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Listening to Ambient Music

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  • Listening to Ambient Music

    I wanted to start a conversation about how we listen to ambient music,
    so I offer this article as a starting point. Please respond with your

    Listening to Ambient Music

    Musical Vocabularies and Purposes
    Many years ago, I had a college friend who was an evangelizing devotee of
    the abstract painter Marc Rothko. I remember her gushing over a
    catalog of Rothko's work, while I was thinking that I must be
    aesthetically challenged; I just didn't “get” it. After all, most
    of the paintings were nothing but large rectangles of color, with
    slight irregularities and a contrasting border or stripe. All
    of the familiar reference points of line and shape, perspective and
    shadow, were gone. I could appreciate them as “design,” but not
    as “art.” While they were pleasing enough, I couldn't see why
    anyone would rhapsodize over these abstractions...until I first saw
    them for myself in person--a completely different experience! When I
    encountered them at the Museum of Modern Art, they literally stopped
    me in my tracks, subverting conscious thought and plunging me
    immediately into an altered state. They were not just flat canvases
    on a wall, but seemed more like living things, pulsing and throbbing
    in resonance to a wavelength that had a fundamental connection to the
    Source of things. I was stunned. They didn't "express" a
    feeling--they were more like feelings themselves, and they seemed
    like nothing personal to me, or Rothko, or anyone. When I later
    looked at the reproductions Rothko's works in books, they reverted to
    flat swatches of color. There was a recollection, but no recreation
    of my experience. This was an experience that depended on the
    presence of the original artifact (art: a fact).

    A Tune is Not a Tone
    I spent my early musical life working mostly with music that used—like
    representational art--some set of familiar musical conventions to
    create its effect. There are many vocabularies of melody,
    counterpoint, rhythm, harmony, and structure that place music in a
    context of form that makes it comprehensible to listeners.
    "Comprehensible" is not precisely what I mean--it suggests
    that music communicates only intellectual ideas, whereas in fact, it
    conveys and expresses a whole range of ideas, feelings, sensations
    and associations. But there is an element of "intelligibility"
    to conventional forms of music that depends on a shared formal
    vocabulary of expression. There are familiar elements that listeners
    use to anchor their real-time experience of a composition, formal or
    sonic elements that are borrowed from other pieces created and
    listened to in the past. When I find myself humming a tune from a
    Beethoven symphony, or invoking one of its characteristic rhythms
    (dit-dit-dit-DAH), I reduce a complex sonic tapestry to an
    abstraction, a shorthand that is easily recognizable to others
    familiar with the music. I may be able to share a musical idea with
    other musicians using the abstraction of notation. But a "tune"
    is not a "tone," and a "note" is not a "sound."
    It is an idea, even a powerful idea, but when I find myself humming
    the tune, I know that I have in some way "consumed" the
    music, reduced it to a subset of its conventions, deconstructed
    and reconstructed it for my own purposes.

    Ambient music, and in particular, the type of ambient music I will refer to
    as "soundscape," abandons, or at least loosens, many of
    these conventions. There is, in general, usually no hummable melody,
    often no recurrent rhythmic pattern, and if there is a larger "form,"
    it is more commonly nothing familiar or identifiable, even to astute
    musicologists—it might be completely idiosyncratic to the composer.
    Even the vocabulary of "instruments" is fluid and too
    vast to hold in mind. With the profusion of sounds that are
    electronically-generated or sourced and manipulated from field
    recordings, it is rare that separable and recognizable instruments or
    sounds can be identified—that is, “named.” Late
    nineteenth and early twentieth century classical composers worked
    hard to try to erase the familiar boundaries of individual
    instruments, using unusual instrumental combinations and extended
    instrumental techniques to blur sonic lines. Ambient music
    takes this even farther. The sound palette of ambient composers is
    more diverse and less subject to "naming" than that of
    composers who use ensembles of traditional instruments to present
    their compositions. While the savant may be able to identify a sound
    source as belonging to a particular method of generation (analog, FM,
    sample manipulation, etc.), diffuse mixing and morphing of
    sounds can confound even experts.

