Meditation Apps Want Us to Chill Out. Musicians Are Happy to Help.
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When Erykah Badu creates a new song, she starts with instruments that are usually treated as accessories, such as singing bells, shakers, mallets and tuning forks. It has been like that since “Baduizm,” the singer and producer’s debut album in 1997.
“What draws me and you and everyone else is that these frequencies and sounds connect with our organs and cells,” she said from her home in Dallas. “You are able to eradicate certain ailments. You break the molecules apart. “
Badu has long believed and practiced what she calls the healing art. In 2001 she became a doula and in 2006 a Reiki master. For her most recent journey she constructed a 58-minute instrumental piece by “New Age old futuristic medical music ”for the meditation app Headspace. Released as part of the company’s Focus Music series, it’s a gently undulating wave, occasionally interrupted by deep bass.
“I feel like life is one healing process at a time,” said Badu. “Everything I do will reflect that.”
Badu’s composition is part of the ever-expanding A vortex of music and mindfulness that has only grown stronger during the pandemic. With no dance floors or concert halls to fill, many listeners turned to softer, more unobtrusive music to soothe their restless minds. In response, artists who may not publicly adhere to this sometimes esoteric have become Terrain is now feeling encouraged to do so.
Diplo released his first ambient album “MMXX” last September, while Sufjan Stevens released a five-volume collection of keyboard music called “Convocations” in early May. Alicia Keys recently completed a 21 day “meditation experience” with Deepak Chopra, available through his website.
Although New Age artists have been releasing music for meditation on tapes and CDs for decades, technology companies are now happy to financially support musical experiments that meet their own goals. Over the past 15 fearful and insecure months, wellness apps have grown with new subscribers looking for different experiences. In the past, musicians may have joined initiatives related to Vans, Red Bull, or Toyota – powerful brands willing to use their deep pockets to gain credibility with young consumers. Mindfulness apps now play a similar role, providing artistic opportunities in a precarious time for the music industry.
Headspace wanted to create more music that would help people focus on one task, and last August the company announced the appointment of John Legend as chief music officer. Legend opened the monthly Focus Music project with a licensed playlist of melodious jazz tracks. In addition to Badu’s contribution, original, voiceless pieces by artists such as acclaimed film music composer Hans Zimmer and the rock band Arcade Fire were shown in the following episodes.
“Musicians have always been interested in whether a song or a sound can create a certain mood,” says William Fowler, Head of Content for material that appears in the Headspace app. He noted that Focus Music “came in a year when musicians who had other plans had time for a project like this,” which gave the company access to people who might otherwise be doing different things.
In March 2019, Moby debuted “Long Ambients Two,” an album with extended compositions designed to help listeners fall asleep, exclusively on Calm, which began as a meditation app. After that, the company was inundated with requests from other musicians. With limited experience in the world, Calm hired Courtney Phillips, former director of branding partnerships for Universal Music Group, to lead the music department and expand her library.
She continued the streaming premieres, but also commissioned artists like country star Keith Urban and the genre twister Moses Sumney to create original tracks. Calm also released a series of hour-long “sleep remixes” of songs by Universal artists, including Post Malone’s “Circles” and Ariana Grande’s “Breathin”.
“We’re a tech company, so we like to look at: Why do people come here? What do you want? “Said Phillips.” Piano is the most popular genre of all time according to Calm, so I want to make sure I have a variety of different piano music for people. And at the same time, I want to work with artists and say let’s do something, what people might not expect. “
Berlin-based technology company Endel has developed an approach to promoting mental health through music that embraces European sophistication. Instead of the bright colors and the feel-good iconography of the competition, the app is strictly black and white with a minimalist user interface. Oleg Stavitsky, the company’s managing director, is an avowed music lover who proudly pulled out his Laurie Anderson and Ornette Coleman albums during our video interview. He said he was interested in delving deeper after dismantling his parents’ vinyl collection.
“Once you start digging, you inevitably end up with Brian Eno,” he said, referring to the producer and composer responsible for some of the groundbreaking works in ambient music.
While the music of most meditation apps either runs in a loop or has predetermined start and end points, the output from Endel is more dynamic. The company has developed an algorithm that takes into account factors such as time of day, weather, and a person’s heart rate to provide a personalized sound experience every time.
Neoclassical composer Dmitry Evgrafov is one of the co-founders of Endel and provides the original musical strains that incorporate artificial intelligence, but of course the company staff became curious about what would happen if the source material came from other artists. Grimes invented the sleeping pill “AI Lullaby,” and Endel recently released a productivity piece called “Deep Focus” by Plastikman, the minimalist techno alias of DJ and producer Richie Hawtin.
“When we talk to a lot of these artists, they either thought about doing something like this or they have already done it,” said Stavitsky. “They are looking for low-risk and interesting ways to get this content out.”
Hawtin enrolled in a number of Transcendental Meditation courses shortly before the pandemic in Western Europe, where he lives. Now it takes him 20 minutes twice a day to repeat his mantra. These experiences remind him of a DJ’s ability to lead and almost hypnotize a receptive crowd. “For all its beauty, the techno and electronic dance music community has been on this hamster wheel for so many years,” said Hawtin. “This was a really introspective moment to reconnect with the music, the machines and alternative ways of thinking and producing.”
Other artists came to meditation music in 2008 in America’s last moment of financial uncertainty. Trevor Oswalt, who releases music as East Forest, spent the early 2000s playing in bands in New York City in hopes of getting signed. Then came the recession. “Things were falling apart on the outside and that was reflected in my inner life,” said Oswalt, from his current home in southern Utah. “That pushed me to find alternatives.”
He began making instrumental music to aid him during his own meditation practice and to prepare himself mentally for taking psilocybin. Eventually he released the music to the public. Since 2011, he has released an average of at least one new album a year, including a 2019 collaboration with spiritual teacher Ram Dass, who died in December. Years ago, Oswalt developed music for apps like Happy and one from yoga and meditation teacher Elena Brower. Since then he has been working on apps like Wavepaths, Mydelic and Field Trip, which are designed to help with psychedelic therapy sessions.
Oswalt seems amused by the recent influx of artists creating music for mindfulness apps, comparing this to asking a realistic painter to do something abstract. He believes they have the skills to do it, but they lack the experience to really know what they are doing. But he respects the willingness of the musicians to try it out.
“It’s pretty clear that we’re going through a great change as a civilization, and that change has to do with letting go of paths that don’t work,” he said. “It’s like burning the fields, that’s what you have to do to fertilize the soil.”