[Columns and Essays]

Listening in the Ambient Mode: Implications for Music Therapy Practice and Theory

By Michael Viega


This theoretical paper explores the function, structures, and experience of listening to and creating ambient music, and encountering the ambient mode of being (Jaaniste, 2007). In the ambient mode of being, a listener becomes immersed in the raw materials of sonic environments (soundscapes) and nomadically shifts awareness across the terrains of these environments- simultaneously experiencing being in a liminal space and grounded in the here-and-now. For music therapists this might mean navigating and attuning to the lo-fidelity soundscapes in various levels of health and helping people achieve hi-fidelity and clarity on individual, community, cultural, and spiritual levels of existence. The ambient mode of being suggests that music therapists can access these levels simultaneously by entering into a creative state of listening in which pervasive ambience becomes salient within the musical relationships built in music therapy. Implications of the ambient mode of being for music therapy practice and theory will b be explored. Clinical outcomes related to encountering the ambient mode of being are discussed including capturing distant or forgotten parts of one’s self and making them salient again.

Keywords: ambient music, music-centered music therapy, music therapy theory, environmental music therapy, ecological music therapy, soundscape

Approaching the Ambient Mode: A First-Person Experience

In January 2006, I found myself in graduate school limbo; not only was I between semesters, but my wife and I were also preparing to move from our home in Chicago, IL to where I was attending school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Temple University). This was a transitional period in my life, a time where I was unsure and anxious about the changes that lied ahead. With some time off, I traveled to New York City with my wife who was there working at an art fair on the upper east side of Manhattan. That weekend in New York City the forecast called for over a foot of snow. While my wife worked, I set out to explore the city. I put on my headphones and turned on Keith Fullerton Whitman’s 2002 album Playthroughs, an ambient composition of transformed guitar pieces processed through a laptop computer.

The snowstorm was still hours away, however the sky was grey and the air was cold and still. There was pervasive sense of quiet anticipation amongst the people of the city who were preparing for the upcoming chaos of a big snowstorm. With the music playing, I entered into Central Park and noticed how empty the park was; it was as if the park had been reserved just for me to explore. I weaved in and out of the wooded paths that surrounded a pond in the middle of the park as I became engulfed in the musical drones of processed guitar sounds. The earth below my feet became unfamiliar as I randomly took the twists and turns of the paths, occasionally veering off and through wooden terrain. The more unfamiliar the terrain became, the more the music played a role at helping create an altered landscape. I became even more motivated to see what was at the end of my exploration.

By the third piece of the album, I found myself at the far north corner of the pond and walked towards its edge. I stood facing the length of the pond, the water spread out in front of me. Above that stood the city skyline and to my right was the Dakota building, a musical landmark where John Lennon and Yoko Ono Lennon once lived together. Immersed in the music, but not fully conscious of the music, my reality became slightly altered. The pond and the pre-storm environment blurred with the urban landscape. A perfect blend of rural and urban environments melded together as I found myself unable to concentrate on just one. This was my reality to manipulate and to move around, the music providing an environmental soundtrack to this new world that I was creating.

About two minutes into the piece, a low bass tone emerged from the music grounding me firmly into this space. What a moment ago appeared to be an altered reality, began to feel real to me. It was a highly personal and emotional moment for me, as it was an affirmation that this was happening in the here-and-now. The music appeared to help facilitate and sustain this reality, allowing me to fully immerse myself in the moment. I felt physically present to myself, the living heartbeat of a whole city, and the zeitgeist of the era; I felt like I was fully living my own life by being in the presence of all that has come before me and all that will have passed.

As the first snowflake of the storm fell, I was reminded that I had to continue walking on my path. As I walked out of the park and into the city, I felt transformed, refreshed, and inspired. It was as if I had received an important boon in that moment, a reminder to create and perform my own life in a way that positively impacts all the other systems around me including, my biological system, my social and cultural networks, the ecological system of the environment, and my connectedness with the Divine.

For me, that transformational moment was a peak music listening experience, one that left me with questions. First, there was no doubt that my listening experience that day was a pivotal moment of growth in my life, however what was the catalyst for my personal change? Was it the music, the environment, a psychological shift of consciousness, a transpersonal peak experience, or perhaps a combination of one or more factors?

Second, I felt that there was something unique in the quality of the music that allowed me to sustain and hold that liminal space in a way I had not experienced in other genres of music. I knew that the genre of music I was enjoying has been dubbed ambient music, and I wondered about the qualities of ambient music that made it a unique listening experience. In essence, how did the qualities of ambient music contribute to my experience in the park that day?

Third, being the music therapist that I am, I wondered about the implications for ambient music in or as therapy. If I could feel such transformation in a music listening experience, could it benefit others also?

Fourth, how was I changed? Was I actually moving through an experiential state, such as one might encounter in a Guided Imagery and Music experience, or was I being held and contained in the music, such as one might experience in a meditative state…could both of these experiences actually occur simultaneously?[1]

The goal of the paper is to explore a mode of listening where both clients’ and therapists’ music and lived cultural experiences can coexist and interact; a mode of being where clients and therapists can interact within transitional and liminal spaces while also being grounded in the here-and-now; and finally, as a way for music therapists to understand the landscapes of disability and disease and begin to transform the way we consider human health in relation to ecological and environmental wellness.

