an indicator it is not relaxed but rather stressed. The limbic system, our emotional headquarter, knows the software music is not “true”.

When electronic music really simulates a human deviation pattern, the listeners seem to like it better, as experiments made in the university of Berlin have shown. In a test, a group of persons was asked to evaluate music pieces. The  pieces of computer music in which the humanizer function worked with a  random algorithm receivde a worse evaluation than the pieces in which the software humanizer function followed a natural human pattern.

What happens when we listen to any music?

The brain tries to group the audio information in order to make some sense out of it.  That way we can distinguish instruments, voices, drums and all what conforms that music.

Once we made sense of all signals we hear phrases, motives and structures. We look for a meaning. A phrase is what we can remember in our short-memory brain and we hear it as a whole unit. If it gets too long and complicated we don’t really understand or remember it, unless we split in into shorter sequences.

Music follows the language recognition process: As we can understand words, sentences and long speaches, we hear single musical units, phrases and bigger sequences.

We process music comparing it to structures we know. Everything completely new to us is an cognitive effort. Many composers make music that matches our expectations while creating something new.

Music also activates our neuronal centers for emotions and rewards. While not beeing essential for survival, music still stimulates us on an emotional level. We can test this every minute listening to the music of commercials.

The Massachusetts General Hospital uses music in a therapeutical way. They tranquilize anxious patients with music instead of pills. Peple listening to their favorite music show less fear and have a better mood.

In the Ohio State University they tested patients with assisted respiration that normally require tranquilizers, as being in that situation is a major stress factor. The patients that got headphones playing their favorite music could relax and needed less medication.

Hearing music can account for a hormone reaction. If the music is pleasant, either style or type, our brain releases human growth hormone that reduces the level of stress hormones. This helps to level blood pressure and heartbeat and people reduce the sensation of fear.

Music can also help to reduce physical pain, as it makes the brain produces endorphines. It does that when we have an emotional response to it. Listening to music that you don’t feel any relation to has no effect at all.

The ideal relaxing music is strongly attached to a persons own preferences. But there are many common places, music the somehow everybody likes. Instrumental classical barock music or a romantic piano music will be liked by many people.

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