Ambient Music, Beginnings and Implications (paper).


by Chris Melchior (1995)

( )


Ambient music has arisen recently out of many diverse roots in music and the arts, and has implications that are varied and interesting because they overlap with so many fascinating concepts in art, science and philosophy.

DEFINITIONS OF CONCEPTS: Music, fractals, ambient:

From Webster’s 3rd New International Dictionary of the English Language, unabridged, the definition of music is “the science or art of incorporating pleasing, expressive or intelligible combinations of vocal and instrumental tones into a composition having definite structure and continuity,” or alternatively :- “Vocal or instrumental sounds having rhythm, melody or harmony.” i.e. music is defined as only consisting of vocal or instrumental sounds, and it is implied that it has linear rather than fractal structural qualities (see the definition of fractals, below). Given this definition of music, is John Cage’s 4 minutes 33 (see below) music, as it doesn’t necessarily have any vocal or instrumental sounds, or linear structural qualities?

The word fractal has no exact definition, but is defined in terms of the characteristics of fractals. They have self-similarity, fractional dimension, a simple definition representing an infinite amount of data (because of recursion), and unpredictability of the exact outcome of any point on the fractal yet predictability of the fractal attractor (the attractor being the overall shape of the fractal). An example of a fractal is a cloud as opposed to a cube, which is a linear object. Linear objects have properties that can usually be measured in discreet steps, whereas the properties of a fractal object are mostly mapped by a continuous range of values. The property of self-similarity is very important to fractals. For example, this means that if you zoom in and look at a small piece of a cloud, it will have the same types of swirling patterns as the whole cloud. In general, self-similarity means that you get the same types of features at many different resolutions of the same fractal. Fractional dimension means that the dimension of a fractal is not a whole number. For example, a line is one-dimensionnal, and an area is two-dimensional. If you imagine a line that has curves in it, and the curves have curves and so on (the fractal property of recursion), then the line will begin to fill up an area, and will have a dimension somewhere between one and two.

The definition of ‘ambient’ from Webster’s is :- “to go around, surround, encompass. An encompassing environment, or atmosphere” [1]. If one combines the above definitions from Webster’s [1], ambient music would be vocal or instrumental tones having linear structural qualities, and creating an encompassing environment. This is clearly not a good definition of ambient music, as ambient music does not necessarily have any linear structural qualities or instrumental or vocal tones. So, attemting to reach a definition of ambient music by combining the definitions from Webster’s [1] of music and ambient, is not proving to be successful.

Ambient music may be defined as music in which in which fractal qualities are more important than linear ones, i.e. sound is more important than notes (see below). Also it is important to note that ambient music overlaps a lot with visual art work, i.e. it is multi-media.

According to Paul Gaverold, a top London ambient DJ., ambient music is “music where the rhythm is less important” [2]. Brian Eno (one of those who started ambient music) says that a piece of pop music can usually be identified from one fifth of a second of the music [3]. This means that the sound itself is most important in pop music, rather than other compositional factors; hence ambient music is taking the focus of pop music further, as other less important factors than the sound are given even less prominence to the extent of sometimes hardly existing.

Cutting-edge ambient music takes even more of the rhythmic and note concepts away from the experience of sound as sound, for example David Toop and Max Eastly’s album Buried Dreams. A sound may not necessarily be a note, for example the sound of a waterfall does not have the properties that define a note :- it doesn’t have a defined pitch, length, or starting time. Many other fractal sounds do not have the linear features that might define them as a note, such as the sound of wind, rain, leaves rustling, an air conditioning unit in opperation, or a snake hissing.

Working directly with sound rather than symbolising sound as notes is a very different process, and leads to very different results e.g. musique concrete (see below). This is because a symbol can never contain as much data as the object itself, as a symbol is, by definition, a generalisation. Also, to some extent all sounds are fractal in nature, for example an organ pipe can be thought of as making sound which begins with air hitting an edge, which creates turbulence, a fractal sound, which is then resonated by the pipe. So by symbolising a sound as a note, one not only loses most of the data, but also replaces fractal properties with the linear ones of a note. This difference will be further explored during this paper.


There are many things which can be said to have led up to the beginnings of ambient music, the most important ones being the progression through disco, techno and rave; the introduction of any sound as being usable in music; the advent of the technology which makes sampling (see below) easy; and the experiments in sound made by progressive rock composers.

The most obvious route to the beginning of ambient music is through disco, techno, and rave, to ambient (see below). This means that there is a progression through dance forms to ambient music, which is a way in a dance form as in public it is often listened to as a contrast to rave dance, and overlaps somewhat with rave/trance music, (which is music to dance to).

The progression is as follows:- techno lost most of the melodic content of disco, emphasizing the rhythmic aspects and new sound qualities, the harmonic content tended to be simpler and less conventional which went along with sounds being used a little more for their own sake rather than always as notes in a harmonic and melodic context. Following on from this, rave lost most of the vocal content, lyrics and most of the remaining melodic and harmonic content, and ambient lost the predominance of rhythm as well as almost all melody, lyrics, harmony and the importance of notes as the conceptual basis,. i.e. ambient music went beyond the linear concept of notes and more into the realm of fractals (see definitions, above). This progression went along with the changing possibilities offered with technology and to some extent loosely paralleled a similar progression in ‘classical’ music recently, from linear, note based music to composition that may not have linear concepts as a basis.

Another route to ambient music is to think of music history as a whole as a progression of gradually widening the sonic possibilities that are allowed in music. At first only octaves and fifths were used in music, then more and more intervals became acceptable:- fourths, thirds, sixths, etc. which progressed all the way to twelve-tone music in which any interval is equally acceptable. Obviously, all this progression is still firmly within the linear concepts of notes with discreetly defined pitch and starting time. The obvious progression from these linear systems is to fractals, from finite information storage to infinite. This property of fractals comes from their recursive definition (see definitions above), which means that although a fractal is usually defined mathematically by a very small amount of data, the fractal that this data represets can be litterally infinte in detail. Also, fractals are the principle way our brains relate to the universe (as the universe consists mainly of fractal objects), hence fractal based music will make sense to our minds, particularly to the right hemisphere of our brain, a concept which will be covered in more detail in the section on the implications of ambient music.