Defining Ambient

Ambient Music

Musician, producer, and a musicologist, Brian Eno, coined the term Ambient Music in 1978 on his seminal ambient piece, Music for Airports.[2] He had already begun to formalize his ideas on this mode of music listening for his 1975 album, Discreet Music. For both of those albums, Brian Eno defines Ambient Music and the unique qualities of listening to the music within the liner notes. From these readings I have highlighted seven key components that help define Ambient Music:

  1. Ambient Music focuses on texture of sound as the primary compositional attention.
  2. Ambient Music makes use of electronics to create acoustic spaces that do not exist in nature.
  3. Ambient Music allows for the listener to be immersed in sonic worlds.
  4. Ambient Music enhances environmental acoustic and atmospheric idiosyncrasies.
  5. Ambient Music contains mood and emotion.
  6. Ambient Music is intended to create a space for thinking and calm.
  7. Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it music be as ignorable as it is interesting
    (Music for Airports, liner notes, 1978, LP, italics added).

It appears from Eno’s definition that he meant Ambient Music to be a style of music that enhances environmental listening with the ability to become part of one’s everyday experience. Eno suggests that the qualities of Ambient Music allow for the attention of the listener to move between background (ignorable) and foreground (interesting). The form and function of Ambient Music is to create an aural space that allows for enhanced thinking, perceiving, creating, and engaging with the everyday objects in our lives; a space where we can “be” and “do” simultaneously, while also have the autonomy to move to either position independently at our own choosing.

However, with Eno’s definition of Ambient Music, a paradox begins to appear. Music itself cannot be both ambient (ambience being defined as what is surrounding the foreground) and salient, as it is always in the background/foreground relationship to the listener. It appears that Eno is talking more about a mode of listening, a way of experiencing the music and not necessarily about music itself.[3] The question arises, can one enter into pervasive ambience, in which what is salient is the ambience itself and thus the foreground/background relationship is dissolved? If so, how would one enter into this all encompassing ambience and what would this experience be like?[4]

Ambient Mode of Being

Jaaniste (2007) suggests that there is a mode of being that dissolves the distinction between background and foreground. He calls this mode “the ambient mode” and defines it as follows:

The ambient mode involves engaging with our surrounding as an ambient pervasive all-around field, without anything being prioritized into foreground and background. Without the salience of the foreground, what would need to become salient is the pervasive ambience itself. (Jaaniste, 2007, p. 43)

A full description of Jaaniste’s work on defining the ambient mode is too encompassing for the purposes of this essay. However, certain qualities of encountering the ambient mode are important and useful for exploring its application in music therapy processes.

First, using Heidegger’s essay on art, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” Jaaniste argues that pervasive ambience can be engaged with in the “surrounding-earth,” a liminal space where “the heaviness of mass, the shine of color, the tone of sounds- prior to being named, measured, dealt with intelligibly and taken up as an object in our world” (Jaaniste, 2007, p.55). In this shadowy space between light and dark (background/foreground), Jaaniste suggests we are able to engage with visual and sonic-scape, which he considers the raw materials that make up the quality of foreground-background. Second, knowing where the ambient mode lies (the surrounding-earth), how does one interact with the ambient mode and its soundscapes? Jaaniste argues that the ambient mode is an experience of entering into the unfamiliar, where one’s senses are drifting all around; Jaaniste refers to this as “sensorial nomadic curiosity” (Jaaniste, 2007, p. 61).

This drifting occurs without cares of the world, as one would do in a meditative or relaxed state. However, the key difference is that the ambient mode is attracted to the fluctuations of the visual and soundscape and the earthly terrain. Therefore, the ambient mode is altered while also present. Jaaniste calls this experience “de-worlding” (p.66), dropping out of the world for the material-earth, the outcome of which is re-familiarization of the world. Jaaniste uses Heidegger’s argument that disturbances in the world make what was distant or forgotten, salient again. Once this forgotten relationship is again revealed, there is a feeling of this occurring as if it was for the first time. Jaaniste informs us that,

By revealing the earth and world afresh, we come to experience the fundamental or ‘primordial’ condition of our existence-that we are caught up in the disclosing of the world and the concealing of the earth-which is normally forgotten in our everyday to-ing and fro-ing. (Jaaniste, 2007, p. 67)

In this outcome of the ambient mode of being, we begin to see the possibilities of using Ambient Music and other ambient creative works in music therapy.

In summary, the key components of the ambient mode of being, as proposed by Jaaniste, that will be relevant to our discussion of ambient listening in music therapy are listed below:

  1. Engagement with soundscape (the surrounding-earth).
  2. Immersion into the sound.
  3. De-familiarization of every day sensorial practices.
  4. Drifting and nomadic attention to soundscape.
  5. Sustaining this mode of being so that new modes of being can be experienced.
  6. Inviting this mode of being through engagement of ambient works of art.

Soundscape and Music Therapy Literature

Composer R Murray Schafer (1977/1994) coined the term soundscape and defined it as:

the sonic environment. Technically, any portion of the sonic environment regarded as a field of study. The term may refer to actual environments, or to abstract constructions such as musical compositions and tape montages, particularly when considered as an environment. (pp. 274-275)

His writings on soundscape have cross-disciplinary implications, most notably having impacted environmental and ecology acoustics. According to Schaffer, soundscapes, are composed of keynotes (unconscious and archetypal sounds), signals (warnings), and soundmarks (sounds that are preserved by a culture or community). Distortions in these soundscapes can cause a lo-fi soundscape, which results in a disintegration of health. For Schaffer, immersion in deep listening practices can help the listener achieve and regain “positive silence” (p.258). Furthermore, since soundscape can be defined within abstract constructs of environment, such as a musical score or mapping the human genome, we can consider lo-fi and hi-fi elements of the unique soundscape of those environments as well, and consider it as part of the overall health of such environments. Therefore, for the client and therapist in music therapy, entering into the ambient mode, allows for engagement at many levels of health and music at once in a holistic manner.

