Music For Your Day

What makes music relaxing?

Paul Kilbey unravels the truths and myths about the soporific qualities of classical music.

It's normal to be a little bit sceptical about something that claims to be "the world's most relaxing song". Has it really been tested against every single other song in the world, you might wonder? And how exactly is "relaxing" being defined? Surely, there's something intrinsically subjective about any claim like that, no matter how many scientists have been involved in it. And if you didn't get sceptical the minute you heard the claim, what if I told you it came from a PR stunt by a bubble bath company?

Still, though, it raises an interesting question: what exactly is it that makes music relaxing? And why is some music relaxing, while other music might even make you stressed?

So let's consider "the world's most relaxing song" in more detail. Maybe it has something to teach us after all.

In 2011, the British ambient music band Marconi Union embarked on a collaboration with the British Academy of Sound Therapy in an effort to create the most relaxing piece of music they could. To do so, they made use of scientifically approved musical elements such as sustained tones, random chimes (apparently random ones are more relaxing) and low whooshing sounds. The track, titled "Weightless", was then pitted in a survey against a selection of other supposedly relaxing music by the likes of Enya and Coldplay – but Marconi Union's new creation was comfortably voted the most relaxing of all. Radox Spa, the bubble bath company who had set the whole thing in motion, offered a free download of the track via Facebook.

In that particular survey, classical music ended up represented by just one piece. Coming in as the ninth most relaxing song out of ten was an operatic piece by Mozart: the one called either "Canzonetta sull'aria" or "Che soave zeffiretto" that's sung by Countess Almaviva and her maid Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro. Why that piece in particular? Probably because it features in one of classical music's most famous cinematic cameos. It's the piece that Andy Dufresne broadcasts over the prison's speaker system in The Shawshank Redemption, leaning back in the warden's chair with his hands behind his head, as he illicitly grants himself and his fellow prisoners a stolen moment of peace. It's a moment of otherworldly tranquility. Yet still one spot below Adele's "Someone Like You".

It's strange, because at least one other study has proclaimed classical music the most relaxing genre of all: as recently as 2016, it was claimed (by Hans-Joachim Trappe and Gabriele Voit, published in the Deutsches Ärzteblatt) that 25 minutes of music by Mozart (yes, him again) and Johann Strauss II actually reduced blood pressure to a greater extent than an ABBA playlist, with Mozart marginally more effective than (Johann) Strauss. That study, though, had its flaws as well: was the music's genre really the reason for the different effects, as the authors claimed? 

The study featured just the one pop band, and the classical works appear to have been chosen pretty randomly: Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G minor – arguably quite an edgy, stressful piece, you might have thought – and a selection of Strauss's polkas and waltzes. Clearly not enough material to make conclusions about entire genres of music. Nor, in fact, was it enough to make proper conclusions about the effect of music on blood pressure, at least according to Professor Jeremy Pearson of the British Heart Foundation, who commented on the Foundation's website that "more research is needed before we see doctors prescribing a dose of 25 minutes of Mozart a day."

Pearson also acknowledged, though, that listening to music can indeed have a calming effect that helps to lower blood pressure. It may not be the case that Mozart's music itself – or indeed Johann Strauss's – is directly responsible for effecting some chemical change in your body. But if it relaxes you, then, just like yoga or meditation, of course it'll have a beneficial impact.

Besides, there is classical music aplenty that is specifically designed to be relaxing – even if those Mozart and Strauss pieces weren't. Think of the lullaby, for instance: originally a mother's song to calm a child to sleep, the lullaby has featured in classical music for centuries – often called berceuse in French or Wiegenlied in German. Brahms's Lullaby – actually his song "Guten Abend, gut' Nacht" op. 49 no. 4 – may be the best known, but Chopin's contribution to the genre is just as uncannily calming. His Berceuse op. 57 is a model of soothing tranquility.

What is it that makes it so? Primarily, perhaps, the beautifully simple left-hand part. A single bar's worth of material simply repeats itself over and over, not changing at all until the very end. Even as the right-hand part becomes complex, there is something deeply reassuring and comforting about the predictably repeating bass, rocking to and fro in a gentle, slow six-in-a-bar. It's almost enough to send you softly to sleep.

Sending you to sleep was the aim of the composer Max Richter's fascinating 2015 project Sleep. Richter designed this "eight-hour lullaby" first to send his audience to sleep, and then to accompany them through the night. Just like Marconi Union, he enlisted the help of a scientist: in this case, the neuroscientist David Eagleman, who helped Richter explore how his music might interact with the sleeping brain. Beneath the headline-grabbing concept lies a scientifically provocative question: "It's really an experiment," Richter commented, "to try and understand how we experience music in different states of consciousness."

Richter spurns the rocking three- or six-in-a-bar that typifies the classical lullaby, but other features will be familiar to classical lullaby enthusiasts: the slow tempo, the soft dynamics, the emphasis on repetition. There's certainly something deeply calming about Sleep, and whatever it does to its listeners during the night, it's indisputable that this is an example of music being relaxing in the extreme. Perhaps it would even knock "Weightless" off its top spot, if put to the test – although it's debatable how well Sleep scores on low whooshing sounds.

Part of what makes Richter's project so innovative is that drifting off during a musical performance has traditionally been taken as something of an insult. It certainly was in 1853, when the young Johannes Brahms visited Franz Liszt at his estate in Weimar. According to classical music legend, while the esteemed elder composer-pianist was performing his recently written B minor Piano Sonata for his guests, he glanced at the audience and was astonished to see Brahms dozing in his chair – a grave enough insult that Liszt is said to have left the room without saying a word. Brahms left Weimar soon after. Another legend, less likely true, says that Brahms also fell asleep during Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony.

Particularly strange, because both Tchaikovsky's Fifth and Liszt's Sonata are energetic enough surely to be among classical music’s less relaxing pieces. Whether or not Brahms really found these works soporific, the strangeness of these stories touches on an important point: one listener's lullaby is another's wake-up call. Everybody listens to music in different ways, and has different responses, and just because one person finds something relaxing doesn't mean anyone else will.

The listeners in the blood pressure experiment, for instance, may have been soothed by Mozart's G minor Symphony, but other listeners may hear something rather more angst-ridden in its vivid, minor-key melodies. And Andy Dufresne and his fellow inmates may have been soothed by Mozart's "Canzonetta sull'aria", but with more context they might have felt differently. "I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about", says Morgan Freeman's narrator character – in fact, the Countess and Susanna were plotting an elaborate trick. In its operatic context, it's not a moment of relaxation at all.

If you hear this music as relaxing, though, then it is – it's as simple as that. "Relaxingness" isn't an intrinsic property of a piece of music, but a quality perceived by the listener. And relaxation, just like sleep, is something deeply personal.

We all have our own methods for falling asleep, after all. Erik Satie – composer of the Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes, mainstays of relaxing music playlists – claimed he slept "with only one eye closed, very profoundly", and that his bed had a hole in it for his head. The writer Vladimir Nabokov, by contrast, was a light sleeper. "My last resort in this business of relaxation", he commented, "is the composing of chess problems" – not what most people would call relaxing. What music would have calmed Nabokov down, I wonder? I bet there wouldn't have been any low whooshing sounds.

Listen to the playlist accompanying this article here

Paul Kilbey · Published
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