Far back in history, some musical events could be considered to be leading towards ambient music, or maybe as actual ambient music themselves. One such example is the instrument called an aeolean harp, such as the one mentioned in Homer’s Oddessy. This is, in a way, environmental ambient music. The aolean harp is an instrument that is hung outside, often from a tree, and is played by the motion of wind across the strings. Also, the first church organ recitals could be regarded as ambient music, as their purpose was to occupy the audiences attention and help to define the atmosphere of the church between sermons, rather than to present music to be listened to. This way of presenting music is used to change ones state of being, and is heard in a very different context to the concert hall or private chamber music recital. Thus, ambient music is listened to in a different way than many other forms of music.

Moving closer to the present time in music history, we have the concept of sound mass, which minimizes the importance of individual notes, regular discernible rhythms, pitches, and melody, and concentrates on the texture, thus confronting the boundary between music & noise. The use of sound mass starts with composers such as Mahler and Stravinsky and progresses to a point where composers such as Ligeti use it as a major focus in their music. This musical concept presents sound in a very different way from how it has usually been presented in the past which is as clearly perceptible notes having easily audible pitch and duration. The music of composers such as Ligeti is often still written as notes and played on conventional instruments or voices, yet for example there is often a different note for all thirty-two violin players of an orchestra. This leads to the individual notes becoming part of the whole sound (the sound mass) rather than being audible as discreet entities. This sound mass concept also relates to the composer Xenakis amongst others, who worked with the idea of creating musical compositions from the concept of sound grains, each of which is too short to be clearly perceptible on its own (usually five to forty milli-seconds), but which together can be used to define any possible sound [4].

Another recent movement in music history that had its influence on the beginnings of ambient music was futurism. The futurists were an Italian group of composers [5], who used ‘noises’ as instruments, almost without any success and approval, yet were influential in opening up the possible sounds that could be used as music. The sampling and manipulating of sounds by musique concrete [6] composers, which was made possible by electronic recording media, is clearly another very important factor leading to the beginnings of ambient music. Anti-music was a concept which furthered the expansion of music toward including all possible sounds, and John Cage’s piece 4 minutes 33 [7] introduced the idea that the sounds occurring in the world around us can be heard as music, which at the time was somewhat difficult for an audience to relate to. This piece and the concepts it presented was a very important step towards ambient music’s use of any sound as music, and also a step away from linear organization of compositional structure towards the type of structures that occur in natural sounds, which are often fractal.

Messian created piano music from transcriptions of bird song [8], taking further the imitation of natural sounds, particularly bird song, in music, which had obviously been attempted by such composers as Haydn in his Lark quartet. Messian actually recorded bird song and slowed it down, enabling him to transcribe the pitches and duration’s of sounds in the bird song. Doing this transcription process obviously came closer to recreating the sound of a birds song than Haydn who simply imitated the trills in a larks song, but at the same time, transcribing a birds song to the piano obviously limits the pitches to discreet levels, and misses the timbre changes which are part of the birds song, whereas ambient music, like the progressive rock bands mentioned below, would simply sample the birds song to present it in all its beauty, subtlety and fractal complexity.

As mentioned before, musique concrete, along with computers and other electronic technology, led to the concept of sampling, which is taking a recording of anything from the world around us to be played back and manipulated to use in the creation of music. This meant that anything, including other music, could be used as a sound source. This concept had already existed in a way, as baroque composers often used another composers material in their works. Samples are usually altered in some way from the original. Ambient music can be created entirely from the work of another composer. For example The Orb’s ambient remix of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells created a new piece entirely different from his material. Ambient music further develops the idea of the artist as a manipulator of what exists rather than always creating it himself.

The mellotron was an early electronic musical instrument which used short pieces of pre-recorded magnetic tape which were played back when the musician pressed a key on a piano type keyboard. This was one of the first versions of the electronic instrument called the ‘sampler’, which plays back sounds recorded from elsewhere. Although the first samplers were used to play back mainly conventional acoustic instrument sounds, people soon realized that any sound source could be used to create interesting sounds in this way, which opened up a vast range of new sonic possibilities. Sound sampling technology began out of the very traditional attempt to reproduce the sounds of conventional instruments as sound synthesizers mainly did, and mostly still do today, but the technology soon opened up to musicians possibilities not easily available before, which in turn led to the exploration of new artistic possibilities.

I general, electronic music presents a lack of visual interest in the concert hall. An audience is used to having plenty of visual stimulation from instrumental players and conductors, and electronic music often provides little of this. Ambient music, on the other hand, includes visual material as an important part of the performance, thus rectifying this deficiency.

Ambient music can also be traced back to minimal music [9], with its slow gradual changes, and the fact that some of the material not necessarily being perceived consciously, which are important parts of the ambient philosophy. This concept will be explored more thoroughly in the ‘implications of ambient music’ section (below).

Groups such as Pink Floyd, Yes and other progressive rock bands used the sounds of birds, planes etc. in their music [10], so ambient music is also in some ways coming out of the progressive rock direction. This way of using sounds also relates to the philosophical point that these progressive rock bands and to a greater extent, ambient music, are presenting sounds that are literally taken from the world outside of sounds created for a musical purpose, which is a relatively new concept in music. In a way, this could be seen as an extension of the earlier musical concept of ‘program music’, which is music that represents something in the physical world.

From the above comment of Brian Eno’s, that pop music is primarily about sound quality, ambient music can also be thought of as an extension of pop music, further developing of the importance of sound itself as opposed to other compositional factors.