Related to the discussion of ambient mode of being’s location within the surrounding-earth, as well as soundscape in music therapy, is the development of environmental music therapy. Aside from ecological and environmental perspectives of music therapy lies one more important study of music listening practice that has relevance to listening in the ambient mode, Bruscia’s 1998 heuristic study of “being present” and his outline of the modes of consciousness. Additionally, two indigenous music therapy theories, music-centered music therapy (Aigen, 2005) and Abrams (2011a, 2011b) relationship-based theory of music therapy, provides a foundation of how the ambient mode of being can inform music therapy practice.

Environmental Music Therapy

Environmental music therapy is a form of ecological practice in music therapy that has begun to appear more and more in the past decade in the music therapy literature. Several authors (Aasgaard, 2001, 2002, 2005; Ruud, 2010; Woodward, 2004) have discussed environmental music therapy practice in relation to systems approaches to therapy. Ruud (2010) explains that system approaches to therapy are interested in how client experiences in therapy are interwoven into larger systems of family, society, and culture. System theory approaches look to identify connections and how systems interact within the world of people receiving health-care services.

The most common application of environmental music therapy places the music therapist’s role as sound designer of health-care environments. The implications for soundscape has been discussed through the consideration of how music therapist should think about the sound environments that immerse the daily lives of the people they are working with, such as the over-polluted noises of an urban environment, to the beeps and buzzers of life support machines in a hospital. Ruud (2010) considers noise pollution’s effects on people’s physical and psychological health, such as rises in blood pressure and depression. He feels that noise can be disempowering for people in their environments. Rudd argues, “music therapists should take the responsibility for the total sound environment of the wards or institutions they work in, not only the musical environment, but also the soundscape of the institution” (p. 100).

Jeffery Kittay (2008)—who is not a music therapist but who writes from a location of interest for the implications of sound design in music therapy—asks the question, might enhancing everyday soundscape (even if much of the listening experience for the person receiving services could be characterized as distracted) ever be a legitimate clinical goal of music therapy? Even though an argument has been made that the disempowered soundscape directly effects a person’s health a question remains, can this practice be considered music therapy if the focus is on changing environments and not individualized to meet the here-and-now needs of clients within the context of musical relationships built in music therapy? Is there a way to bridge Ruud and Kittay’s ideas of music therapist as a sound designer to direct clinical musical experience within a therapeutic relationship?

For the answer to this question, I turn to an anecdote told by Brian Eno when he first decided that he wanted to create Ambient Music. In 1975, Brian Eno was immobilized and hospitalized from an accident. While in the hospital, a friend played a record of harp music. Once she left, Eno realized that the hi-fi was too quiet and that one speaker was not working. At first, he became annoyed with this listening experience. However, he began to shift his listening, noticing the rain outside. Soon the rain began to blend with the harp music creating a unique and altering listening experience.

It was raining hard outside, and I could hardly hear the music above the rain, just the loudest notes, like little crystals, sonic icebergs rising out of the storm. I couldn’t get up and change it, so I just lay there waiting for my next visitor to come and sort it out, and gradually I was seduced by this listening experience. I realized that this was what I wanted music to be- a place, a feeling, an all-around tint to my sonic environment. (Eno 1966, pp. 95-96)

This quote holds significant implications for how soundscape can directly impact and shape a music experience within a therapeutic relationship in music therapy, as opposed to a person indirectly experiencing the effects through changes in the environment and with the therapist’s role that of a sound designer (implying that there is no therapeutic relationship). In Eno’s description of his listening experience ambient qualities that existed were 1) nomadic shifting of the senses, from rain, to music, then to the various sensual qualities of the sound such as the harp becoming “sonic icebergs,” 2) a profound shift in his perceived reality, and 3) coming out of the experience with a sense of direction for future change. What is clearly different about Eno’s experience from the experience of the elderly patients who are forced to listen to staff members’ preferred music, or the patient who has recently had a spinal cord injury and can not make changes to the soundscape of his or her environment, is that Eno has a highly developed sense of listening from his direct experiences in music. Therefore, what are the ways for music therapists to work directly with people utilizing the raw materials of soundscape through both music-making and receptive listening experience, to achieve the heightened sense of ambient listening that Eno describes or that I experienced that day in Central Park?

Music therapists can empower the people they work with to become their own sound designer through intentional deep listening experiences in music therapy. Working with a music therapist, a person may be encouraged to create their soundscape, having to listen to sounds across the earthy terrains of their body and/or community. This is where technology may play a fascinating and important role; various electronic instruments can work directly with texture and timbre to create designer sounds specifically directed to the needs of someone receiving help in therapy.

Listening within the ambient mode fits well within ecological practices, though it does not necessarily rest there. Just as being in the ambient mode is to be nomadic in a pervasively salient ambience, then perhaps being in the ambient mode also allows for one to enter into different theoretical perspectives without conforming to one in particular.

