This Isn’t About Mental Illness

Earlier this week, I was sent an article about the most relaxing songs according to neuroscience (written by Melanie Curtin), reportedly able to make women in the study doze off, and one capable of reducing anxiety in men and women by up to 65%.

Honestly, this sounds too good to be true. As a first-year grad student with limited social connections (no, Mom, I’m fine, just still new to this place), performance requirements, day job, homework, bills, and a stipend that almost covers my cost of living, the idea that ten songs can fix my day-to-day anxiety seems a little unrealistic. Especially in an era where everyone (it seems) has any variety of anxiety to manage, all different yet with the same name. If it was that easy to rid ourselves of it, wouldn’t we all be cured?

I don’t like to write about mental illness. I don’t like to copy-and-paste all the disclaimers necessary to make it appropriate for everyone (as if it can be appropriate for anyone), and that alone will fill my word count enough to omit any original thought. Therefore, this is not about mental illness or solving it. You can Google search your way through that one without my help.

The beauty of the diversity of stress and anxiety is the idyllic journey of self-awareness that comes with learning which remedies work for you and which don’t. Currently, my go-to method is lying on my back in the floor of my shared office, listening to carefully-selected music, breathing as deeply and slowly as I can, and hoping no one walks in.

So when I got this link about songs scientifically proven to fit in this playlist, I was immediately interested.

Curtin includes a Spotify playlist of the top 10 songs from the study (which I’m listening to while writing this), the top one (“Weightless” by Marconi Union) written in collaboration with sound therapists for this exact outcome: elements are especially crafted to reduce the listener’s heart rate and reduce stress. While the article doesn’t specifically outline the most effective rhythms and harmonies, first listen shows several similarities to what I look for in music on my own playlist.

In general, listening to music isn’t the most relaxing thing for me. Curtin mentions listening to music as a good way of disconnecting from the pressures of a technologically connected society (by use of the same technology, no less), but usually music is the very thing I need to “disconnect” from. Blame the formal music training. Listening doesn’t “turn my brain off” much of the time, and actually becomes a major distraction. I think this is true for many musicians.

There are two yoga nidra classes I’ve been in that illustrate this issue. One teacher played meditative music during the warm-up flow, then had the room silent for nidra, and I had my most successful meditation in a group setting of my life. Another teacher played no music during the flow, then had an eastern-influenced melody while she guided our meditation towards a scene of us dancing freely around a fire, then the melody was played over a techno beat and my imaginary fire dancer immediately sat down and crossed her arms in anger until enough of it nearly sparked an anxiety attack. One of these was led by a music professor.

I use music in my at-home yoga practice, and it’s the same playlist I turned on lying on the office floor last week. Without knowing what science says makes a song relaxing or not, here’s a down-and-dirty breakdown of what I look for:

Inspires deep, slow breathing.
This seems easy: slow tempo. You’re not going to naturally breathe fully to any dance track, and that 60 bpm (beats per minute) is the standard tempo of tranquility for a reason. But there’s more to it than speed. The song also needs to facilitate long breath larger than four beats. Many ballads, though slow, still heavily emphasize beats 1 and 3, which creates an “inhale four beats, exhale four beats” pattern (or in eight out eight, or in four out eight, et cetera) and don’t account for your breath as it deepens and stretches longer than simple forms.

This also refers to harmony. Beats 1 and 3 are emphasized because those are typically where the chord changes occur. If the harmony is elongated past two beats or four or eight, the song itself actually feels like it’s breathing, I kid you not. Quit laughing, when you find the song that does that you’ll be obsessed too.

Melodies that are either instrumental or don’t emphasize lyrics.
This is a complaint I get about classical music; there’s nothing to focus on when there are no words. But that incorrectly termed lack-of-focus is exactly what I’m looking for. It must be effectual (largely achieved by the previous requirements) and doesn’t bring my attention on the music itself, but rather lets it wander naturally as encouraged in meditation.

Contemporary instrumental music can sometimes be densely orchestrated to make up for the absent lyrics. There is something said for music (orchestral or not) that relies on harmonic movement rather than rhythmic. Lyrics in another language are also an option.

I want to float in this music.
I only know one way to describe this. In that incredibly successful nidra mentioned earlier, I imagined myself in a shallow part of the ocean, lying on my back in a sea anemone, close enough to the surface to see the the sun clearly but hear nothing. I wasn’t still, but swayed gently with the anemone. It was a lot like the second scene in Finding Nemo when Merlin is asleep in their coral reef home and the camera is facing up, just before Nemo interrupts.

If it doesn’t make me feel like I’m napping in endangered ocean features, I’m not interested.


I’m not entirely sold on the playlist as a whole. Some songs I entirely disagree with (“Pure Shores” by All Saints and “Someone Like You” by Adele are great songs for late night drives, but maybe not for floor breathing), and others have found their way into my normal rotation (how did I just now find Watermark by Enya?) Honestly, most of these are still lukewarm to me, maybe because I haven’t really tried to relax with them (I have just been writing at my desk), maybe because I’m still loyal to my songs. Here are my top 3 choices not featured on that list to supplement the ones I’m not into:

  1. CMF by Caspian
    1. sounds exactly like I imagine falling in love sounds like
    2. listen to this whole album
  2. Hands by Moving Mountains
    1. simple melody, simple lyrics (breaks my second criterion, sue me), and you’ll sing the guitar melody all day
    2. listen to this whole album
  3. Window by Album Leaf
    1. listen to this whole album
    2. then listen to everything by this artist

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