Taking a Break from Stress with Immersion Listening
By listening in the right way, you can elevate music to a multidimensional experience. Any by choosing the right music, that experience can be one of profound peace and joy.
I was floating in an immense void. Then, in the distance, I heard a huge choir of voices singing, gradually coming ever closer …. Some time later, I felt as if I was soaring above the countryside in a glider tipped at a steep angle. Then suddenly the aircraft righted, now flying parallel to the ground. Moments later I was whipping around the room on a giant wheel. Then, I was watching a baseball game played by ghosts on a frozen field at night. Finally, I found myself in a garden surrounded by countless birds singing and flying around.
At that point I got hungry, so I turned off the stereo and went to find something to eat.
I was engaged in what I call immersion listening. (If you’re curious about which recordings I was listening to above, see the end of this article!)
With the advent of virtual reality (VR) devices, it’s become possible to have experiences unlike anything previous technologies could give us. Some virtual reality systems not only provide visuals and sound, but tactile sensations through gloves worn by the user. In a way, this kind of virtual experience is a bit like being in a waking dream. The difference — aside from the fact that someone else constructed the virtual reality experience — is intensity. I can imagine fighting a dragon, but experiencing it in virtual reality is a lot more…well, real!
However, there’s another type of virtual experience that falls somewhere between a high-tech virtual reality experience and just imagining an experience in your mind — one that can be almost as intense as a modern tech-generated experience. This type of internal experience can access all of your senses and emotions, in response to something coming in through a single external sense such as hearing. In fact, plugging your senses into the experience of listening to music, internally, can be very intense — almost as intense as playing a virtual reality game with goggles, earphones and gloves. Doing this is what I like to call immersion listening.
Most of us can list at least a few things that we’d consider great blessings in our lives — a special love, a talent that’s brought us joy, some unique circumstance that not everyone shares, and so on. I can say without question that learning to do immersion listening has been one of the great blessings of my life. Depending on the music I choose to listen to, it’s brought me a high level of pleasure and joy, and yes, peace. The experience of peace — the complete absence of stress — is one that’s particularly meaningful today, when almost everyone is anxious and worried about the future. And immersion listening doesn’t require any fancy equipment or cost.
I learned how to do immersion listening when I was in my twenties. Over the years, the virtual experiences I’ve had while listening to music have inspired me and changed the way I think about — and create — music, and I’ve often wished I could share them with everyone. So, this is my attempt to share one of the great blessings of my life with you.
The Problem of Stress
You may have heard that stress is actually good for you. It turns out this is true — but with a very important caveat: Stress is only good for you if it alternates with periods of rest.
This is how exercise builds muscle. When you exercise, you stress your muscles, which actually causes a small amount of damage. Then, when you rest, your body repairs the damage, with the side effect that your muscles get larger and stronger. If you never stopped exercising to give your muscles the rest needed to repair the damage caused by the stress, the result would be bad — just as bad as not exercising at all. So, the key to growth — in any area of life — is to manage periods of stress and then take a break to recover.
Lately, getting a break from stress has been more and more difficult, because the stressful circumstances in our lives are shifting and changing, but they aren’t letting up. I’m sure this is how people felt during World War II; no matter what happened, good or bad, the possibility of a worldwide disaster was still hanging in the air, right up until the war finally ended. Everyone was living with stress that didn’t quit. Given that we’re in a similar situation, in order to maintain our mental and physical health, it’s up to us to find ways to relieve the stress for a while. Immersion listening can give you one way to do that.
To make this as straightforward as possible, I’ll share the keys to creating a mini-vacation from stress using immersion listening in three steps.
- First, we’ll talk about the different ways people listen — and the different ways you can listen.
- Second, I’ll explain how you can do immersion listening.
- Third, I’ll talk a little about how immersion listening has shaped the way I write, arrange and produce songs, and provide some examples.
- Finally, I’ll talk about how to choose music to listen to that will take you to a totally peaceful place, and I’ll offer a playlist of recordings that serve this purpose for me, to help you get started creating your own stress-free mini-vacation playlist.
The Ways We Listen to Music
Like many things in life, it’s easy to have music in your life and never think about it. Everyone know that music affects us, but not everyone knows how that works, or how to use it to their advantage.
So, let’s start with a few basic points. First of all, music affects us because it triggers an internal experience. That’s true even if it’s playing in the background and we’re consciously ignoring it. So the first part of learning to take advantage of the power of music is to understand the various ways in which we can “process” it — the different kinds of internal experience we can allow music to trigger. Armed with that information, we can make conscious choices about how we “plug into” whatever we’re listening to.