Modes of Consciousness (Bruscia, 1998)

Kenneth Bruscia conducted a heuristic study that was concerned with the phenomenon of being present in the Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music. Studying his own work as a Bonny Method practitioner, Bruscia discovered multi-layers of awareness and consciousness utilized by him during a GIM session, which aided his ability to be fully present as a therapist. In discussing his theory, Bruscia discusses moving in and out of the client’s world, his personal world, and the therapist’s world, all the while having access to his intuition, affect, senses, and therapeutic reflections. His ability to access these abstract worlds comes from expanding, centering and shifting his own consciousness. He noted that if at any moment if he found himself lingering in a world for too long, possibilities arose for loss of boundaries and limited ability to help and empathize.

Bruscia offers the closest window to view what the ambient mode of listening may look like during a music listening experience. Several aspects of Bruscia’s theory of being present in a music listening experience relate to Jaaniste’s description of the ambient mode of being. First, Bruscia uses the metaphor of entering into various worlds, which suggests that within these worlds lies an environment of consciousness that can be mapped. His ability to move in and out of these worlds is suggestive of nomadic wondering necessary to achieve the ambient mode of being. Some may consider the word nomadic and equate it with movement that is not purposeful, however, this is not the case. Nomadic wondering is journeying across various landscapes, where one can feel at home in many places without settling on one in particular. Here, Bruscia describes a similar wandering and suggests that settling in one world of consciousness may have adverse implications in therapy.

Second, if we consider consciousness as an abstract environment, then its raw materials can be engaged within the ambient mode. Bruscia describes listening to messages from the music, the body, or the unconscious in relation to both his and his client’s experiences while engaged in the music listening experience. Here, the soundscape is intuition, embodied knowledge, or unconscious messages, which are the raw materials of conscious feelings, thoughts, and actions.

Third, being within the client’s world of images and feelings takes a de-familiarization of everyday sensorial practices. To gain access into the client’s world, therapists must let go momentarily of the structures they have created in their world, which Bruscia defines as accommodation[5]. Such an experience transforms therapists’ ability to empathize with the client, given that he or she does not maintain positioning in the client’s world, which could lead to the client and therapist’s world becoming fused.

Listening in the ambient mode shares similar characteristics with Bruscia’s description of his understandings of being present. However, the overall goal of his study is to understand the term being present through psychodynamic constructs such as transference, countertransference, and projective identification. The ambient mode of being takes a holistic approach to transformation by accommodating multi-levels of experience and engagement with soundscapes. The goal of ambient practice in music therapy is to be able to nomadically interact with various theoretical frameworks in relation to the soundscape of the client. To some readers, this may appear flighty instead of nomadic. However, when considering what occurs in a music experience with clients, we can see how this may better fit in our understanding of music therapy theory.

Music-Centered Music Therapy (Aigen, 2005)

What is unique when applying the ambient mode of listening to music therapy theory is that the experience of the ambient mode of being comes from music experience. Looking back on my experience at the start of the essay, or Brian Eno’s experience in the hospital, we see that Ambient Music provided the vehicle for sustaining and maintaining the ambient mode. Therefore, it is during a musicing experience in which ambient presence can be achieved. In addition, encountering the ambient is not a means towards achieving transcendence or connectedness, though these might be benefits of entering into the ambient. Rather, musicing in ambient mode is the medium in which these experiences take place. From a music therapist’s perspective, the music experience is primary within the ambient mode of being. Nature sounds, vibroacoustics sounds, and working as sound designer may act upon the soundscape, however these experiences alone do not allow one to enter, sustain, and maintain an ambient mode of being, as they are still within the foreground/background experience of the perceiver. Entering in a pervasive ambience where the ambience itself becomes salient takes engaging in a creative process.

Therefore, I am suggesting that listening in the ambient mode is an addendum of music-centered music therapy (Aigen, 2005). We can see elements of both schema theory and Zuckerkandl’s theory of dynamic forces of tone in ambient theory (Zuckerkandl, 1973), both of which ground and support Aigen’s theory of identifying with being music-centered. The ambient mode of being suggests a unique schema for how the mind maps its embodied human experience, while simultaneously there appears to be a force, which allows us to move across nomadically across textures and timbres in a soundscape. Furthermore, the ambient mode of being is similar to liminal and transitional states described by Aigen, in that within liminal states one can experience the ambiguity and dichotomy of structure versus anti-structure, and then bring back into the world what was learned in that transition.

However, there are some notable differences that enhance theories proposed by Aigen. First, the ambient mode of being suggests a state of pervasively surrounding ambience, which in-of-itself becomes salient. Such a positing in the world is not directly mapped out in schema theory. CONTAINER schema, as described by Aigen, may fit best with ambient theory, in that one can simultaneously be outside the container while also inside the container, depending on each person’s shifting perspective. However, Jaaniste’s definition of the ambient mode of being also suggests that both the container and the transition can be experienced in its entirety, without either one being more salient than the other depending on one’s perspective. Perhaps, a more environmental schema is needed; one that would possibly look like the mapping of an environmental terrain, in order to best capture what this may indeed look like?

Second, Zuckerkandl's theory was designed to explain tonality and melody in relation to human experience in music. Because ambient music and soundscape focuses on raw texture, timbre, and densities of musical sounds, Zuckerkandl’s theory does not fully describe the experience within the ambient when considering such elements in music. Finally, Aigen uses liminal and transitional spaces in reference to SOURCE-PATH-GOAL and CONTAINER schema, possibly because a majority of the focus is on theories based on tonality and melody. Music that focuses on texture and timbre may reference a different schema from those suggested above, so that one can experience liminal states and transitional states while also being present.

