• David Shoults

Ambient Music - A Story Without Words

My favourite ambient albums have a home in my memories - they are vessels for feelings when there are no words.

David in Iceland, Home of Sigur Rós

If you’ve spent time on YouTube, you’ve likely come across relaxation music reminiscent of the CD’s found at gas station gift shops. Looking at these tacky albums, I found myself thinking: what could this genre have to offer other than background noise for spas and the sleepless?

A remedy for anxiety

In Grounded: A Short Film about Anxiety and Ambient Music, the narrator, Ryan Bassil, describes the role of ambient music in his battle with anxiety.

“When you’re anxious, it’s important to feel grounded - to return to a place where you can experience things with all of your senses. Ambient music helps with that because it gives me space to think. The sounds float from the foreground to the background, leaving plenty of room between. Punctuated by subtle piano clicks and wearing synths - these pockets of silence help me to become more focused and aware of my surroundings.”

This film resonated with me. I was reminded of the times ambient music was my solace, leading me to reflect.

What does ambient music mean to me?

The answer starts with my love of instrumental music. Stories are often told with words, but instruments tell a story in a way words cannot. Ironically, as I watch my fingers resting on my keyboard, I struggle to find the words to describe what instrumental music means to me.

I was first introduced to the broader genre of ambient music through the Icelandic post-rock group, Sigur Rós, my all-time favourite band. Their music isn’t strictly instrumental per se, though much of it is. The rest is in Icelandic or a made-up language, neither of which I understand.

Sigur Rós helps me concentrate and grounds me when I’m feeling anxious.

My favourite Sigur Rós albums are intertwined with a place and time in my memory. When I listen to the optimistic melodies of Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, I am reminded of summer camp. Listening to the spooky yet comforting sounds of Hvarf / Heim brings me back to studying for my Introduction to Classical History final. Takk… reminds me of being an emotional and angsty teen.

I am currently listening to Með Blóðnasir, and I find myself inspired to translate what this music means to me - to explain how it has sculpted me as a musician and a person.

Writing lyrics is like a foreign language to me. I struggle to connect with lyrics as I’m often lost in the melodies. Creating ambient music is my outlet for sharing melodies with the world.

The effectiveness of a story told with words hinges on the listener’s capacity to engage.

Ambient music takes a different approach. Brian Eno, the artist who coined the term ambient music, said that ambient music should “accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”

This is a principle I connect with. Creating in a space free of the pressure of finding the right words is exactly what I need to express myself artistically.

So what does ambient music mean to me? Ambient music is a vessel for memories, feelings, and thoughts when there are no words.

I’ll leave you with the ambient piece I am most proud of - Coco Beach and the question, what does this music mean to you?


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