    The Irrelevance of Virtuosity
    To a great extent, the virtuosity of the musician—often an important
    element in other music genres--is replaced, in the ambient music
    world, by the skill of the composer in crafting and shaping the
    sound. Slow tempos are common, and arpeggiators and
    sequencers obviate, to a large degree, the need for ambient musicians
    to develop sophisticated keyboard skills. Complex and rapid sequences
    can be generated that defy the abilities of even great performers.
    While it is true that many ambient musicians do perform in real time,
    most do not. Even the notion of "performance" disappears to
    a large extent. Most soundscapes are recorded works; they are not
    commonly reproducible in real time by performers on stage. More
    technical knowledge of sound-producing hardware and software is
    necessary, but in the end, this becomes invisible to the listener,
    subsumed by the sound artifact of the music itself.

    The mixing of sound in the studio enables ambient composers to manipulate
    and place sounds freely in the stereo field, unencumbered by any need
    to spatially represent a virtual performing ensemble. These elements
    become a part of the composition, whereas in other musical genres,
    the mix--where it can be controlled--is more of an enhancement or
    special effect than a compositional feature. Some ambient composers
    don't even separate the mixing process from the composition. I, for
    one, tend to mix as I go, since the dynamics, effects, and placement
    in the stereo field are all integral features of my compositions.

    Furniture Music
    I mention these elements of ambient music because they have
    implications for how we might approach the genre as listeners. I do
    not want to suggest that there is only one narrow "way" to
    hear ambient music. In fact, part of the richness of the genre is
    that it is amenable to diverse listening approaches. In fact,
    one popular way to listen to ambient music is to mostly ignore it.
    This is what I might refer to as the environmental approach. Here,
    the sound is treated--in the iconic words of Erik Satie--as
    "furniture music." It is played, most likely at a
    very low level, in the background, while the "listener"
    goes about his business in the environment. Musak, or "elevator
    music," was an early institutional—if insipid--form of
    environmental music. In public settings, environmental music
    generally has some agenda behind it; it may be designed to get people
    to linger in a space, or even to leave (classical music in
    malls as a sonic “weapon” to disperse groups of teens). It may be
    intended to calm people, or to get them to spend more freely (the
    research as to the effectiveness of these tactics is inconclusive).
    The rave has its "chill room," where over-stimulated ravers
    can psychically cool or calm themselves. Some hospitals are beginning
    to use ambient music to create a soothing environment for recovering

    In the home environment, environmental ambient music is self-selected
    and regulated. In our home, we have a number of recordings that are
    expressly used for environmental listening. My partner prefers a CD
    with the sounds of rain, wind chimes and Tibetan bells. She often
    uses this soundscape while she paints. The selection of music for
    this purpose is important. Her favorite painting CD has no
    progression--no beginning, middle, or end. There are no interesting
    developments, themes, or dramatic sonic punctuations. It is devoid of
    rhythm, melody and harmony. It effectively "freezes" (or
    perhaps the word is "frees" ) time in a perpetual present
    moment, and helps to create--for her--an environment that is
    particularly congenial to her art practice. In my own case, I
    use a variety of soundscapes as an environmental backdrop to my t'ai
    chi practice. There is typically a bit more sense of rhythm and flow
    to the sonic tapestries I will select for this purpose (this seems to
    facilitate the flow of the movement), but I avoid anything with too
    much musical interest for t'ai chi, as I wish to keep my focus on my
    breath and movement.

    Music for Meditation
    Some people use ambient music for meditation, and this deserves its own
    discussion. Many people who first begin to meditate are dismayed to
    discover how much mental chatter or “noise” is generated by the
    “monkey mind” that is the default waking state of human
    consciousness. Attempts to quell the endless stream of thought prove
    not only fruitless, but even counterproductive, since they add an
    additional layer of mental activity. For some people, quiet, relaxing
    music soothes an overactive mind, at the same time calming the body
    and inviting spaciousness without requiring any special technique.
    Admittedly, much of what is commercially sold as “relaxation”
    music is vapid and saccharin; it certainly doesn't help me relax. For
    a more discerning listener, artistic value needs to be a criterion
    for “relaxation” music. I'm probably over-opinionated about this,
    but to me, there is a distinct difference between “mindful” and
    “mindless” music. While department store kiosks featuring harp
    and seashore sounds may appeal to the masses, I rarely discover much
    substance to these sonic bonbons; there are much better choices to
    foster an atmosphere conducive to a relaxed and supple mind.