Another event which led to ambient music being composed happened when Brian Eno was ill one day. He was too ill to move from his bed but asked a friend to come round and put some music on his stereo for him to listen to. He was listening to harp music on an old stereo which was very quiet, with rain making a lot of noise outside. The fact that the music was too quiet to hear very much frustrated him at first, but after a while he started to find something very interesting in the way the music blended with the natural sounds of the rain and wasn’t distinctly audible much of the time so he decided to compose music that worked in that way [11].

Muzak [12] is used to relax and soothe people i.e. to change ones state of being rather than to be consciously listened to as art. This is an example of background music which is heard without being actively listened to, which is a different way of listening to that which is usually applied to traditional music.

Another way in which music is used which is important in relation to ambient music is the use of music in movies. This use of music creates a mood without obscuring the focus of the movie, and shouldn’t be something that you are conscious of much of the time, yet strongly affects your state of being, which is a different use of sound to the concept of music for the concert hall.

As you can see, there was no one specific starting point for ambient music, but rather it developed out of many things through music history, some going far back in time. Now we will move on to discussing some of the implications of ambient music.


The implications of ambient music are many and varied. Here are two quotes from David Cope’s book New Directions in Music [13] which apply to new music, including ambient:- “The concept that previously unacceptable sounds can be used as music has disturbed the musical world”, and “the 20th Century is the age of revolution in music”. These two quotes are about the effect that new concepts had on the world of music, which is a very important consideration in thinking about ambient music and its conceptual implications. One of the most important points with regard to the understanding of the concepts in this paper is that they link very strongly to one other. The implications of ambient music should be seen as a whole as the concepts and ideas are all very much interdependent, as will be demonstrated by how clearly the concepts link together as they are presented here.

Most music (in the Western art tradition) is based upon notes. Even in the oral tradition the concepts that the music fundamentally depended on were notes. All traditional acoustic instruments produced notes, defining discretely at least pitch, start-time, or length. This type of sound is very different from many of the sounds that occur in nature such as a waterfall, wind, or rain, which don’t have these features and are fractal in nature rather than linear. If you take a recording of the sound of a waterfall and slow it down considerably, it will still sound like a waterfall, whereas if you do that to any instrumental or vocal sound it will sound very strange. This feature is an illustration of self-similarity, one of the definitions of a fractal (see definitions, above), in sound. Ambient music does not necessarily contain any notes, regular rhythms, linear structures, conventional scales, or other discreetly defined things, which makes it different from most music that has come before. These new concepts were introduced by some of the other types of music that led up to ambient music, as presented in the above section of this paper.

“Each aspect of sound (in modern music), frequency, amplitude, timbre, duration, is to be seen as a continuum, not as a series of discreet steps favored by convention.” John Cage made this comment [14] that illustrates one important difference between music based on fractal patterns and that based on linear patterns. He made the statement about what he defined as ‘modern music’ [14]. Ambient music, consisting of predominantly fractal rather than linear patterns, is an excellent illustration of this point, which does in one way distinguish modern music, including ambient, from most of the music that has come before the twentieth century. The note as a concept is of course defined in discrete terms, and music’s obsession with notes and their symbolization has been one of the main factors that has caused music to be mostly concerned with linear objects for so long. Breaking free from this need to symbolize music in terms of notes is one of the steps forward that modern music has taken. This can be said to be a step forward because it liberates music from a major limitation, which is what progess, in a very real sense, is all about.

This step forward was important to the musique concrete composers as one of their main aims was to make music ‘concretely’ on tape rather than by using abstract symbols of music notation. The progression from linear concepts to fractal ones also parallels to some extent the recent progression in science and technology from being based almost entirely upon linear concepts, to now starting to include some fractal concepts such as the modelling of such turbulent systems as the weather, and quantum science which go beyond the linear.

It is generally agreed that the organization of our brains functions are usually divided into two halves, the left hemisphere which mostly deals with the linear, language-based, sequential things, and the right hemisphere which deals with the fractal, intuitive, holistic concepts [15]. Ambient music has more relevance to the right hemisphere of our brains than most other types of music, as it is more about the fractal, holistic, non-symbolized things, compared to ‘classical’ music, which, being symbolized in notes, is obviously represented by linear structural qualities.

“The effect of conventions in cultural tradition is to limit the individual to experiencing the range of emotions which the signs symbolize or evoke.” This quote by Morse Peckham [16] is very much related to what ambient music can be said to do when it presents a fractal-based structure rather than a linear one, as the way in which the left hemisphere of our brain symbolizes things does not happen in the fractal patterns presented by ambient music. This use of fractal structure of course allows us to break free from some of the usual conventions of our perception of music, and leads to the possibility of a new and different experience.

Synthesized or recorded ‘natural’ sounds are sometimes played in people’s homes to try and bridge the gap between living in a man made structure and the perceptions available in the world of nature. Examples of this concept are new age sound tapes of rain, wind, sea etc. These sounds can lead one to a different mental state, because they are more fractal in nature than the traditional music we listen to, and as such, can allow us to some extent to change over from our usually left-hemisphere dominated thinking, to a quite different state where our right hemisphere is allowed to experience the world. There is a very interesting exercise presented in the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards [17] which allows one to experience the change over from left to right hemisphere thinking. This book presents this alternative way of thinking as being very important in the development of a person as a visual artist, and it can be said that this new learning could also be a very important step in ones development as a creator of, or even listener to, ambient music, as well as helping in many other aspects of life. This exercise consists of drawing the profile of a face on one half of a piece of paper, while metally labelling all the parts (such as nose, forehead, upper lip, etc.). Then one draws a mirror image of the profile by simply mirroring the line itself, and not thinking of the labels of parts. One can feel the distinct difference in using the left brain hemisphere in the first part of the exercise, compared to working with the right brain hemisphere in the second part. One the goes on to do different exercises which show how much more beautifully one draws if one responds with ones right brain hemisphere to what actually exists, rather than looking at it, symbolising the object, and drawing a symbol. That is the way that childeren draw:- they look at a face, decide that that is a face, then look away and draw a symbol of a face. This clearly leads to a very different result than an experienced classical portrait artist who will draw by looking at what is actually there and drawing it, not by symbolising it. This applies very clearly to ambient music because it is about working with the sounds themselves rather than by symbolising sounds as notes.