Despite some differences, when considering music experiences in the ambient mode and music-centered theory we see that they share similar beliefs and values, such as music as the vehicle for transformative experiences, clinical outcomes being based out of the music experience, and focus on utilizing the qualities of music to enhance musical participation within the therapeutic relationship. It may be that the unique experience while listening to ambient music and other genres of music that focus on soundscape, texture, timbre, densities, and dynamics, may offer new understandings of human experience while musicing within the ambient mode of being.

Relationship-based Theory of Music Therapy (Abrams, 2011a, 2011b)

Brian Abrams has proposed a relational theory that considers music therapy a discipline that “promotes human health both as and through music, in which music is understood as a temporal-aesthetic way of being transcending the concrete medium of sound, that manifests across all of the domains targeted in clinical music therapy goals” (2011a, p. 114). For Abrams, music exists beyond the sound phenomenon and is located within humanity itself, a philosophical notion described in medieval scholar Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius’s concept of musica humana (Boethius, 1989). Like Jaaniste (2007), Abrams calls upon Heidegger’s work to understand that the essence of human therapy is a being-in-relationship. In music therapy, these relational and therapeutic dynamics can manifest (health-related goals, interventions, and clinical need) within the temporal-aesthetic dimensions of inter-musical processes (within the medium of sound). Abrams also suggests that humans can express their humanity and health in a way that is musical but not located within the medium of sound.

Abram’s model (2011b) consists of four primary components: Sound, therapy, Being-in-Relationship, Art (within the sphere of Being-in-Relationship), and Music (within the sphere of Art). The elements intersect to represent various domains of practice such as those that are sound-based, arts-based, music-based, relationship-based, and a combination of each. Abrams notes that implications for his model include understanding what is unique and indigenous about music therapy, its professional boundaries (what is and what is not music therapy), and how musical process can relate to health-related processes. The ambient mode of being would locate itself within the pervasive ambience of being-in-relationship, suggesting that the therapist and/or client can nomadically traverse the various elements of Abram’s model depending upon the context and developmental processes unfolding within the therapeutic relationship.

The ambient mode of being shares many philosophical assumptions with Abram’s proposed theory (2011a, 2011b), especially related to the idea that sound created relationally within the context of health promotion can transmit the essence of human experience and our shared humanity. In addition, this metaphor can extend to the various internal and external health-related environments, where a therapist and/or client can be musical without the presence of sound. The ambient mode of being looks to extend Abrams’s model into a more applied and practical realm for music therapists, especially in relation to working with technology and creating music within music styles such as electronic dance music, hip-hop, ambient music, noise rock, and other forms of popular music that are created with the focus of texture, layering, soundscape, and creating a mood.

Implications for Music Therapy Practice

Therapist’s Presence

In the ambient mode of being, the listener becomes immersed in sonic environments and nomadically shifts awareness across the terrains (or scapes) of these environments. Therefore, a therapist must be aware of how the people they work with navigate and interact with the various systems of his or her environments. These environments may include new physical challenges for rehabilitation patient, new psychological states such as the onset of depression of someone in bereavement, or the displacement from one’s homeland.

When considering a person holistically and listening for patterns within the various physical, psychological, transpersonal, and cultural components that interact with each other as a system, we can view the person as an environmental whole whose patterns are waiting to be mapped and explored. Since this is purely a metaphoric construct, we can add that these environments have soundscapes that a therapist must listen for. The therapist’s role is to listen for disturbances in the soundscape of the people he or she work with within the various levels. The therapist can engage on any one of these levels to help a person design his or her own soundscape conducive towards healing. These levels (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Stige, 2002) may include:

  1. Macrosystem- Understanding and working towards designing cultural and community soundscapes conducive towards a healthy environment. Here the music therapist must be present to how disruptions in cultural soundscapes may be affecting the health of that community. The music therapist may be called to be a political and/or social advocate for designing soundscapes within communities and cities, such as helping locate soundmarks that are unique to that community.
  2. Exosystem- Helping shape the soundscape of settings that the influence the client indirectly, such as working with hospital administrators to develop sound-spaces within the hospital that are conducive for all the patients in a hospital. The therapist works toward being present to the soundscape of the setting as a whole. It is within this area that Kittay (2008) discusses the importance of sound design within a setting. The music therapist may perform in an area of the hospital to help create an ambience conducive to healing.
  3. Mesosystem- The therapist is more person-centered and is present to how the various settings in which the person is situated are relating to each other. For instance, the therapist is listening for patterns of soundscape within a child’s participation in a classroom setting, the music therapy setting, and the home setting. Each of these settings will influence the overall sounding of the client in music therapy, as reflected in the child’s music making.
  4. Microsystems: Here the therapist is present to the pattern of sounds that directly influence the individual in one particular setting. This can include bodily soundscapes that are directly influencing biological health. These sounds can be worked with in the here-and-now interactions within the therapeutic and musical relationship.

How do therapists attune themselves to such multi-layers of cultural experience? Listening in the ambient mode suggests these layers are occurring simultaneously and that the most appropriate level to meet clinical goals in therapy can be determined within the context of the healthcare setting. In the first two macro-levels (macro, exo) Schafer’s components of soundscape, keynote, signals, and soundmarks, may be listened and worked with through sound design directly. In these levels, the music therapists’ role is that of sound designer of soundscape and thus Schafer’s analysis of soundscape becomes a relevant and useful tool.

