Healing Sound: Ambient Music’s Role in Health

“One good thing about music,” Jamaican singer Bob Marley once said: “When it hits you, you feel no pain.”

Marley was no scientist, but he knew what he felt, and what so many others feel as well: that music can make us feel better, more relaxed, less stressed.

Many of us turn to a particular genre — perhaps something classical, some pop music, or maybe even Marley’s reggae.

But one genre that is becoming popular as a soundtrack to boost our mental health — and maybe even our physical health — is ambient music.

Brian Eno, who has been credited as the creator of ambient music, said it must be “as ignorable as it is interesting.” In other words, it’s interesting background music, often with no tune and no beat, designed to create a mood or an atmosphere.

It’s usually instrumental, without any vocals, and it may or may not be electronic. But it certainly doesn’t sound like a traditional song — it’s noises, sounds.

And in recent years, it has been found to have a positive impact on mental health, and has even been used to help relieve physical pain.

In 2013, US researchers tested the effects of ambient music on patients who had had cancer surgery. Half were given MP3 players with ambient music, and were encouraged to listen for at least 30 minutes after they had taken their medication.

Those who listened to the music said they were better able to manage their pain, and were less bothered by the noise of the hospital.

An earlier study from Australia also reported positive effects of ambient music on dementia patients, while in July 2023 Chinese researchers published a paper suggesting ambient music could improve sleep quality and reduce anxiety and depression in college students.

All this tallies with the anecdotal evidence. Some of the most popular ambient music on YouTube has been played many millions of times as people use it to relax and to escape.

And maybe — just maybe — when it hits them, they feel no pain.

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