Here are a number of different ways people can hear and/or listen to music:
• We can pay no conscious attention to it at all.This is often the case when shopping in a store, and it’s also usually true when we watch a movie with music in the soundtrack. The fact that we’re not paying conscious attention to it doesn’t mean it isn’t affecting us, though. The “background music” playing in a store is carefully chosen to get you to feel the way the store wants you to feel. For example, some restaurants choose background music that’s lively so patrons won’t relax too much and hang out at the table after eating. Similarly, the music in a movie soundtrack is designed to evoke whatever emotion the movie’s director wants you to feel. For example, a scary scene will usually have scary or suspenseful music playing, evoking feelings inside you even if you’re not paying attention to the music at all.
• We can dance to it. In this case, we’re translating what we’re hearing into physical movement, which has multiple payoffs (unless you’re really tired!). For example, the physical movement of dancing releases energy, which is pleasurable; it causes the brain to release hormones that elevate our mood; and it can be a very social activity.
• We can imagine the artist producing the music as we listen.This creates a familiar setting in our imagination; we see the artist, or band or orchestra performing in front of us.
• We can imagine the story that song lyrics are presenting. If a song has words, we can “see” the story or situation being described. Not every song has lyrics meant to evoke visuals, of course, but many do. The most vivid example might be what I call “story songs,” where a sequence of events unfolds over the course of the song. You can “see” the story unfolding as the song progresses.
• We can see ourselves in locations that familiar sounds in the recording remind us of. Modern recordings have included the sound of rain falling, doors creaking, a clock ticking, birds crying, waves lapping at the shore, car or truck engines, a baby crying, wind … the list goes on and on. Some might consider this to be a gimmick, but if it helps set the scene in the listener’s mind, I’d argue it’s fair play.
This can help to make your internal experience even more vivid. In a way, it’s more powerful than a virtual reality experience, because the internal sensory results are under your control. If a song transports you to a beach, for example, you’ll experience your own version of a beach, not a beach that someone has captured on video and is displaying in front of you.
Today, though, modern audio technology has opened the door to far more impressive audio “triggers,” than simple familiar sounds like rain or birds. That’s possible because we can now create synthesized sounds that are different from anything a standard voice or instrument can create. Furthermore, we can record those sounds in digital full fidelity and listen to them on high-tech equipment such as CDs, or via direct digital downloads from the internet, so that we hear them exactly as the artist intended. With these new high-tech tools, the internal, virtual experience you can create in a recording can be unlike anything music (plus or minus sound effects) could give us prior to the 20th Century.
A favorite example of mine can be found on Pink Floyd’s album Wish You Were Here. As the song Have a Cigar is ending, there’s a loud whooshing sound, and the music suddenly appears to be sucked into a small old-fashioned radio in a room where someone is listening to it. The person then changes the station and ends up on another radio station where a different song is playing. After listening to a few bars of the new song, the person sitting by the radio begins playing along on an acoustic guitar. Then the new song, complete with the acoustic guitar still playing, emerges from the radio, back into a full-scale, band-playing-right-in-front-of-you experience. It’s impossible to listen to this (especially with earbuds or headphones) and not “see” this virtual transition unfold in your mind. (If you’d like to hear this, you pretty much have to listen to the CD; the individual tracks omit this transition if you download them.)
Another artist known for taking this audio idea to new levels is Isao Tomita, one of the great synthesizer pioneers, who interpreted classical music pieces and was a master of creating a virtual reality in the mind of the listener. A classic example can be found in his rendition of Pictures At an Exhibition, a suite of 10 short classical pieces written by the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky in 1874. Mussorgsky said that each piece was inspired by a different painting he saw at an art exhibition (hence the title).
One of the 10 short pieces is titled Ballad of the Unhatched Chicks in Their Shells. It consists of several fast-moving melodic lines that intertwine during the piece. With his synthesizers, Tomita turns those lines of melody into animals, and the animals are not sitting still; thanks to stereo, they’re running around inside your head! First, a chicken and a bird are running/flying around; then a cat joins the scene, chasing the chicken around. If you listen with headphones, the effect is amazing. You can listen to Tomita’s version of The Ballad of the Unhatched Chicks here:
Because this is YouTube, you may have to sit through a commercial before the song plays. (Sorry about that!)
If you can’t listen to the recording through headphones or earbuds, get right between your stereo speakers to get the full effect! (Bach, Mozart and Beethoven made awesome music, but they couldn’t make the listener experience anything like this!)
