Tip: Try listening to this atmospheric and ambient playlist while you read this article.
In the soft ambience of a dimly lit room, an auditory sanctuary awaits you. The gentle flicker of candles casts dancing shadows upon the walls, creating a hypnotic symphony of warmth and serenity. A melody of extraordinary grace envelopes the room. The delicate, adagio notes caress the air and as the music elegantly unfolds, its tender embrace dissolves the weight of the day, inviting your worries to dissipate. In this sonorous wonderland, the music becomes an assuasive balm, restoring your spirit and guiding you towards a haven of inner peace.
Whether it's the soft strumming of a guitar, the ethereal notes of a piano, or the soothing qualities of a melodic voice, music possesses the remarkable ability to transport us to a realm of relaxation after a long day. In the pursuit of finding solace and slowing down after the demands of the nine-to-five grind, few remedies are as universally cherished and deeply transformative.
In this article, we delve into the details of using music to unwind after work, exploring the profound ways in which it can melt away stress, restore our spirits, and create an oasis of tranquillity amidst life's bustling chaos.
“Finding ways to unwind and switch off is just as important as working very hard.”
The importance of winding down after work
Taking the time to relax after work is not just good for you — it’s essential for your health. Your ever-vigilant sympathetic nervous system (SNS) will continue to release cortisol, a stress hormone, until you begin to wind down, signalling to your body that it is safe to enter “rest and digest” mode. Chronic activation of the SNS can take a toll on your physical and mental health and is associated with high blood pressure, weakened immunity, sleep difficulties and mood disorders like anxiety and depression.
Studies have shown that certain activities like spending time in nature, deep breathing and listening to relaxing music can dramatically lower levels of cortisol. As cortisol declines, the parasympathetic nervous system takes charge, releasing hormones that promote relaxation and gently slow down or halt high-energy bodily functions, creating a profound sense of calm and tranquillity.
The science of music and relaxation
The science behind how music can help us relax lies in its profound impact on the brain and body. Numerous researchers have explored the therapeutic effects of music and its ability to induce a state of relaxation and reduce stress.
One such study revealed that front-line nurses, known for experiencing high stress and burn-out, benefited from listening to music during breaks.
Participants were split into two groups: one listened to soothing music for 30 minutes, while the other rested silently in a chair. Nurses who listened to music reported lower stress levels, reduced cortisol in their blood, and slower heart rates compared to the group that rested.
In addition listening to relaxing music has been shown to:
Regulate your blood pressure through the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system
Increase alpha waves in the brain which are associated with a relaxed and meditative state.
Provide a pleasant distraction by shifting the focus away from negative thoughts and feelings.
Promote emotional regulation by improving mood and reducing anxiety.
Release dopamine and endorphins, neurotransmitters that are associated with pleasure and feelings of wellbeing.
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What kind of music induces relaxation?
The elements of music play a significant role in inducing relaxation and cultivating a calm mood. From melody to instrumentation, each aspect contributes to the overall soothing effect of your chosen set of songs. Let’s take a look.
Melody and harmony
Look for tracks with simple, smooth and fluid melodies that feature repetitive patterns and descending tones. Harmonies should be consonant, open and expansive, with spacious intervals. Chords should be soft and gentle, played with a smooth, slow progression. Check out Avril 14th by Aphex Twin; it illustrates a soothing interplay of melody and harmony.
Rhythm and tempo
Slow tempos, ideally 50-80 beats per minute, and steady, repetitive rhythms provide a sense of stability and comfort. Music with rhythms resembling a natural breathing pattern, with a gentle rise and fall akin to the ebb and flow of relaxed breathing, can prove especially impactful.
Have a listen to Ascend, by DJ Taz Rashid and Momentology and Tabla Breath by Benjy Wertheimer and John de Kadtfor examples of how a slow, steady beat that mirrors the breath can work its magic on your nervous system.
Relaxing lyrics often convey themes of positivity, love, and mindfulness, and repetitive phrases can be particularly effective. Mantras in Love by Beautiful Chorus is my absolute favourite album of beautiful and easily accessible modern-day mantras; check out Be Here Now, Breathe it In, and Ease Release, Relief.
I prefer instrumental music over music with words; when seeking relaxation, I find lyrics distracting. Experiment and see what works best for you. You may find that gentle, uplifting songs like Better Days by Dermot Kennedy (stripped version linked here) work well.
The timbre of select instruments like piano, flute, violin, harp, and guitar create a peaceful ambience with the optional addition of ambient sounds like chimes, bells, synthesized tones and nature sounds.
Artists like Aykuyeri and Michel Mondrain combine acoustic instruments and synthesizers to create dreamy soundscapes. You might also explore nature-inspired songs that include sounds like flowing water, gentle winds or birdsong (check out this track by Ingmarlo or this one by Mammal Hands). For the purists, check out popular neoclassical artists like Yirumaand Einaudi for soothing piano tunes.
Note that it is essential to consider individual preferences and cultural background when exploring the impact of these various elements of music on relaxation. What works for one person may have the opposite effect on someone else! Music is powerful; it can both calm us down and induce anxiety.
Pay attention to how certain types of music affect you and any memories associated with particular songs, regardless of how relaxing they may seem on the surface. Prune your playlist as needed and choose music that works for you.
How to use music to wind down after work
Here are some practical tips for how to use music to wind down after work. You might try one or two, or combine all of them to create your musical wind down ritual. Make this a habit: the more you do it, the more you will associate the music and the ritual with being relaxed. With a few repetitions, you will physically start to feel yourself going into a calm state the moment you begin to set up your space.
Set the scene: Soften the lighting, find some candles, diffuse some essential oils, and be sure to have headphones or a good quality speaker at the ready. You may wish to cosy up with a hot drink, a blanket, and/or a pet.
Put on a relaxing playlist that you’ve created, keeping in mind the musical elements outlined above. If you’d like a pre-made option, you might enjoy Arjun’s lo-fi playlist or this atmospheric and ambient playlist that I mentioned at the start of this article. For the lyric lovers, here’s a playlist of my favourite acoustic pop hits.
Have a slow dance: Slow dancing induces relaxation through gentle movements and close contact. Ask a partner, family member or roomie to join you, and allow the synchronized movements to induce harmony and calm.
Make your own music: there are many instruments that require no previous experience or musical knowledge to play. They create soothing, meditative tones and active engagement in the creation of music is an excellent mindfulness exercise. Check out crystal bowls, kalimbas and hand pans.
Other ideas include incorporating breathwork with music (see my article on this here) and attending a sound bath or sound meditation class.
Prioritize wind down music as part of your shutdown ritual
Repeat after me: rest is productive. It allows us to recover from our busy lives and is absolutely essential to our health and wellbeing. So allow yourself to wind down. Allow yourself to do nothing. Create a ritual of taking time to just exist and listen. Let the sound of slow, smooth, soothing music guide you to a place of repose. And if you find that movement, that action is essential, let it be intentional, leisurely, and gentle.