Experiments have been done on music that show that the most pleasing spectrum for the spread of the pitches of notes is that of a noise spectrum that has a frequency distribution of one over frequency [18]. This means that the larger the interval between successive notes, the less likely it is to occurr. This spectrum gives the longest ‘memory’ to a sequence of notes, as the next interval depends as much on the last ten intervals as on the last one hundred etc [18]. Indeed, if the pitches of most types of Western art tradition music (one notable exception being Stockhausen) are analysed, they will be very close to this statistical spread. This is said to be because this spectrum has the property of self-similarity. As you will remember from the definition of the word fractal (see definitions, above), self-similarity is one of the important properties of a fractal, and so the use of fractals to generate music should naturally lead to music that has a frequency spectrum that exhibits this property of self-similarity, and is thus pleasing and interesting to the ear. So, as in many other ways, ambient music is further developing one of the important perceptual factors in music by removing many factors that can be considered less important to the essence of the perceptual experience of sound, such as notes. This follows because notes are symbols of sounds, and, as symbols, they cannot contain as much information as the objects they represent, and so cannot present as much detail to be percieved as the sounds itself. Also, because sounds are percieved more by our right brain hemisphere than our left (notes being percieved more by the left), they will be perceived as a more direct experience than notes (because notes are symbols, and as such must be one step removed from the objects they represent).

“Music lets us know something that we cannot put into words”. This is a quote by Diana Raffman, from her book Language, music and mind [19]. The concept presented in this quote probably means that music is in some way affecting the right hemisphere of our brain, and therefore possesses fractal as well as linear qualities, because she says that music does something that the words, the symbols that our left hemisphere uses to categorize the world, cannot express. She makes this quote about very traditional music, in which case ambient music is in this way, as in many other ways, taking further one of the things that she is saying is most important in music, which is music’s fractal quality that moves us in a way that cannot be put into words. This quote is a typical nineteenth Century remark, yet, as shown above, has implications beyond that context.

Ambient music is essentially a multi-media art form, even though it is often listened to without other media. For example, the well known ambient group Future Sound Of London created a piece called Lifeforms, but this composition includes images and is sold as a video rather than primarily as a purely music recording. This concept relates in part to the idea presented in the section above, that early electronic music presented very little visual interest to the audience. It also relates to the fact that in ambient music there is not necessarily one focus of ones conscious attention while experiencing it, and also to the use of electronic recording technology to sample things from the world, which helps different media to be more easily integrated.

Technology, especially the computer, treats data as a generalization, as it is all represented by the same binary system which stores all data as ones and zeros. Sound, MIDI [20], images, text etc. can all go through similar transformations and be worked with in much the same way on a computer, hence the skills one needs to work with different types of data are much more generalized. One can then work by simply experimenting and developing further the results that one finds interesting from ones exploration rather than studying a traditional way of planning the work in advance which necessarily symbolizes the material thus removing the artist from the moment of creation. This new way of working with data brings artistic creation with far less of the pre-knowledge that would necessarily fix the scope of the artists exploration somewhat. This concept enables art to progress far faster than has been previously possible, as art has done in the 20th Century. Obviously, every human is brought up in the context of the art and artifacts that he is exposed to and this is bound to influence his early works. Indeed many artists copy the work or style of others before exploring the possibilities of their own; but now this can happen almost immediately upon deciding to play with data, and so progress can be much quicker than before when one had to spend many years learning the skills necessary to work with the media. It also means that someone who has learned how to work with sounds on a computer can easily apply most of the same concepts and skills to working with images, for example, or vice versa. Sampling using electronic media relates to concepts such as the internet where anyone can find images, sound, text, and other data from all over the world, very simply and quickly. This technical possibility gives the artist much easier access to a wide variety of starting material that he might not have had until recently, which can lead to art being made from data the artist has found rather than being predominately made from the beginning by the artist. An example of this concept is Pachelbel’s Cannon in D, used as a sound source by Future Sound of London in their album Lifeforms.

People that make ambient music are not necessarily trained musicians; they may be electronics or computer experts, visual artists etc. For example, Future Sound of London let members of the audience create images by using their equipment during a live performance. This example, and others, postulates the concept that anybody can create art, which has interesting parallels with the internet in the way that it can bring people to the same level. For example, on the internet the president of America and a street bum in San Francisco cannot necessarily be distinguished by other users so that what they say can sometimes have equal weight. Of course this fact may be frowned upon by trained musicians who have spent decades of their life learning how to produce ‘art’. But which is more important, art or the artists? In the visual arts, David Hockney, amongst others, has shown that the artist is not necessarily the one who practically creates the work; for example his Marilyn Monroes are screen prints which are decided upon by Hockney but produced by other technicians, yet it is still his art. This way of thinking also relates to the photographer as an artist, because while most of the time he cannot be thought of as the one who either creates the subject he photographs, or the physical photographic print itself, he is still the artist as he chooses what to present from near infinite possibilities. It is the same with a creator of ambient music, who might sample all his source material from elsewhere, yet is still the one who chooses what to present to the audience and this can be said to make him an artist. This concept of the artist as one who decides upon but does not necessarily create a work of art also relates to music such as John Cage’s 4 minutes 33, in which John Cage decides some aspects of what will happen, such as the overall time structure, but does not specify any of the sounds that will be heard as the content of the music.