The last way you can listen to music deserves a section of its own…
Connecting Music to Your Other Senses
Making us “see” animals running around, or a person in a room playing along with a small radio, involves using familiar sounds and cues to get us to create a specific internal experience using our imagination. But it’s possible to use sounds that we don’t associate with a familiar experience — such as those created by a synthesizer — to trigger a more abstract internal experience. This works because of a phenomenon many people are not aware of: Our brains can process sound through our other senses, internally.
Interpreting what you hear through your other senses is something most people are not aware of — at least consciously. However, there’s plenty of evidence that we all do it unconsciously. That shouldn’t be entirely surprising, because our brains contain billions of interconnected neurons, sharing information day and night. So any external sensory experience we have — including hearing sound — can be shared with parts of our brain that usually interpret information coming in through other senses such as taste, touch and sight. In other words, every sound we hear has the potential to trigger some visual, tactile, olfactory and gustatory interpretation.
Why don’t we all experience this consciously? Some people do — more about that in a minute — but generally, our brains are designed to do what they do without overwhelming us with information. For example, we don’t consciously decide which muscles to use in order to stand up or sit down. Our brains manage lots of stuff outside of our conscious focus so that we can consciously deal only with whatever is most pressing. As a result, we don’t experience most of what’s going on in our heads.
Another key piece of evidence that everything we hear is being shared with our other sensory centers is that we often use terms relating to our other senses when we describe how something sounds. It may be described as sweet or tasty; smooth or abrasive or piercing or fuzzy; or bright, blue or sparkly, just to pick a few examples. These descriptions communicate the nature of a sound to another person quite well, because we all recognize this intrasensory experience. The really amazing thing is that those internal intrasensory experiences can become conscious.
Some people have what’s called synesthesia. They’re always consciously aware of one sensory experience (sound, for example) triggering sensory experiences of other kinds, internally. For some individuals who have synesthesia, music triggers consistent visual effects; the same pitch always triggers the same color inside their minds, and the same sound texture always triggers the same visual texture. (Some jazz musicians have this type of synesthesia. Well-known jazz pianist Marian McPartland once told me she constantly “saw” the music she heard, which undoubtedly helped her improvise!) An individual with a different type of synesthesia might find that every thing they see triggers an internal set of sounds — or smells, tastes, or tactile sensations. Any two senses can be tied together in this way. (You can Google the term synesthesia to learn more.)
The key point here is that once you realize that this sensory interconnection is happening — even if you’re not normally aware of it — you may be able to tap into it when you’re listening to music. You might not achieve conscious synesthesia (although some psychedelic drugs have been known to make this experience available to the conscious mind), but even if it doesn’t become totally conscious, you can still reach a point at which it’s nearly conscious.
Making that experience conscious — to any degree — elevates the experience of listening to music to an extraordinary level. This is a key part of immersion listening, and using immersion listening to create a stress-free mini-vacation.
Experiencing Immersion Listening
Each of the different ways people listen to music results in a different kind of internal “virtual reality” experience. When you take maximum advantage of all of them, and choose the music you’re listening to with care, the result can be a peak immersion listening experience comparable to the best “real world” experiences you can have. And if your goal is to create a peaceful, joyful environment for a few minutes, the resulting experience can be truly stress-free, allowing your blood pressure to drop, your muscles to relax and your spirits to rise.
To elevate the act of listening to a full internal virtual reality experience, you need to do three things:
1. Pay full attention to the music — and nothing else. One of the main reasons people undervalue music is that there’s too much else going on. If that’s the case, your brain is busy processing the other things that are happening. It can’t do a decent job of translating the music into a full-blown internal experience. That’s why background music in a store, or even a movie soundtrack, doesn’t have the same impact. (A movie soundtrack is good at evoking our emotions, but nearly impossible to remember — unless a song is featured prominently.)
A classic example of this interference is what happens when you watch a music video. There’s no question music videos provide entertainment value. Unfortunately, they also interfere with our normal way of processing music, by putting moving images in front of our eyes. The human brain is conditioned to give top priority to processing what’s coming in through our eyes rather than what we’re hearing (especially when it’s moving!), so our brain can’t possibly experience the music the way it would without the video.
In fact, when we listen to music with our full attention — without seeing any video — our visual cortex does a fair amount of the “listening!” So if we listen to the music by itself, the experience is entirely different. In my experience, the vast majority of the pleasure built into a gorgeous recording of wonderful music is completely lost when I hear it as part of a music video.
So, if you want to get the full impact of a piece of music, DON’T watch a music video of it. Just listen to the music.