In the lower levels of cultural engagement (meso and micro), soundscape may be abstract and more directed within the therapeutic relationship. Examples of how keynote, signals, and soundmarks (as proposed by Schaffer, 1977/1994) can be used to analyze clinical processes in music therapy include:

  1. Keynote Sounds: Sounds that symbolically represents the surrounding-earth of a person’s environment. For example, the soundscape to a hip-hop beat created by a teenager may aurally suggest the decay of the urban landscape that surrounds him or her. Often the choice of the keynote sounds originates from unconscious or even archetypal realms. Thus, the keynote sound suggests a deeper human experience that is embedded in the soundscape.
  2. Signals: These are sounds that serve as warnings or indications of important aural significance for the composer. Since soundscape deals with textures, timbres, and densities, these sounds may include whistles, sirens, horns, squelches, buzzers, altered vocal tones, or any number of sounds that surface from the ground of the keynote. Often these signals may represent perceived dangers in the environment. For example, in hip-hop police sirens or gunshots may be incorporated into the musical soundscape to represent threats within the environment.
  3. Soundmarks: Soundmarks become sounds that the composer wishes to preserve and honor in the soundscape. Schafer considered soundmarks to be unique in each community. Thus, we can symbolically equate soundmarks with sounds that are authentic and unique to a person’s lived experience. Once found, these soudmarks become important resources in therapy.

However, working, listening, and being present within systems suggests an ambient relation that is ambivalently between background/foreground, such as suggested by Eno’s definition of Ambient Music. For example, though all levels are present within the system, the therapist may focus on the exosystem soundscape of the client while other levels are relegated to the background. Having multiple awareness at once and moving in and out of these systems, is similar to Bruscia’s modes of consciousness, in which at any moment the client’s world, therapist world, or personal world move into the foreground while the other worlds move into the background. This is different from what Jaaniste proposes, which is that the ambient mode of being is a pervasively surrounding space that is a priori to foreground and background and dissolves the foreground/background relationship. To achieve such a state he argues, engaging with the ambient mode of being occurs during creative processes.

Receptive Methods of Music Therapy

Ambient Music, as defined by Eno, has traditionally been utilized for music and relaxation experiences in music therapy. Traditionally, Ambient Music has also been called new age music. However, there are important differences between new age and Ambient Music that should be considered. First, traditional new age music is meant to be experienced in the background of the listener’s experience so that mood and emotion may be minimized for the sounds that will not disturb the listener’s experience. However, as defined by Eno, Ambient Music maintains emotional atmosphere that enhances the listener’s experience and thus the music can be in the foreground of the listening experience as well.

The implications are twofold. First, if used in relaxation experiences, Ambient Music may bring to the surface emotions in the listener that are not conducive to relaxation. The listener is then given the message to push down the feelings into the background, which negates the surfacing feelings. Second, the experience of Ambient Music may not be conducive to lying down in a relaxed state if the goal is exploration of soundscapes. Therefore, a more active listening experience is proposed by utilizing movement, in which music’s role might fluctuate between the background and foreground of the listener’s experience.

In music therapy, the active creation and exploration of a person’s own unique soundscapes would better invite the ambient mode of being as defined by Jaaniste. The primary difference is that in most receptive music experiences one is engaging in soundscapes recorded or created by others relegating the listener to the foreground/background relationship with the music. Therefore, creative methods of music therapy may hold the greatest possibilities in achieving true moments of being in the ambient mode as envisioned by Jaaniste. The reader may remember my experience in Central Park or the anecdote of Brian Eno’s listening experience and ask if I would consider those events to be examples of the ambient mode of being? This is why I chose to call my story “Approaching the Ambient Mode” and not another title such as “Experiencing the Ambient Mode.” By approaching the ambient through listening, one is then invited to create in the ambient mode and sustain the experience. This creation in receptive methods becomes one of the mind, such as the mind creating an imagery experience. But once again, here the imagery experience becomes the primary creation while the music being regulated to a background/foreground relationship. The question then arises, what would the ambient mode of being look like in a creative music-making experience?

Creative Methods of Music Therapy

By utilizing various electronic instruments and technology, a music therapist can help someone deeply listen in the ambient mode to the unique sound textures, timbres, densities, and dynamics of the soundscape within the various systems of a person’s life. When listening to these raw sound materials, entering into the ambient mode can be achieved thorough active creation of the sound materials. The focus on electronic instrumentation comes from the unique qualities that were produced with exploring and testing the almost infinite sound source of these instruments. Instead of focusing on musical elements of melody and harmony, the focus becomes on qualities of raw sounds such as, attack, sustain, cutoff, resonance, waveform, and various other manipulations of pure sound tones. Also, the focus becomes what sounds to choose and how to layer, edit, and work with the pure sound choice. Being able to uniquely work with the direct source of sound with electronic instruments becomes the vehicle for sustaining the ambient mode of being.

Such focus on creating soundscapes relates to modern genres of music such as hip-hop, dance and electronics, noise rock, and other subgenres that focus on creating atmosphere in music by selecting where sound is layered in space. Here negative space is honored in recording production because it allows for the creator to move in and out of the music nomadically so that the ambient mode of being is sustained. When creating with the fundamentals of sound, the musician becomes organizer of the sound, which places the musicianship focus away from the technical side of creating music, and more aligned with listening and choosing what to do with the sound. Brian Eno explains:

You’re working directly with sound, and there’s no transmission loss between you and the sound-you handle it. It puts the composer in the identical position of the painter-he’s working directly with a material, working directly onto a substance, and he always retains the options to chop and change, to paint a bit out, add a piece, etc (Eno, 1979, p. 129.)

