Turn off, tune in, chill out: how audio can complement your wellness

Now more than ever, many of us are finding it hard to switch off entirely. Of course, everyone is different – one person’s idea of relaxation, like a long bath or a yoga class, might be another’s idea of hell.

There is, however, one way to find tranquility that’s all but universal: music and sound. Throughout history, people have appreciated the healing properties of music audio, and its therapeutic powers are supported by science. In pursuit of wellness, sound can be used in all sorts of ways, from guided meditations to podcasts. Spotify’s new Daily Wellness mix – a playlist of songs, soundscapes and podcasts – is a great introduction to using mixed-media to help you find balance. But what is it about audio that has such a profound effect on our mood?

“Music and sound have the ability to modify our psychology and biochemistry, influence our brainwaves and even synchronise and change physiology such as heart rate [and] breathing,” says sound therapy practitioner Nate Martinez. He works closely with sound and music to promote healing, relaxation and balance in his clients, and believes audio is “intrinsic to our human experience”.

Jennifer Buchanan, music therapist and founder of JB Music Therapy, compares music’s uplifting qualities to those of sex and food. “Humans crave pleasure from listening to music, and the positive feelings they associate with music are inextricably linked to their deepest reward centres,” she says.

And the positive effects run even deeper than dopamine.

“Groundbreaking research found that music creates pleasurable emotions that light up the mesolimbic pathway, the reward centre of the brain that gives us uplifting feelings,” says Buchanan, adding that music has also been proven to produce responses from the amygdala – the part of the brain that modulates our emotional networks. It has the capacity to trigger emotions and even reframe our mindset.

Music-based therapies and treatments, such as sound baths and meditation, have increased in popularity in recent years as people turn to the practice to try to achieve a more relaxed state. But if you’re stuck at home or otherwise unable to access a range of music therapies, how can you achieve the same outcome?

The first thing to do is to find, or create, a playlist that’s ideally playable without an internet connection, and composed of sounds, music and podcasts that you find relaxing. You can download from Spotify Premium to listen offline, and enjoy ad-free music too, to help you stay in the zone. If you’d prefer to build your own playlist, Spotify’s Wellness hub sorts audio into different categories, such as “spa and massage”, “meditation” and “mental health awareness”, to help you choose the right sounds for your needs. While you might have a genre that boosts your mood, there are particular sounds that are known to have a universally relaxing effect. Martinez says that, as we are overloaded with information every day, less structured music is more likely to promote release. “When sounds are less structured it gives the listener an opportunity to begin to untether the mind,” he says, adding that this is why sound meditations are so popular, as the unpredictable sounds help the listener to relax their focus.

While traditional meditation can be quite daunting for beginners due to the lack of stimulation, “using sound as a mindfulness tool has a way of helping people explore a meditative mind space without having to know what to do”, says Martinez, who uses these methods and recommends them to clients.

He says that meditating while focusing on unstructured music and sounds (few, if any, lyrics and no predictable, driving rhythm) has an impact on your nervous system and quietens the mind, making you less anxious and stressed.

Louise Shiels, a sound healer at Sound Awakening, agrees with Martinez. She says that not having lyrics to latch on to allows the mind to switch off. “Slow atmospheric music and binaural beats are really great for slowing down the brainwaves and inducing restful theta states,” she says, but adds that any music that brings the individual listener peace can have a great effect on mental health. She also finds that dance can be as uplifting as meditation. It’s a case of experimenting with what works for you.

“It is up to the person to identify the music that soothes them the most,” says Shiels. “They can assess this by how they feel when they listen to it.” She cites the ability of teenagers to study while listening to music with a booming beat as evidence of the highly personal impact.

If you’re looking to turn to music and sound as a way to switch off, relax, or heal an exhausted mind, the most important thing is to be patient. You might not be able to achieve an enlightened state immediately, or with the music that works for everyone else. By committing to spending time unwinding with a playlist every day, and focusing on your own wellbeing, you’re going to find what works for you.

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