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 patients.

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 sounds.

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 soundstage.

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” experience.

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 listener.