2. Engage in as many ways of listening as possible. In other words, open your mind completely and let the music flood in. Use your imagination to visualize what the lyrics (if any) are saying. Feel the music, and let it trigger abstract visuals that have nothing to do with any lyrics. (Shutting your eyes can help.) If your body wants to move with the music, let it. Use all of your brain power to join in the experience. If the music is full of peaceful, joyful energy, you can actually feel that peace and joy expand to become your total experience while you’re listening.
3. Choose the music you listen to carefully. This is important for the same reason it’s important to choose a boyfriend or girlfriend carefully. When you’re in love, you lower your defenses and let the other person have a deep impact on you. If you choose wisely, the impact that person has will be glorious. If you don’t choose wisely, that person can trash you emotionally.
The same is true with music. When you engage in immersion listening, you’re opening yourself up completely to the music. If you’ve chosen music that creates an internal experience of joy and peace, you’ll be transported to a beautiful place, with all of the benefits that kind of experience brings. If you don’t choose wisely, the music can leave you feeling nervous or angry or sad. No “mini-vacation” there.
So: If you learn to listen immersively, and choose what you listen to with care, you can have an extraordinary virtual experience that will be just as wonderful as a glorious vacation — albeit shorter! Doing a deep dive into carefully chosen music that makes you feel peace and joy can transport you out of the scary world around you and into a beautiful, multisensory place.
Creating a Musical VR Experience for Others
Being aware of the possibilities presented by immersion listening, part of my goal as a singer/songwriter is to create a song that can generate a wonderful experience in the mind of the listener. Then, as a recording producer, my goal is to use the digital studio tools I have to make the final listening experience as vivid and interesting as possible (even though not everybody will fully appreciate everything that’s there). So, when I write a song, and later arrange it and produce a recording of it, I’m always thinking about the experience I’m “packaging” for the listener. At one level, I want the result to give people pleasure even if the recording is just playing in the background while they’re doing other things. But at a deeper level, I want the song and arrangement and production to provide all kinds of experiential pleasure for people who do immersion listening.
To put it another way, if you listen to one of my recordings with your entire conscious focus and all of your senses “plugged into” it, I want your experience to be as spectacular and rewarding as possible. (You can think of it as being similar to people creating a movie or TV show that’s packed with what they call “Easter eggs” — entertaining details that only some people will notice and appreciate.)
One example of how I’ve tried to do this is my song and recording The First Day of Summer. In that recording I used several of the devices meant to enhance your internal experience: The sound of the ocean lapping on the sand sets the stage by getting you to imagine being at the beach; the repetitive rolling of the guitar part mimics the repetitive rolling of waves onto the shore; and the lyrics let you share my thoughts as I walk peacefully along the beach. Then, in the middle of the song I use my voice to mimic the visual sight of a seagull flying over the water. The seagull/melody moves from side to side in the stereo field, just as a seagull might fly back and forth. During that section of the song, the steady flow of the guitar shifts into a different pattern, indicating the different perspective of the flying seagull; at the end of the section, the original guitar pattern resumes, returning you to the narrator walking along the beach. You can listen to it below.
The First Day of Summer
The whole point of the song is to get you to recreate one of my favorite experiences inside your mind: being completely at peace walking beside the ocean. In other words, the song is designed to take you on a 4-minute mini-vacation to a place where everything is peaceful and stress-free.
A Playlist to Get You Started
Over the years, I’ve collected a select group of short recordings that take me to a very peaceful, joyful place. Listening to them calms me, lowers my blood pressure and reminds me how sweet the human experience can be. They literally give me a mental vacation for an hour or more. One important note: I said peaceful and joyful. I don’t want music that will put me to sleep! Music can have lots of positive energy — conveying joy — and still be supremely peaceful. So choosing music that’s got energy but is still peaceful is always my goal.
Below is the list of recordings that serve this purpose for me. I realize that everyone has different taste in music, and what works for me may not work for you. But if you like the original songs and recordings I create and share on this website, then these tracks — available on the internet as well as on CD — should take you to a beautiful, peaceful place as well.
There’s one very important caveat: Well-known songs that we’ve all heard on the radio may be associated with experiences in our lives that disqualify them as a source of peace and joy. (For example, you may associate a particular song with a loss, or a hard time in your life, or you may simply not like it. A friend of mine who played piano in a bar for a while told me about someone offering him $100 to stopplaying a popular, upbeat love song, because it made his girlfriend remember someone close to her that she’d lost.) In general, I avoid peaceful, joyful relationship songs — that’s a separate collection! — simply because the listener’s relationship status might undercut the intended effect. (Nothing joyful about listening to a cheerful love song if someone just broke your heart!)