Music creations that focus on ambient forms of music help the client to paint an aural picture of the soundscapes of his or her inner and outer environments. Through the creative engagement of such sonic terrains, the client is de-familiarizing himself or herself of everyday sensorial experiences. By creating within that experience, the client then sustains the ambient mode of being as it is related to his or her own experience. Creative processes in the ambient mode are interesting because the creative processes both invites the ambient mode of being, while also encouraging the creators to utilize deep listening practice to invite this experience outside therapy or in other parts of therapy. For example, a hospitalized patient may create a composition by sampling various disruptive noises in a hospital environment such as ambient conversation in the hallways and the buzzers of the various machines. These sounds are then arranged and edited in the sampler, thus de-familiarizing the sound, and the output is a new experience of the same sound. These sounds are then put on an Mp3 device in which the client can listen to this recording in his or her room. The recorded composition that was created in music therapy becomes a way for the client to experience and reshape environments outside the therapy setting. Similarly, the same recording can be brought into physical therapy to help motivate or create the soundscape for that task, or the recording can be brought back into music therapy and engaged with through movement, imagery, or other receptive music experiences.

Listening and Creating in Music Therapy

Listening and creating in the ambient mode of being implies that both the therapist and/or client(s) attune to the various acoustic environments internally and externally and that this information can provide foundational information for the musical dynamics that unfold in music therapy. Carolyn Kenny (2006) discusses how connecting patterns in our surroundings is an aesthetic process, which can transform our daily realties that are typically arrange in linear thinking. Her work has many characteristics of listening and creating in the ambient mode. First, Kenny is focusing on the raw material of aesthetic process, patterns. Patterns and connections make up the earthy terrain that is encountered in the ambient mode. Second, Kenny states that by engaging in “patterning” (p. 28), we “break the barriers of linear thought and objective reality. They are concerned with a sensational reality having many benefits of which we are presently deprived” (p. 28). What Kenny describes appears to be a similar outcome as to what Jaaniste (2007) discusses, in that when we break away from the familiar we create a new reality and thus we are making deeper connections to the world around us and ourselves.

Listening in the ambient mode suggests a state of creative listening in which one is surrounded and attuned to the ambience of his or her existence. In the ambient mode of being, a person can nomadically travel to various worlds (such as those achieved in altered states and waking states), explore the shadowy terrains of these worlds, while experiencing and being fully present to the constant changes that make life worth living and attending to. It is a process of attuning to the lo-fidelity soundscapes in our various levels of existence and clearing our ears to achieve hi-fidelity and clarity. In addition, such a theory, rooted in creative and music experiences, can provide a way of integrating multiple theoretical orientations and music therapy theories by allowing for a therapist to nomadically shift based upon clients’ needs in therapy.

Outcomes of the Ambient Mode of Being

As discussed earlier, inviting, encountering, and engaging in the creative ambient mode of being, deals with the condition of our existence on both individual and global levels. Because the ambient mode of being deals with the surrounding-earth, engaging the ambient allows us to feel present to the core of our earthly existence. It means we are living in our own time, present and awake with a heightened awareness of the zeitgeist of our existence. Once awaken, the full responsibilities that come with such awareness must be met. For example, in our time, many of us are just waking to the global threat of climate changes. Aware of such dangers and aware of our individual roles in the human story, we must then take action in whatever ways we are able. In therapy, this may be the equivalent to one waking up to forgetting parts of himself and making small changes towards recapturing what was lost.

By listening and engaging with the ambient mode in therapy, clients are empowered to practice this mode of being outside therapy, which is more naturalistic to the client’s everyday earthly experiences. Even if the ambient mode of being is not achieved to the fullest extent in the music therapy session, therapy becomes a dress rehearsal for achieving these moments outside therapy. Thus, a client may begin to engage in music in his or her own life differently, perhaps finding new relationships and preferences with music, find times to participate in dancing that achieves these states, or create music with self or others to engage with the ambient.

The ambient mode of being can bring people closer together as a community and help to orient them to what is happening around them; in essence, empowering them to be active participants in their lives and the lives of the community. By being fully present to the existence of all in a community, then active participation towards preserving that community and bringing aesthetic beauty to that community begins to take place.

Overall, listening to and creating within one’s own soundscape is taking responsibility of one’s own life and is empowering to its core. The raw material of sound is ours to organize, manipulate, shape, and layer; we are all composers of the grandest symphony. Sometimes its movements are harmonious; sometimes they are dissonant, yet that all deserve to be heard and their vibrations intended to reverberate around the world.


I originally wrote this essay in 2009 for a doctoral class on theory development in music therapy. As I went back through this work to update it for publication, I was reminded how transformational my listening experience was for me on that winter’s day in New York City in 2006 and how it informed my subsequent work as a therapist and doctoral student. A year later in 2007, I started working for the Arts and Quality of Life Research Center at Temple University where I used the knowledge imparted on me from that experience in my work with disadvantaged and traumatized youth and therapeutic songwriting. This in turned informed my doctoral dissertation, Loving me and my Butterfly Wings: A Study of Hip-Hop Song Created by Adolescents in Music Therapy (2013). That moment inspired how I listen to music created and utilized in music therapy, including exploring body listening as a method of analysis in the Bonny Method (2010) and the overall arts-based design of my dissertation. In a way, that moment in 2006 awoke me to my own potentials, which I hope is relevant for other music therapist and the people we serve.