Ambient composers sometimes use specially constructed equipment, for example custom designed precision digital filters for the Orb, and a CD-ROM player adapted for graphics as used by Future Sound Of London. Yet they can also use very conventional equipment, for example the ‘cutting-edge ambient’ album Buried Dreams by David Toop and Max Eastly, which was created mostly from sounds generated using their own sound sculptures and specially constructed musical instruments. Also something like a fountain in a garden could be thought of as making ambient music and could certainly be listened to as such. This means that although ambient music has in many ways come about because of the possibilities that new technology has made available, the concepts it has developed go beyond the technology itself.

In Taoism, an Eastern philosophical system [21], there is a beautiful example of the way people perceive the world that relates very strongly to concepts which are important in ambient music. This example is as follows:- when you are young you see a bird flying past and event captures your entire attention for a while, you are entirely open to perceiving all that is there. Later on in life someone tells you what the bird is called and the next time that bird flies past, you say to yourself “ah – that’s a sparrow” and walk on, not really seeing the bird in all its beauty any more, but just labeling it. This story illustrates very well how most adults, especially in the Western world, perceive very little of the world around us, because we tend to symbolise objects (as in the above example), which necessarliy removes us one step from the direct perception of reality. This is because the symbol ‘a sparrow’ contains less information than any particular sparrow, which is the whole point of a symbol. If the symbol contains less information, then one who symbolises will percive less than one who doesn’t. One might suggest that one would be percieving both the reality, and the symbol, but this is not usually the case, which is very obvious from the results you get if you ask an average person in the Western world to draw an object that is in front of them (you get drawings of symbols, which are far less interesting than the objects themselves). Another example of this difference is that the sounds that are around us all the time, like the sound of the wind, rain, or a car going past, are not consciously perceived by most people. One thing ambient music does is to present sounds like that as being worthy of hearing, which is very similar to the Taoist concept of being truly open to the perception of all that occurs in the world. Ambient music is in many ways concerned with one’s perception of the world, and of presenting sounds that one might not normally be aware of, or that one might not normally consider as music. This concept also relates to the fact that ambient music is presenting predominately fractal objects to our perception rather than the traditional linear objects of the music of the past, which leads to more direct perception, because fractal objects don’t get symbolised by our minds in the same way that linear ones easily can.

“There is no such thing as silence” said John Cage after standing in an anechoic chamber [22] and hearing sounds that he later found out were the sound of the circulation of his own blood, and the brownian motion of air molecules against his eardrums. This realization means that even in the absence of external sounds, we are always in an acoustic environment generated by our own bodies, and that every external sound we hear is to some extent affected by this fact. Ambient music, especially when played at a barely perceptible level, which it often can be, takes this concept much further by including the sounds of the listeners environment as being important to the perception of the music.

Music is sometimes said to derive from an innate ‘natural language’. For example, the uses of rhythm in music follow typical language structures, such as the Eastern European use of five and seven times, the Western World’s typical four time, the Viennese three time, etc. In this way, ambient music could be considered even more natural as it deals with fractals that we more fundamentally relate to than the linear concepts developed by science in the last few centuries (because the natural world that we are part of is predominately made of fractals). Music is sometimes said to derive from the patterns of language used when vocalizing while doing physical labor, and from imitating or fitting in with the sounds of machines working around us. To some extent this statement can be said to be true, but music also derives from being a practical aid to meditation as in plainsong, some Indian music, mantra [23], and much other Eastern music. This route to the beginning of music relates to ambient music, which is in some ways a stream of consciousness, rather than being based on the usual emotional curve as most Western music has until recently [24].

In minimal music it can be said that the act of listening itself creates the music. When listening to minimal music, the listener begins to lose awareness of the constant factors in the music and becomes aware of the things that change. This concept means that what the listener actually hears as the music is very fundamentally affected by the act of listening itself. Other more traditional western music presents changes to the listener as the foreground. The only thing you can perceive is change, as any of our senses will lose awareness of any constant factor after some time. This idea relates to ambient music because ambient music does not necessarily present itself to our conscious perception, and as such is involving the listeners perception more than his thoughts, in the music. Also, ambient music does not usually present as much density of change and things to be focused on as more traditional music does.

Morse Peckham [25] says that “art rehearses one for enduring uncertainty”, This way of being is a contrast to the way that we live usually which is by classifying and attempting to predict everything that occurs. He goes further to say that art presents a safe environment so that one can drop ones perceptive defenses. The use of unpredictability in music can make the listener ignorant as to what may follow, causing uncertainty. This characteristic of art can actually open an individual to change and self-development, which can be said to be a very worthy goal. Ambient music presents many new concepts and perceptual possibilities to the listener, which is, as Morse Peckham says, opening ones mind to not knowing and classifying as one usually does to obvious linear structural qualities, but to actually perceiving what is occurring.

By all means understand and think about ambient music, but it can be suggested that the experience of it must be had while letting go of all intellectual processes, as the experience itself rather than the intellectualization is what ambient music can be said to be about. This idea relates very strongly to many philosophical concepts, such as a phrase from the book Dune by Frank Herbert, “life is a reality to be experienced, not a problem to be solved”, and also to most self-development processes, including meditations, Yoga, Tai-Chi [26] etc. The fractal concepts presented in ambient music make this way of thinking easier than with music that is more linear, as does the way ambient music presents an environment to perceive, rather than obvious changes to catch ones conscious attention as more traditional music does.

One of the things that ambient music can do is to make people aware of perceiving the world around them, which is similar to some of the goals of the life-meditation and many other practices such as Taoism, Yoga, Tai- Chi, and the Zen philosophy that influenced John Cage etc. In life-meditation one simply does one thing at a time, in contrast to the way that most people in the Western world are always thinking about something else, whatever they are doing. For example, one would simply walk down the street, rather than walking down the street thinking about what one is going to have for lunch that day, or being annoyed because it’s raining. The way of being embodied by this meditation, and may other self-development processes, has been recomended for many thousands of years as a way of making worthwhile progress in ones life. Obviously, when one is thinking about something else when one is doing something, the thing one is thinking about is not about present time. If one is avoiding being in present time (which is obviously the only time in which we have actual contact with the universe), then one is putting a barrier between oneself and reality, and the definition of self-development, or progress, can be said to be the removal of barriers. Most Westerners actually spend very little of their lives in present time (which is the only time in which one can actually take action to affect ones life), which is why they feel that the things that happen to them are someone else’s fault, or ‘fate’, rather than being responsible for their own lives. Presenting something that may lead a listener to move towards this way of being can be a valid artistic goal. Ambient music presents sounds from the world around as music, thus developing our perceptions of the world around us, as well as our perception of what can be appreciated as music, and also presents fractal concepts that are not so easy for us to spend our time defining in words rather than actually perceiving.

