Health / Music Hath Charms

For these stressful times, songs that can reduce your cortisol.

"Weightless," by the British group Marconi Union, consists of eight minutes of keyboard, guitar and soft, electronically rendered natural sounds. It's so boring it can induce sleep. But Lyz Cooper, the founder of the British Academy of Sound Therapy, who worked with the band on the piece, considers that a compliment.

The work had its genesis in an initiative by a British manufacturer of bathroom products, which as part of an advertising campaign wanted to produce the most relaxing song ever. Cooper and Marconi Union were hired for the mission. More than 100 women were asked which music they usually listened to in order to relax. Afterward, "Weightless" was compared to the pieces that were mentioned the most times in the survey (including songs by Enya, Adele, Coldplay and a Mozart piece ).


The independent research firm Mindlab International, based at Sussex University, was hired to conduct the study. Some 40 women were hooked up to instruments that record blood pressure, pulse and breathing activity, among other physiological and neurological indicators. Then the songs were played for them. Based on an index compiled from these variables, "Weightless" was found to be 11 percent more effective at inducing relaxation than any other song, and capable of reducing cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress. The track's ability to induce relaxation was compared to that of a massage, a cup of tea and an outdoor stroll, and found more significant. In fact, the Daily Mail reported, "The eight-minute track is so effective at inducing sleep, motorists have now been warned they should not listen to it whilst driving."

The members of the band declined to be interviewed. They did say, however, that they had never been in touch with the scientists who conducted the research. They had only created the kind of music they like, in line with the band's sound and style. However, Cooper is only too happy to talk about the track's qualities. In a phone conversation last week, she explained that Marconi Union was responsible for the composition. She, for her part, had "injected sound vitamins into the song. Sound therapy works like acupuncture, but using sounds instead of needles."

Which vitamins did you inject into the song?

Cooper: "The piece needs to last more than five minutes, because that's how long it takes for the brain and the pulse to start being affected by music. We started the piece at the rate of 60 beats a minute and gradually went down to 54, so that the heart and respiration rate could get into synch with the music. I asked the band to focus on undertones, which help the system relax, and on sounds like the 'Om' of Buddhist monks. But to ensure that people would not simply fall asleep, they were asked to use high tones alternately."

Is "relaxed" necessarily a synonym for "slow and boring" in music?

"It's in the ears of the listener. Over the years, Dr. David Lewis, from Mindlab, examined a large number of people using many different pieces of music. He said that only one man produced alpha waves [which characterize a meditative state between sleep and wakefulness] while listening to heavy metal. But most people respond more to slow music at lower tones. There are physical processes that cannot be ignored."

What kind of music relaxes you most?

"Hymns of Tibetan monks. It's fantastic."