[1] The Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music is a method of music therapy that uses sequenced classical pieces to sustain client interaction with altered states of consciousness and the imagery produced within that state (Bonny,2002; Viega, 2010). However, the intended purpose of using classical music is to move through and interact with imagery, whereas the experience I described appeared to allow me to interact with concrete reality while in an altered state. In this paper I will make the argument that entering into the ambient allows for such a duality to occur, which presents a unique experience in music that is little reported in music therapy literature.

[2] John Cage’s silent composition 4’33” (1952) and Erick Satie’s “Furniture Music” (musique d’ameublement) (1918-1923) had already experimented with the idea of ambient music. However, a history of ambient music is beyond the scope of this essay and thus, since Brian Eno is the chief figure in referring to Ambient Music, it is only fitting to start here.

[3] For Eno, the goal of listening to Ambient Music was for people to engage on multiple levels of awareness; something he felt was uniquely different from other styles of music. For example, punk music is meant to be abrasive and salient, while Muzak is meant to be background and ignored. Brian Eno was clearly not a fan of Muzak, which he felt stripped away “all sense of doubt and uncertainty (and thus all genuine interest) from music” (Music for Airports, linear notes, 1978, LP).

[4] Eno’s introduction of Ambient Music has influenced multiple genres of music including, minimalism, techno and house music, new-age compositions, noise rock, dub reggae, and dubstep, and even the soundscape design in hip-hop production. Each genre shares commonalities of ambient music with immersion into sonic worlds, the use of electronics to create various soundscapes, contain mood and emotion, and focus on textures, densities, and utilize space in production, rather than melody, harmony, and tonality. Music therapists can gain a greater understanding how the structures, forces, functions, and experiences of Ambient Music might impact clinical processes for clients whose preferred music may be rooted in genres that have ambient textures and soundscapes.

[5] Bruscia also mentions fusion, assimilation, differentiation, and objectification as other positions a therapist can take in relation to the client. Each position offers its own characteristics in relation to the ambient mode, however assimilation is the term most appropriate for the current discussion.


Abrams, A. (2011a). Understanding music as a temporal-aesthetic way of being: Implications for a general theory of music therapy. The Arts in Psychothearpy, 28, 114-119.

Abrams, A. (2011b). A relationship-based theory of music therapy: Understanding processes and goals as being-together-muscally. In K.E. Bruscia (Ed.) Reading on music therapy theory, New Braunfels, TX: Barcelona.

Aigen, K. (2005). Music-centered music therapy. New Braunfels, TX: Barcelona.

Aasgaard, T. (2001). An ecology of love: Aspects of music therapy in pediatric oncology environment. Journal of Palliative Care, 17(3), 177-181.

Aasgaard, T. (2002). Song creations by children with cancer process and meaning. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Aalborg University, Aalborg, Denmark. Retrieved from: http://vbn.aau.dk/en/publications/song-creations-by-children-with-cancer%287be36780-002d-11da-b4d5-000ea68e967b%29.html

Aasgaard, T. (2005). Assisting children with malignant blood diseases to create and perform their own songs. In F. Baker & T. Wigram (Eds.), Songwriting: methods, techniques and clinical applications for music therapy clinicians, educators and students (pp. 154-179). Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley.

Boëthius, A. M. S. (1989). In C. V. Palisca (Ed.), Fundamentals.

Bonny, H. (2002). Music consciousness: The evolution of Guided Imagery and Music. (L. Summer, Ed.). Gilsum, NH: Barcelona Publishers.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development. Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bruscia, K. (1998). Modes of consciousness. In K. Bruscia, (Ed.). Dynamics in music psychotherapy (pp. 491-526). New Braunfels, TX: Barcelona.

Eno, B. (1978). [Liner Notes] In Music for Airports [LP]. London: Virgin Records.

Eno, B. (1979) “The Studio as Compositional Tool”,  in Cox, C. & D. Warner (Eds.),  Audio Culture: Readings in  Modern Music (2007, pp. 127–30). New York: Continuum.

Eno, B. (1996). Ambient music. Reprinted in C. Cox & D. Warner (Eds.), Audio culture: readings in modern music (2007, pp. 94-97). NY, NY: Continuum.

Jaaniste, L. (2007). Approaching the ambient: Creative practice and the ambient mode of being. (Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation) Queensland University of Technology, Queensland, Australia. Retrieved from http://www.lukejaaniste.com/phd-text

Kenny, C. (2006). Music and life in the field of play: An anthology. New Braunfels, TX: Barcelona.

Kittay, J. (2008). The sound surround: exploring how one might design the everyday soundscape for the truly captive audience. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy. 17, 41-54.

Ruud, E. (2010). Music therapy: A perspective from the humanities. New Braunfels, TX: Barcelona.

Schafer, R. M. (1977/1994). The soundscape: our sonic environment and the tuning of the world. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books.

Stige, B. (2002). Cultured-centered music therapy. New Braunfels, TX: Barcelona.

Viega, M. (2010). Body listening as a method of understanding a music program used in the Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music. Journal of the Association for Music and Imagery, 12, 21-46.

Viega, M. (2013). "Loving me and my butterfly wings": A study of hip-hop songs created by adolescents in music therapy (Unpublished doctoral dissertation) Temple University, Philadelphia, PA.

Woodward. A.M. (2004). Finding the client in their environment: a systems approach to music therapy programming. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy. Retrieved from https://voices.no/index.php/voices/article/view/183/142

Zuckerkandl, Victor (1973). Sound and Symbol. Vol. 2: Man the Musician. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.