    Brainwave Entrainment
    When seeking out music for meditation, consider tempos of 60 bpm or
    slower, since one's heart rate tends to naturally entrain to the
    fundamental tempo, and a low resting pulse is desirable to enter
    meditative states. Also consider music which uses binaural beats.
    These are usually created with difference tones in the left and right
    channels, and can gradually and subtly guide the brain to relax
    into the lower frequency brainwaves, from ordinary waking
    consciousness (beta waves: 14-40 Hz), down to relaxed or even trance
    states (alpha waves: 7.5 – 14 Hz). At brainwaves below 7 Hz, you
    are just sleeping. Binaural beats are based on the idea of brain
    entrainment, the tendency of the brain to sync up with a reference
    frequency. Binaural programs can also induce sleep, and there is
    ambient music designed for this very purpose.

    Music heavy in the low frequency range can activate fearful or anxious
    states for some people, so for such individuals, it may be best to
    choose music for meditation that is richer on the mid- and high end,
    or more evenly balanced across the frequency range. For a soothing
    “sound bath,” some people like to somewhat roll off bass
    frequencies with the tone control on the stereo system. And for sure,
    if you are planning on using ambient music for meditation, it should
    be played at a low volume; let it blend in with the soundscape of
    everyday life—the whoosh of traffic, the occasional dog barking,
    and so forth. Let it be an element in the soundscape rather than
    taking it over. This can help with the practice of mindful attention
    to the moment. For musicians, music for meditation may actually add
    an element of distraction, as the mind becomes involved with musical
    ideas. For this reason, I personally, do not use music for
    meditation. I prefer simply sitting in a relatively quiet space and
    allowing whatever environmental sounds that may be present to occur,
    without (hopefully) naming or interpreting them.

    Music for Massage and Acupuncture
    Massage and acupuncture treatments can be enhanced with ambient music, and
    here many of the same the guidelines apply. I recommend that you
    bring your own music to these sessions, if possible. Practitioners
    may or may not share your taste, and there's almost nothing worse
    than having to listen to some godawful drivel when you're trying to
    relax. I have compiled several mix CDs for massage, and mine
    generally have a shape to them that helps me first settle and relax
    with something calm and diffused, then something more rhythmic, as
    the massage therapist works on problem areas, then, at the end, a
    very spacious section, in which I can completely zone-out, and let my
    body enjoy the after-effects of the massage. This is my personal
    preference; if you want to make your own mix for massage, you should
    find the combination that suits you.

    Immersive Listening – Headphones or Speakers?
    This leaves one final type of listening that I'd like to discuss: deep
    listening, listening to ambient music as musical art form. Here, you
    give immerse yourself in the sound and give it your full attention.
    The first question is consider is: headphones or speakers? There are
    pros and cons to both. Headphones are preferred by many ambient
    listeners for a variety of reasons. First, they isolate the music
    from environmental sounds, particularly if the headphones have a
    noise-cancellation feature. Second, and probably more importantly,
    they emphasize the width of the stereo field and allow one to clearly
    hear panning effects (moving from left to right, or right to left)
    that are sometimes very salient features of ambient music. Most
    ambient composers are likely to mix primarily with quality near-field
    studio monitors, but they almost universally check mixes very
    carefully with headphones for stereo placement and movement of

    The most popular types of headphones are closed-cup, open cup and in-ear
    (ear buds). Ear buds are cheap and easy to take on-the-go. They are
    most commonly used with iPods or other mp3 listening devices. Since
    they are inserted directly into the ear canal, they should be
    used with extreme caution, and only at low volumes, to protect the
    ears. Low frequency response is poor and subject to distortion.
    Some people—myself included—find them uncomfortable and cannot
    use them. For travel or use in waiting rooms, I prefer a light,
    over-ear headphone.

