What Is ASMR and Why Are so Many Musicians Exploring It?

By Anya Wassenberg on November 23, 2022

ASMR is gaining in popularity by leaps and bounds and entering into music-making at all levels.

ASMR, or autonomous sensory meridian response, is the term that has been coined for the way some people respond physically to audiovisual stimuli. It’s become a growing phenomenon on the internet, spawning stars like Gibi ASMR, who has 4.47M subscribers to her YouTube channel. Gibi offers her viewers what she calls sensory calming therapy via her videos.

ASMR is intended be used to help people relax and sleep, and to help relieve anxiety in general. The premise is this: some people, estimated at about 25% of the population, experience pleasant physical sensations, also called frisson, as well as a relaxing mood, when subjected to certain kinds of soft noises and also visual stimuli. Soft noises can include whispering, soft sounds from nature, or of nails clicking on a hard surface.

The evidence shows, however, that even the other 75% benefit from the same pleasurable mood-altering effects. In an interview with the BBC, pop singer Alaina Castillo describes it as, “weirdly mundane sounds that grounds you a bit”.

Social media picked up on ASMR during the pandemic in a big way, and music artists began to use the principles in their work. Pop stars were quick to connect with the growing trend. Billie Eilish’s team contacted Gibi, asking her to work on an ASMR version of her latest release. Singers like Zara Larsson use a soft spoke, whispery style of vocals, delivering their message directly to the viewer of their videos.

That intimate style is part of ASMR. Along with the sounds, the videos incorporate a personal touch. The ASMR artist speaks directly to the viewer, and offers intimate attention, slow and repetitive movements, and other gentle stimuli.

But…is it for real?

A 2021 study by Japanese researchers, titled Induction of Relaxation by Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, looked into that very question.

They tested the responses of 30 subjects, comparing ASMR with classical music. Each of the subjects underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they listened to one and then the other. After the experiment, the test subjects also answered a questionnaire about their mood and somatosensation, or the bodily sensations they felt while either played. Somatosensation can include tingling feelings, vibrations, ticks, spine, and legs, as well as a tingling of the scalp.

  • None of the subjects reported any somatosensation during either ASMR or classical music;
  • The fMRIs showed notable activation of specific areas of the brain — the same for classical music as for ASMR;
  • ASMR, however, also showed activation in a wider range of areas of the brain, with main activation in the medial prefrontal cortex.

The big takeaway: even without the physical sensation of frisson, it seems that ASMR produces a response in the brain.

Physiological reactions

  • Arousal of the autonomic nervous system increases;
  • Heart rate decreases.

The researchers conclude, “Both classical music and the ASMR auditory stimulus produced a pleasant and relaxed state, and ASMR involved more complex brain functions than classical music, especially the activation of the medial prefrontal cortex.”

They note that the comforting state of relaxation that ASMR engenders is easy to use, and widely accessible.

The researchers from Japan’s Niigata University of Health and Welfare aren’t the only academics exploring ASMR. Giulia Poerio, psychology professor at the University of Essex, is among several others studying the effects of ASMR on the mind and body.

ASMR and music

Along with (literally) hundreds of thousands of YouTube videos, artists like Melinda Lauw have incorporated ASMR into theatre. Lauw is the co-creator of Whisperlodge, which offers audiences live ASMR/theatre experiences for small groups, with one-on-one attention. The 90-minute event has been staged for more than 1,000 participants in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Singapore.

As Lauw describes it in a podcast interview, “So ASMR is very broadly defined as a series of soothing sensations that can be triggered by a whole range of tactile audio and visual stimuli. And it is so broad because actually, the feeling of ASMR is very subjective.”

Combining music and ASMR in live performance is a natural fit for electronic artists and new tech. New media artist and composer Erin Gee has been working with ASMR for a couple of years. Developed in a collaboration between the Music department at l’Université de Montréal and the National Theatre School of Canada in 2020-2021, Gee’s We as Waves (the studio performance version) debuted in 2020 featuring the Hamilton Children’s Choir, with music and voice by Erin Gee, text by Jena McLean, and videography by Michel de Silva.

The 2022 Vancouver New Music festival presents Erin Gee’s ASMR-infused Affect Flow in concert, with musica intima vocal ensemble and pianist Andrea Wong. The concert presents three of Gee’s works, including We as Waves, Intimacy Alphabet, an ASMR-based piece workshopped with community members, and Song of Seven as performed for choir, electronics, and piano.

ASMR offers both audiences and performers a different kind of experience. For Song of Seven, the singers will be outfitted with biosensors that track functions like blood flow and skin conductivity, and they’ll be improvising anecdotes from their own childhood in song. The combination of intimate memories and performance will be measured as physiological responses, and converted into specific pitches. The other singers and pianist Andrea Wong will respond to the results.

“I use personal memories as a way of unlocking emotion and empathy in the choir, because there’s different ways of composing emotion, right?” Gee says in an interview with Create A Stir magazine. “You can use psychological hacks and meditation or tricks, or you can just have people tell stories. Musica intima is going to be improvising stories of their childhood in order to unlock different musical tones in the biosensors. So you can really hear the empathetic relationship between people in the choir in real-time.”

Science and art are merging in new ways that explore humanity’s deep connections to music and music-making, with much more yet to be explored.

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