Can music reduce stress and anxiety? Ambient musicians Marconi Union and neuroscientists at Mindlab International think they hit the sweet spot of chill with “Weightless“.
Last week, on 22 March 2019, Marconi Union released a new four minute piece “Weightless (253 Edit)“. But it’s not just a piece of music. Since 2011, Weightless, in its various forms, has written itself into the history books with its marriage of neuroscience and music therapy.
It’s well-known that listening to music can be therapeutic, a coping mechanism in times of stress. Mental health community groups such as Way Ahead advocate listening to music as a potential tool to relax and manage stress. (See its useful guide to managing stress here.)
What’s the science behind this?
A few years ago we came across media reports highlighting research by British neuroscientists which purports to demonstrate that music can enhance well-being, reduce stress and lower anxiety. We were reminded of this when we saw Marconi Union had launched a fresh version of their piece Weightless.
Working with sound therapists and neuroscientists at the University of Sussex, back in 2011 or thereabouts, Marconi Union crafted harmonies, rhythms and bass lines aimed at slowing a listener’s heart rate, reducing blood pressure and lowering cortisol levels. Researchers then compared the impact on listeners of the 8 minute Marconi Union piece with ten pieces of so-called conventional music, including by Mozart and Coldplay. The music was tested on 40 people who had to solve stress-inducing puzzles while listening to the music and while connected to sensors. Participants were reportedly women only.
The collaborative composition features guitar, piano and electronic sound bites of natural soundscapes (e.g we think we heard birds chirping at one point).
Marconi Union’s Richard Talbot told Forbes magazine in 2016 that
“it was fascinating working with a therapist to learn how and why certain sounds affect people’s mood. I always knew the power of music but we have previously written using gut feeling.”
Relevant elements of the original composition include its harmonic intervals (the octave and the perfect fifth – “sonic sunshine”, according to one of the Weightless project’s sound therapists, Lyz Cooper), use of the Dorian mode, absence of repeated melodies, and presence of low underlying bass tones. It starts with a tempo of 60 beats a minute, and closes with just 50.
While listening, says Cooper, your heart rate comes to match the beat. Cooper details here the craftsmanship behind Weightless, explaining that “therapeutic elements were woven into the structure of the music”. Mindlab claims anxiety was reduced by 65 per cent.
Listen to the result. The 2019 version is on Marconi Union’s official site here. You can find older versions on Spotify here, Apple Music here, Facebook here and YouTube here. You’ll see several versions, ranging from 4 minutes (2019) to 8 minutes (2014) and even stretching to ten hours (2017). It looks like the 8 minute version was the one tested by the researchers at Mindlab.
On the science side, it’d be interesting to read an analysis by independent neuroscientists. Forty people is a small sample. Was there a control group? What was the impact on stress levels of the other nine pieces of music? Was Weightless, with its 65 per cent anxiety reduction rate, significantly ahead of the others? Can the experiment’s findings be replicated? Wouldn’t it be a good idea to run a non gender-specific test?
Maybe the 2019 reboot of Weightless will prompt some new research.
Curiously, the research was commissioned as a neuromarketing study for British company Radox Spa. According to The Telegraph, the Mindlab study found the song was “even more relaxing than a massage, walk or cup of tea.”
Wait a minute. So the music was actually produced as a part of a marketing strategy by a manufacturer of bath and shower products (according to its website, including essential oils and aromatherapy)?
Doesn’t this article, well, sit better in our Quack Report?
Good question. No. Let’s keep it here. We don’t think the music’s commercial origin really matters – after all, much of our contemporary music scene has a commercial orientation. It’s how artists make a living. And that the study was funded by a company with commercial goals is immaterial. The music’s genesis doesn’t detract from its musical quality. Moreover, isn’t it often the case that research is only made possible with financial backing from commercially-driven organisations?
The research is interesting. We hope there’ll be more. But the real test for the moment is the subjective impact of the music on the individual listener.
We liked listening to Weightless. We actually did find it relaxing. We’ll take a deeper look at music therapy and mental health in later posts.
What do you think of Weightless? Did it reduce your stress or anxiety? What would be on your Chill Playlist?
Here is a public playlist on Spotify of all ten pieces tested in the music therapy study, courtesy of Inc.com’s Melanie Curtin.
Rosella Room is an independent publication. It has no affiliations and is not-for-profit.