ASMR is a comparatively new term for an age-old phenomenon. Autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) is a term that refers to the way that some people experience head tingles when they hear certain sounds or are in certain environments.
A lot of ASMR triggers are specific sounds such as tapping, whispering, blowing, and scratching; environmental sounds; or sounds that come from interacting with objects rather than sounds associated with music specifically. However, there is a growing movement towards ASMR music, and many artists are starting to understand how using ASMR principles can help make their music nicer to listen to.
ASMR and Other Sound Phenomenon
There is thought to be some overlap between ASMR and other sound-based phenomena, such as synesthesia and frisson—as well as less positive experiences such as misophonia.
People who experience synesthesia may find that when they hear things, they also feel them or they may smell things in response to seeing other things.1 Frisson, on the other hand, is the phenomenon of feeling chills when you hear music, while misophonia relates to feeling an intense aversion to certain sounds.2,3
All of these phenomena are related in that they are examples of an unusual reaction to sensory input. People with ASMR and frisson are considered to be lucky because they can enjoy intense experiences when they listen to the right triggers. Misophonia, on the other hand, can make life more difficult because a lot of people who experience it are highly averse to common sounds.
ASMR and Music
Some ASMR-receptive people find that it is easier to experience ASMR if they get into a flow-like mental state first.4 This is something that is best done by listening to longer recordings in a quiet environment.
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There are a lot of people making ASMR videos, and not everyone who is making them is a professional. There is a huge disparity between the ASMR content that is created by someone who is a professional with a top quality microphone in a soundproof room (and who understands the characteristics of ASMR in terms of pacing, pitch, and rhythm), and someone who is scratching at a book cover hoping to cash in on the ASMR keyword.
Some of the professional ASMR channels are enough to allow the makers to enjoy a comfortable living just by creating ASMR content.5 Not everyone enjoys watching that kind of content, however. Some people find the classic ASMR video of a young woman with manicured nails tapping, whispering, and scratching to be off-putting or distracting. For those people, music with ASMR traits could be a better option.
There are a few traits that make music ASMR-triggering. One factor is that the sound should be recorded binaurally so that the listener can hear sounds move from ear to ear. This is an important ASMR trigger and one that is often overlooked even when normal content, let alone music, is being made. ASMR music should not be as “busy” as normal music. Quiet percussion, slow rhythms, and gentle sounds can all help to augment the experience.
Benefits of ASMR
If you’re lucky enough to be able to experience ASMR, then you should notice instantly that it makes you feel good. What’s particularly promising is that “feel good” sensation isn’t all in your head. Researchers hooked people up to an fMRI machine while they were consuming ASMR-triggering media and found that there were certain changes in the brain during ASMR experiences.6 People who can experience ASMR will have blended pathways and activity that is different from that of a normal brain.
During ASMR experiences, people experience a reduction in heart rate and an increase in skin activity which corresponds with heightened emotion. They are calmer, experience less anxiety, and in many cases, find it much easier to doze off.
As a part of the ASMR experience, people release endorphins, oxytocin, and serotonin. These are all hormones associated with bonding, closeness, comfort, and calm. Overall, it is a positive experience for the body. This experience can happen with music as much as with other ASMR sound. Interestingly, in preliminary tests, people who are able to experience chills were more likely to report experiencing them when listening to music of their own choosing, rather than music that the experimenter selected for them.7
Of course, ASMR is not going to replace traditional therapy or counseling. It is not a replacement for drug-based treatments for depression or anxiety either. However, it has been shown to improve sleep quality and low-level anxiety.
A lot of people use it to help themselves if they are feeling generally stressed because of something in their lives that they cannot control. In those instances where the person is experiencing anxiety because they are worried about something quantifiable and specific, ASMR and ASMR-triggering music is a positive and productive outlet.
The challenge comes when people start trying to use ASMR to medicate more serious issues. If your mood is constantly low and you cannot explain why, then it is probably a good idea to seek professional medical advice. ASMR can offer short-term relief, but it is not a solution to more serious mental health issues. Yes, ASMR can cause the release of feel-good chemicals, but it is a temporary solution.
You can, however, use ASMR to get rid of that low-level anxiety or stress that is burdening you. By fighting off those intrusive thoughts and stopping your inner voice from panicking or running too quickly, you will find yourself feeling generally more relaxed.
Triggering ASMR Through Music
If you think that you might be able to experience ASMR, then the best place to start is with simple triggers. Try some videos that focus on tapping, scraping, whispering, blowing, and other triggers and see if they help you get that tingly feeling. If they do, then you can start looking at some of the other triggers as well and exploring music with ASMR qualities.
For most people, the best music to bring about ASMR is instrumental or music that has quieter whispered lyrics. If you find yourself tuning into the lyrics and focusing on understanding them too much, then this can impair the ASMR effect. Repetitive sounds and sounds that are breathy or crisp are more likely to trigger ASMR than other sounds.
Frisson and ASMR are different, and there are sounds that will create frisson sensations that won’t bring about ASMR. This is quite personal, and the sounds that will bring about frisson can vary significantly. So, even if a song gives you chills, it is not necessarily ASMR. Music that builds expectation and works towards a climax (which is common in musical scores, classical music, and even operatic rock) is music that is designed with frisson in mind.
Frisson is described by many as being an emotional climax that leaves you feeling more alive, while ASMR is more subdued and leaves you feeling more relaxed. ASMR can put people to sleep. Frisson can wake people out. It’s the difference between euphoria and relaxation. The music that you would normally choose to listen to for entertainment is probably very different to the music that would cause you to experience ASMR, so be willing to go out of your comfort zone and experiment to find your musical triggers.
More and more artists are exploring ASMR as a way of making their music more desirable and to encourage people to listen over and over again. ASMR-triggering music is great in concerts for creating a feeling of bonding between the listeners. You can find some independent artists that produce ASMR-friendly music on Last. FM and the list of genres is quite diverse, from electronic music to violinists.
The instrument and the genre does not matter all that much. Someone with a good understanding of ASMR can make almost any type of instrument sound hypnotic and blissful.
Photo credits: AlbinaGlisic/shutterstock.com, Flystock/shutterstock.com, lightpoet/shutterstock.com