    Closed-cup headphones reduce environmental noise—especially those with
    noise-cancellation. Make sure, if you decide on noise-cancelling
    headphones, to make sure that the feature actually works. Some claims
    are exaggerated. Some closed-cup headphones may be uncomfortable for
    longer listening sessions, to be sure any headphone you consider
    buying fits you well, is not too heavy, and does not make your head
    feel like it's in a vise. A disadvantage of the closed cup is that
    bass frequency response may be limited—without a port to let some
    compression (sound) escape, lower frequency sound production may not
    be adequate. It is partly in the nature of headphones that low
    frequencies will not be well-represented. It simply takes a larger
    cone to create lower frequency sounds, and distance for them to
    develop (the lowest audible frequencies are several feet long). One
    alternative strategy is to use open-cup headphones in conjunction
    with speakers in the room—especially if a subwoofer is available.
    This way, the lows are picked up, both through the open ports in the
    headphones, and through the body.

    The most immersive listening environment I have experienced was on a
    “sound table,” where sound vibration comes to the ears and
    directly through the body by means of transducers built into the
    cushioned surface. For sound healing, this may be the ultimate
    technology. But most of us (including myself) do not have regular
    access to this technology.

    A cheaper alternative to the sound table is to lie comfortably on a
    couch or on cushions with bookshelf-size speakers placed a foot
    or two from each ear; it's like having a pair of huge,
    open cup headphones! With this arrangement, you are immersed in the
    sound without pressure on the head or ears from wearing headphones,
    and the bass is less compromised. Experimenting with different
    configurations of the speakers, I have found that placing the
    speakers slightly above and behind the head offers a particularly
    pleasing sound.

    Recording Formats
    Some listeners may prefer a “surround sound” scheme, although it is
    difficult to find much music specifically encoded for this format.
    Surround sound has not really taken hold commercially for serious
    music listening. This is unfortunate, since besides the availability
    of true 3D sound reproduction, the 24-bit DVD surround format
    provides superior clarity and a greater practical dynamic range.
    While commercial surround sound setups are popular in home
    entertainment centers, they are primarily used for movie watching.
    Some music has been specifically encoded for surround systems—most
    of it, film scores, since they were already encoded for surround in
    the first place.

    But it appears that at least for the present and near future, most
    listeners will be working with 16-bit stereo systems, and nearly all
    of the output of contemporary ambient composers is formatted for this
    playback. The low volume level of many ambient recordings means that
    the top bits of 16 bit recordings are often unused—a compromise
    that removes them from the odious “volume wars” of popular music,
    but also limits bit-resolution. Compression through MP3 encoding
    tends to “flatten” recordings and distort low frequencies.
    Listening carefully, one can often also hear warbling or other
    artifacts introduced by compression. While necessary for streaming, I
    find most recordings are irreparably damaged when encoded at bit
    rates below 320 bps. (I do hope and believe that more albums
    will become available in the 24-bit FLAC format. While not yet
    practical for streaming, this format promises to deliver recordings
    of superior audio quality, albeit longer download times.) Just
    because rock and pop listeners who download their recordings on
    iTunes may have given up on audio fidelity doesn't mean we have to!
    One can make the case that ambient music, in particular, deserves the
    best sound possible.

    Immersive Listening – Attention and Process
    As far as where to place one's attention in immersive listening, good
    ambient music offers many possible inroads. If the music is
    drone-based, there won't likely be much harmonic movement, so the ear
    will be more likely engaged with texture and atmosphere. Drones,
    often consisting of either a primary tonic tone or a root and fifth
    combined, anchor a piece and provide a backdrop for the tension and
    release of other tones, as they alternately pull away from the drone
    in dissonance, or draw back to it in consonance. Melodic and rhythmic
    components are both optional elements in ambient music, and tend to
    claim one's aural attention when present. They emphasize time over
    space, since melodic phrases are like musical sentences, with a
    beginning, middle and end—and rhythms divide time into periodic
    units. A highly melodic piece requires more sustained attention,
    whereas a purely atmospheric piece may allow the listener to fade in
    and out. I love both types of ambient music, and while more of my own
    pieces are melodic than not, I have created non-melodic compositions
    as well.