PS: These are all from artists other than myself; suggestions for Christopher Kent songs that might serve this purpose can be found listed elsewhere! Of course, you can sample any given track on the Web before buying or streaming it, if you decide to access the songs via the internet.
A Peace and Joy Playlist
- The Velocity of Love— Suzanne Ciani. A totally positive, uplifting, gently rolling instrumental done on piano and synthesizer.
- Secret O’ Life — James Taylor. A wonderful, philosophical song from James’s album, JT.
- Mer’s Waltz — A gorgeous instrumental from Steve Schuch & the Night Heron Consort.
- Language of Our Own — Tom Grant. This is a relationship song, but so sweet and soothing it’s irresistible.
- Common Threads — Bobby McFerrin, from his albumMedicine Man (acapella vocals but no words). Absolutely gorgeous.
- Sisotowbell Lane — Joni Mitchell. From her first album, describing a peaceful life in the country.
- Chanson Dans la Nuit — Yolanda Kondonnassiss. A classical harp piece that’s about as soothing and joyful as it gets.
- Hello Old Friend — Kim Richey. A story song about hearing from an old friend when you’re lonely.
- Pianosong — Paul Halley. A gorgeous instrumental featuring (you guessed it) the piano.
- Baby — Bobby McFerrin. A bright and cheery multi-layered acapella song.
- Entering Erdenheim — Steve Schuch & the Night Heron Consort. Another gorgeous instrumental.
- Cloudy — Simon and Garfunkle. A song from one of their earliest albums describing walking outside during a beautiful but cloudy day.
- The Syncopated Clock — Isao Tomita. A witty synthesizer arrangement of a classic old pop tune. About as cheery as it gets!
- The Santa Monica Pier — Christine Lavin. A song about spending the day on the Santa Monica pier in California when everything is…just perfect.
- The Brook — Yolanda Kondonassis. Another sparkling, sweet harp instrumental.
- Slip Into Spring — Riverdance Orchestra (from the musical Riverdance). A lovely lilting song that feels like spring after a long winter…
- The Duke — Tommy Emmanuel. Almost certainly the worlds greatest acoustic guitar player and an awesome songwriter and arranger, Mr. Emmanuel creates a pure, sweet audio experience.
- Somewhere Over the Rainbow — Tommy Emmanuel. Another astonishing instrumental arrangement from the master guitarist.
- Home & the Heartland — Another gorgeous song from the musical Riverdance. So peaceful…so uplifting!
- Pi’s Lullabye — Mychael Danna (vocals but no words). From the movie The Life of Pi. Truly calming.
- Take Me to the Mardi Gras — Paul Simon. He takes us to the Mardi Gras in New Orleans!
- Gemini — A beautiful, calming song from The Alan Parsons Project.
- Ku’u Kika Kahiko (My Old Guitar) — Ozzie Kotani. (Hawaiian slack key guitar music)
- Olinda Road — Hapa. (Hawaiian slack key guitar)
- Wahine Ilikea — Dennis Kamakahi. (Hawaiian slack key guitar)
- Ulili — Dennis and David Kamakahi. (Hawaiian slack key guitar)
- Halley Came to Jackson — Mary Chapin Carpenter. A lovely song about seeing Halley’s comet.
- Morning Has Broken — Cat Stevens. A consummate description of a beautiful day.
- Fields of Gold — Sting. Yes, it’s sort of a relationship song, but the music is gorgeous and soothing.
- Sailing — Christopher Cross. The beauty of the sailing experience captured beautifully.
- What a Wonderful World — Louis Armstrong. A classic ode to life.
- Our House — Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Graham Nash’s tribute to a wonderful home life.
- Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring — Isao Tomita sweet and soothing synth arrangement of a Bach classic.
- Pachelbel’s Canon — Another popular classical piece beautifully interpreted by Isao Tomita.
Feel free to add favorites of your own!
PS: If you’re curious which recordings I was describing at the beginning of this article they were: 1) The opening of The Great Gates of Kiev from Tomita’s interpretation of Pictures at an Exhibition; 2) The ending of Cloudman from Jimmy Webb’s solo album Land’s End; 3) Night Game from Paul Simon’s album Still Crazy After All These Years; and 4) The Garden, from Tomita’s album Daphnis and Chloe. Please note that these don’t all qualify as songs intended to create a peaceful internal experience; they just made interesting examples of what music can do when you use immersion listening!