The production of ambient music can be thought of as a personal and perceptual, rather than an intellectual, exploration of the world by the artist. In the course of this exploration, the artist inevitably builds up his own context or ‘language’. This may be considered to be the fine art concept idealized, as one must react to the products of ones experimentation rather than to some pre-defined reality defined by the conventions in ones head. This idea comes from a definition of the concept of fine art as being a process whereby ones work progresses because of ones development of interesting factors that one perceives as one is creating successive stages of art work 27].

“Art is Made, it doesn’t just happen”. This is a quote from Thinking about Music by Lewis Rowell [28]. Ambient music is blurring this boundary, as it takes things which do ‘just happen’ and presenting them as art. He also says that art is created from a vision of the whole, which again is challenged by ambient music among other forms, as much ambient music is created in a way that uses a ‘stream of consciousness’ and as such the whole cannot be envisioned until it has already happened. Also the fractal nature of many of the sounds used means that, from the definition of a fractal, the details of the sound cannot be predicted ahead of time. This concept also relates to the fact that ambient music relates to the right hemisphere of our brains rather that the left hemisphere that is usually involved in constructing music in a predefined structural way.

Ambient music is often listened to as a background or as not being the primary focus of conscious perception. For example there is a playing instruction on the Buried Dreams album by David Toop and Max Eastly which asks for the music to be played at “a barely perceptible volume”. Is this to be distinguished from the identical playing instruction on Tavener’s The Last Sleep of the Virgin? The Tavener piece wouldn’t necessarily be categorized as ambient music, yet in a way it could be thought of as being so because the effect is that the music itself fits into, rather than dominating, the environment around it. This idea obviously blurs the definition of music as being separate from ‘nature’, in a way which contrasts to the Western Art Tradition of concert hall music. The same thing happens with the ambient concept of multi-media, as there is no one conscious focus of perception, but rather an overall experience of an environment.

Sound can be listened to as the textural qualities of an environment. This statement can be taken to mean that ambient music is concerned with landscape which indeed relates to the definition of ‘ambient’ given above, and also relates to the use of fractal qualities by ambient music because the world of nature is one made up mostly of fractals, compared to our man-made world which is mostly constructed of linear objects. Ambient music can also be said to be a landscape with the figure left out. This idea relates to the progression from real to abstract in the visual arts, the turning point of which may be said to be Turner, who would paint a beautiful abstract texture, but still feel the need to fit into the conventions of his past by including some small identifiable object such as a ship somewhere in the painting to define in as a real environment. Artists one generation later than Turner would have left this ‘figure’ out of their environment, resulting in abstract work which can be still very much a landscape as an abstract painting by Rothko would be said to be [29].

Leonard Meyer presented the opinion that most music of the past has not represented any real object, as opposed to other arts which often do represent objects in the universe [30]. Ambient music is obviously changing this concept somewhat as it presents sonic objects which are sometimes perceptibly as real things from the world around us. This change could be thought of as arising out of the sampling concept which started with musique concrete.

It is possible to perceive music in the way that you would a painting in your house, which is always there, yet you don’t mind if you walk past it, you notice it bit by bit over time. This way of perceiving obviously contrasts greatly with the usual way of thinking about concert hall music. This thought also suggests that ambient music blurs the boundary between spacial and temporary art. Paintings exist in space and don’t change through time, whereas Western music exists more as changes in time than in space. Ambient music, being concerned with landscape and ambiance, is about spacial qualities as much as temporal ones. This concept could also be said to link ambient music to the music of other cultures, as the music of some Eastern cultures tends to exit as a state which doesn’t necessarily change though time, and in this way has less temporally structural features than most traditional western music.

People can relate to the environmental sounds used in ambient music. This is an example of perceptual affinity, a very important concept in music. Recognition and definition are fundamental to our left-hemisphere perception, and this relates the listener to the sounds, thus involving the listener more intimately with the music which in a way contrasts to the way that ambient music appeals more to our right hemisphere than our left, but as most people living in the western world cannot go for very long without something present for their left hemisphere to relate to, this aspect of ambient music can provide that stimulus to our left hemisphere.

As ambient music is often listened to not as the foreground of our perception, in a way every time one listens to the same piece of ambient music it is a different piece, as it is heard in a different context of other environmental perceptions. This is in contrast to most other types of music, especially when listened to from a recording, as most music attempts to be the sole focus of our attention when we listen to it, it is the same music every time. This statement would not have been so true before recorded music became the main medium of experiencing music, as a live performance will always be to some extent unique.

John Cage said, “The responsibility of the artist consists in perfecting his work so that it may become attractively disinteresting” [31]. Ambient music, in the way that it is not usually listened to as the sole focus of our conscious attention, yet is enjoyed by many, can be said to fulfill this quality of being attractively dissinteresting. “An artist does not lead us to a new reality, he presents a way of escaping from some conventions.” This quote by Morse Peckham [32] provides us with an interesting conceptual way of looking at ambient music. Rather than saying that ambient music presents a new musical reality, we can say that ambient music gives us a way of escaping from some of the conventions that are embodied in other types of music. Examples of such conventions, that ambient music can be thought of as presenting a way of escaping from, are music as the conscious focus of our attention, music as being heard much as distinct from the ambient sounds of an environment, and music being made up of linear structural entities.