    I've already alluded to the creative use of stereo space by ambient
    composers, and once listening strategy I enjoy is to visualize
    a spherical area extending around my ears and in front of me, in
    which I track sounds as they originate and dissipate within this
    field. The skillful use of dynamics, delay and reverb, and EQ
    enable ambient composers to create vivid three-dimensional illusions,
    and as a listener, I enjoy putting my attention on sound placement
    and movement in the stereo field as an integral element of the
    composition. Besides the lateral placement of sound between right and
    left channels, one can listen to the “height” of sounds in the
    stereo field, as the ear places higher frequencies “above” and
    lower frequencies “below.” One can also notice the distances of
    sounds, observing how some are present and close, while others recede
    into the distance. It is also interesting to notice how sounds react
    in an imaginary space. Ambient music is typically very heavily
    reverbed, the perceived container for sound often cavernous. Letting
    the ear follow a sound as it echoes in virtual space and then
    gradually fades can create a vivid mental picture of the size of the

    Ambient music is also rich with sounds that evolve in tone over time,
    employing a variety of morphing and filter-controlled effects that
    make an individual sound into its own journey. Listening for changing
    harmonics in a sound, especially the upper partials that define a
    sound's timbre, is a rewarding exercise in mindfulness of sound that
    reveals interesting details in a piece.

    Ambient composers may evoke any number of types of harmonic palettes in their
    work. Some fine work is purely tonal or triadic, even completely
    diatonic (using only seven tones of a scale), while works may employ
    extended harmonies, including exotic scales, bitonality (simultaneous
    sounding of harmonies in different keys), quartal harmony (based on
    fourths instead of thirds), and even complete atonality (no “home
    key,” but equal participation of all twelve tones. I have heard
    some very fine music using alternate tunings and temperaments. This
    is frequently a feature of tribal or world-music influenced ambient.
    A tuning which takes listeners out of the familiar Western
    equal-tempered scales can open up wonderful sonic vistas. Listening
    for harmonic “spice” is a great way to enter into an ambient
    piece that may involve creative use of tonality and tuning. It is not
    necessary to “identify” exactly what these elements are
    musicologically. Over-intellectualization can even get in the way of
    fully appreciating an ambient composition. But being aware of these
    possibilities, and listening for them, can open up the ear and
    increase one's personal connection to a piece of music.

    Much ambient music has a strong visual component, at least to me. It is
    not surprising that so many ambient composers are also visual artists
    or at least dabble in visual art forms—as I do. While few composers
    or listeners may have true synesthesia (seeing music as color or
    shape—or colors as musical tones), the practice of visualization
    during the listening experience opens up many connections between the
    senses and can enrich the experience. Some pieces have a strong sense
    of “story,” and writing or telling a story that emerges from an
    ambient music listening experience can be a wonderful way to
    communicate your vision of a piece to others. It is also
    interesting to experiment with listening with eyes open and closed.
    For me, these are very different experiences. I find that by limiting
    visual sensory input, my hearing becomes more acute, and I am able to
    notice much more that I can with my eyes open. On the other hand,
    there are some wonderful videos made to accompany ambient music,
    well-worth exploring. Multi-media presentation may also represent one
    of the more viable venues for ambient music in the concert hall.
    Audiences may not accept purely recorded music as a “performance,”
    but the addition of visuals creates a more complete “live”

    There is a tremendous variety of style within the genre of ambient music,
    ranging from New Age space music to very dark, industrial
    noise-oriented music. I try to sample as much as I can, learning from
    and appreciating the diversity of this growing genre. It is exciting
    to be a part of this still-emerging format, both as a composer and a

  • #2
    Interesting read.

    I tend to pay more attention when listening to music in the ambient genre and when listening to "regular" music, I tend to let it become background.

    I can't do anything right. :dunno:


    • #3
      The first time I saw a Rothko in person, I thought "this is drone music in visual form."

      The parallells between ambient music and abstract art are many. I wonder to what extent the appreciation of them overlaps?


      • #4
        First of all, wonderful article Chronotope! When we started ambient online, this was exactly the kind of discussion and article we hoped would be brought to the table.

        Really good read, informative, and something I will definitely refer back to in the future.


        S1gns Of L1fe
        Patreon | Synphaera | exosphere | YouTube


        • #5
          Excellent read, thanks for the article.


          • #6
            Excellent article, well written and well explained. Thank you for posting. I am an abstract painter and the methodology I follow for painting and making ambient music is so close to each other that there is hardly a difference between them. Image and sound at its best speak in much the same language.
            | Bandcamp | Hearthis | website |


            • #7
              This is a fantastic, well written article from someone who "gets it" -I am going to share it to my friends who love ambient!
              Bobby Devito
              LVX Nova