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Instrumental and ambient music

I’ve been listening to more and more instrumental music over the last few years. While I continue to appreciate quality songwriting and lyrics, for me, the absence of words perhaps allows a more direct or visceral connection with the piece. In particular, I think that the relaxing and meditative qualities of music may be best enjoyed in this format.

Music as background sound

This tradition in western music can be traced back to classical composers, for example JS Bach and Chopin. However, it was Erik Satie who was the first to express the idea of music specifically as background sound, for example at social gatherings, where its role was to create an ambience, rather than exist as the focus of attention. Satie did not believe that such music was inferior, rather that it simply fulfilled a different function.

I believe there is a natural progression from Chopin through Satie to the works of Bill Evans and other jazz musicians in the 20th century, and later to minimalist contemporary composers like Phillip Glass. In this way, the category of ambient music was in emergence well before Brian Eno and others formalised it in the 1970s.

However, Eno’s Music for Airports (recommended by electronic musician Paul Whelan in our interview) remains a highlight of the genre, and a touchstone for many artists since. I can say from personal experience that it certainly takes the edge off queuing at Stansted and Gatwick!

Therapeutic qualities

On a more serious note, ambient music has been shown to ease physical pain and has been associated with reduced agitation in dementia. I’ve long suspected that ambient music may also have utility for the many individuals who suffer from a distressing level of baseline anxiety in their everyday lives.

This recent piece (and accompanying video) supports this view and gives a useful insight into the mechanisms by which the subtle and spacious sounds of ambient music may reduce anxiety. Eno himself has gone on to explore the therapeutic potential of ambient music within some interesting projects.

Contemporary ambient music

Ambient music moved into the modern era mainly in the form of electronica, through the work of pioneers such as Aphex Twin. However, its influence has also spilled over into other genres such as hip-hop, indie rock and folk.This excellent collaboration from Omar Sosa & Seckou Keita (who play at the Barbican soon) could perhaps be classified as ambient world music. I find the connection between West African and Cuban music to be fascinating, and this is a fine example.

Ambient music is derided in some circles, and certainly for the more critical listener, some varieties are best avoided- sorry, Enya. However, it has also come to be appreciated by music critics.

Other recent exponents of the ambient tradition include critically acclaimed ECM artists such as Tord Gustavsen, and Nils Frahm, who plays two sold out shows at the Barbican next February. Frahm’s variety of output and crossover appeal has led to enormous popularity, which continues to grow.While the tempo and tone of his work varies, his quieter albums (such as Solo and Screws) certainly have a meditative quality. In a Guardian interview last year, he spoke about his wish to ‘act as a psychologist’ in engaging with his audience in live performance.

Final thoughts

I thought I would conclude this piece by adding a playlist for our readers and listeners to enjoy. Hopefully somewhere in the coming weeks, it might provide a starting point for anyone looking to turn to ambient music for relaxation and dealing with everyday anxiety, or at least aid some of our followers on a stressful commute home!

I would be delighted for readers to send further suggestions to add to the mix (email at or find us on Twitter @MindsinMusic).


A final note for now is to mention that I am continuing to try to broaden the scope of the blog, to incorporate a wider selection of musical styles, and people from different backgrounds. Women, and those from outside of the UK and Ireland, remain underrepresented here, despite my efforts to include.

The role of hip-hop in mental health has been well covered by HipHop Psych, but I would love to hear from anyone with an interest in music from outside the western tradition, such as traditional African and Asian music. As ever, I am open to suggestions on any matters related to music and mental health.


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Blog Author
Dr John Tully

Forensic psychiatrist and researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, London