Having said all of the above points, I don’t listen to ambient music for any of these reasons, I listen to it because I find it beautiful and fascinating.




Ambient music came from a variety of starting points, including the route through disco, techno, and rave, from the developments begun by John Cage’s 4 miutes 33, and from progressive rock composers such as Brian Eno.

The implications of ambient music are many and varied, including the step forward to using fractal concepts in many aspects of the music rather than the linear concepts used before, the opening of people’s experience to include really appreciating more sounds in the world around them, and a new way of listening to music in the way that one might view a painting.

This discussion of ambient music has presented some observations and opinions about ambient music, which relate particularly to the category of music which is sometimes defined as ‘cutting-edge ambient’. Some major concepts are common to many of the points mentioned, and these include fractal structures, a different way of perceiving music, sampling objects from the world around us, and the importance of sound quality rather than relationships between notes. However, none of the points mentioned are meant as statements of fact, they are simply concepts to be explored and developed, and any reality or truth discovered for oneself. This idea means that there are no conclusions as such to this paper, there are instead many questions that can be explored further to find ones own perception of what is around us, in the same way that ambient music itself presents an environment to be perceived rather than facts to be categorized and distanced from.

Read this paper and these questions with the attitude suggested by Morse Peckhams quote, “An artist does not lead us to a new reality, he presents a way of escaping from some conventions.” [33]. Think of some of the conventions that this paper, and ambient music as an art form, have presented a way of escaping from.

Some of the questions from this paper that can be explored further are :-

Can sound that has not been organized in linear patterns, be considered as music?

Has ambient music done anything to change our perception of music, sound, or the world in general?

Do you prefer listening to notes or sounds (i.e. symbols or reality)?

What conventions has ambient music offered a way of escaping from?

Can you gain more by really perceiving a reality rather than, or in addition to, symbolizing it?

Can you gain something by learning to make more use of your right brain hemisphere?

Will your life be richer if you perceive more of what occurs around you rather than categorizing things which leads to symbolising rather than perceiving them?

Is the more immediate, experimental way of working with sound and other data on a computer beneficial to art?

Should listening be part of the way in which a musician creates music, as opposed to reading symbols and doing pre-defined actions? Also how would you find a way of teaching music that would lead to the former?

Does an artist necessarily have to be the craftsman that creates the starting points of the realities he works with?

Does music always have to be in the foreground of our perception?

Is escaping from our usual conventions something worth doing, and if so, what are the benefits of doing so, and how would one go about doing so?

I will not suggest what one may learn from these questions or from this paper, as that must be up to the individual reader to decide, and one will learn more from formulating ones own further explorations from this paper than from having them given. It is the experience of learning and being individually responsible for drawing ones own conclusions that is important here because, as Morse Peckham says, art can be a way of leading one away from any existing conventions, whether they are ones own or someone else’s.




[1] Definition from Webster’s 3rd New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged.

[2] This quote was given orally to me in 1993.

[3] See Korner, Anthony, Aurora Musicalis, Artforum USA. Volume 242. (summer 1986), 76-79. An excellent article concerned with ambient music and Brian Eno, very interesting philosophically and practically, well written.

[4] Xenakis wrote about granular synthesis starting on page 43 of Xenakis, Iannis. Formalized Composition, thought and mathematics in composition. Bloomington, London: Indiana University Press, (1971).

[5] The futurists included F. B. Pratella (1880-1955), and Luigi Russolo (1885-1947), working with ideas that were introduced by the writer F. T. Marinetti (1876-1942), that intended to make a type of music suitable for the industrial age.

[6] Musique concrete was an experimental genre, developed by a group of composers in Paris in the late 1940’s. The composers included Pierre Shaffer and Pierre Henry, and they were concerned with creating music ‘concretely’ on tape rather than abstractly by notation, as well as with using sounds found from the world around them.

[7] John Cage wrote the composition 4 minutes 33 in 1952. He was a composer strongly influenced by the philosophies of Zen.

[8] Messian, a Parisian composer, wrote catalogue d’oiseaux for piano in 1958, from transcriptions of bird song. Most of his other compositions were strongly religious in nature.

[9] Minimalism is a compositional idea that radically reduces the range of compositional materials, and makes extensive use of small motivic cells. It repeats patterns many times causing the focus to shift to the small changes in the motive and to the sound quality itself. It is related to meditation and non-Western thought processes, and the genre includes composers such as Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Michael Nyman.

[10] For example, on the album The Wall, by Pink Floyd, there are sounds of larks, planes, and a helicopter, amongst others.

[11] This anecdote was taken from the article:- Korner, Anthony, Aurora Musicalis, Artforum USA. Volume 242. (summer 1986), 76-79.

[12] Muzak is a description of the kind of music that is played over the public address system at a restaurant. It is characterized by low volume, consistent mood, no abrupt changes, and not being the focus of attention.

[13] See Cope, David. New Directions In Music. Wm. C. Brown Company Pub. (1976).

[14] See Cage John. Silence: lectures and writings. Cambridge: The MIT Press (1966).

[15] See Edwards, Betty. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher, New York: dist. by Martins Press. (1979).

[16] See Peckham, Morse. Beyond the Tragic Vision; the quest for identity in the nineteenth century. New York, G. Brazillier, (1962).

[17] Edwards, Betty. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher, New York: dist. by Martins Press. (1979). An excellent book giving practical exercises by which one can actually feel the change over from using the left to the right hemisphere, and learn to apply this very productively to visual arts.

[18] See page 290 of Dodge, Charles. Computer Music. New York: Schirmer books, London: Collier Macmillan, (1985).

[19] See Raffman, Diana. Language, Music and Mind. Cambridge Massachusetts, London, England: MIT Press (1993).

[20] MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, and is a digital protocol for exchanging information about musical events, such as the start of a note or the change of a tempo.

[21] Taoism is a religious and philosophical system, started by Lao-Tzo in the sixth Century BC, and includes the practice of Tai-Chi, a therapeutic meditation in movement, which itself can lead to very powerful systems of self-defense.

[22] An anechoic chamber is a space designed to have as little as possible in the way of echoes and reverberation, by using acoustic damping on all possible surfaces. It is used to make acoustic measurements.

[23] Mantra is a use of sounds as meditation. An example would be repeating the word ‘Om’ many times, for the purposes of spiritual gain.

[24] Most Western music has an ’emotional journey’ embodied in its structure, with a start, one or more climaxes, and an end, etc. This is different from some modern music, or the music of some other cultures, which does not have these features.

[25] See. Peckham, Morse. Beyond the Tragic Vision; the quest for identity in the nineteenth century. New York: G. Brazillier, (1962).

[26] Taoism is a religious and philosophical system, started by Lao-Tzo in the sixth Century BC, and includes the practice of Tai-Chi, a therapeutic meditation in movement, which itself can lead to very powerful systems of self-defense.

[27] This definition of fine art was given orally to me by the head of the Foundation Art Course at Middlesex Polytechnic, London (a very highly regarded art course), in 1988.

[28] Rowell, Lewis. Thinking About Music. University of Massachusetts Press (1983).

[29] This idea of a Rothko painting being about landscape comes from an oral quote, given to me by a member of staff on the Foundation Art Course at Middlesex Polytechnic, London (a very highly regarded art course), in 1988.

[30] See Meyer. Leonard B. Emotion and Meaning in Music. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (1956).M-J

[31] See Cage John. Empty Words. Middletown Conn.: Wesleyan University Press. (c1979).

[32] See Peckham, Morse. Beyond the Tragic Vision; the quest for identity in the nineteenth century. New York, G. Brazillier, (1962).

[33] Ibid.




David Toop and Max Eastly – “Buried Dreams”,

The Orb,

Future Sound of London,

William Orbit,

Aphex Twin.


Cage, John. Empty Words.
Middletown Conn.: Wesleyan University Press. (c1979).
187 pages.

A very interesting book which draws ideas from a very wide variety of contexts, and presents a clearly graspable whole. Includes ‘textual art’.

Cage, John. Silence: lectures and writings. Cambridge: The MIT Press (1966).
276 pages.

A very interesting book with many fascinating ideas. The writing jumps around to a wide variety of related topics, but produces good intelligibility of overall concepts, and how they link to so much else.

Cope, David. New Directions In Music.
Wm. C. Brown Company Pub. (1976).

A well presented, clear, easy to understand book, giving a general idea of the subject with some good detail.

Dodge, Charles. Computer Music.
New York: Schirmer books, London: Collier Macmillan, (1985).
383 pages.

An excellent book covering many practical and theoretical aspects of computer music in a way that gives good detail yet is clearly understandable to someone without too much specialist knowledge of the area. The concepts are well presented with real practical examples. Contains some mathematics, but this is usually explained verbally which is a good thing.

Edwards, Betty. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.
Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher, New York: dist. by Martins Press. (1979).
207 pages.

An excellent book giving practical exercises by which one can actually feel the change over from using the left to the right hemisphere, and learn to apply this very productively to visual arts.

Hopkins, Gerard Manly. The poems of Gerard Manly Hopkins.
London, New York: Oxford University Press. (1967).
362 pages.

Poems about the senses and emotions. Interesting, but not a use of language that appeals to me in any way, and I do not find that it relates to this topic.

Korner, Anthony, Aurora Musicalis.
Artforum USA. Volume 242. (summer 1986), pp. 76-79.

An excellent article about ambient music and Brian Eno, very interesting philosophically and practically, well written.

Langer, Suzanne Katherina Knauth. Philosophy in a New Key.
Cambridge Harvard University Press. (1957).
313 pages.

Presents some interesting concepts but written using language that mostly acts to obscure the meaning of the concepts, which makes it not easy for me to understand.

Lanza, Joseph. The Sound of Cottage Cheese.
Performing Arts Journal, USA. Volume XXXIX/3 (Sept, 1991) pp 42-53.

A good article presenting its ideas about background music and muzak, clearly and well.

Meyer, Leonard B. Emotion and Meaning in Music.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1956.
307 pages.

I find this book very difficult to gain any understanding from. The concepts are presented in a way I found very confusing and not very well thought out. Very ‘academic’.

Peckham, Morse. Beyond the Tragic Vision; the quest for identity in the nineteenth century.
New York: G. Brazillier, (1962).
380 pages.

A very interesting book, presenting fascinating concepts and insights, and an unusual viewpoint that is well worth experiencing. Presents its profound concepts in an understandable way. Well written.

Raffman, Diana. Language, Music and Mind.
Cambridge Massachusetts, London, England: MIT Press (1993).
168 pages.

Well written, clear, presents its interesting ideas about music and linguistics well.
Rowell, Lewis. Thinking About Music.
University of Massachusetts Press (1983).
285 pages.

Very interesting philosophical ideas, clear and easy to follow.

Sadie, Stanley. ed. The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music,
New York, London: W. W. Norton & co.

This very useful encyclopedia is clearly written and includes many brief descriptions of important topics in music.

Taruskin, Richard. Does Nature Call The Tune?
New York Times, Classical Music, (Sept. 18th, 1994), p28.

A clear and well presented article.

Webster 3rd New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged.

The place to look up a definition of any word in the English language.

Xenakis, Iannis. Formalized Composition, thought and mathematics in composition.
Bloomington, London: Indiana University Press, (1971)
269 pages.

An interesting book, containing many useful and thought provoking concepts and ideas. It has many examples of his compositions to illustrate the concepts, and many mathematical formulas which are explained clearly in the text.

Young, John. Sign Language: Source recognition of environmental sounds in electronic music.
Canzona, New Zealand. V XIV/34 (1991). pp 22-27.

The abstract gave a good understanding of the ideas, which were very interesting.

Leave a Reply