Music as a Meditative Device

I watch the ripples change their size
But never leave the stream
Of warm impermanence – David Bowie (“Changes”)


I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who doesn’t like some kind of music. Can’t say that about too many things, right?

Believe it or not, there are people in this world who won’t eat bacon or don’t have a Netflix account

but I honestly can’t imagine even the most isolated tribesman not enjoying the sound of hollowed-out logs knocked together in some kind of rhythm.

Why do you suppose that is?


Music and The Mind

Music touches more parts of our brain than most things and we learn that it’s an easily accessed tool for escaping the stressors of the moment. Listening to music also links to our visual sense in that it creates a panorama that is based on the music itself and the context in which we experience it.

Most importantly, we can listen to different components of the same piece of music that create analogous pictures within the same scenery to make the experience richer. There’s probably no better example than Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf in which the characters are represented by their own instrument.8474814877_e298215aa0_n

Think of a piece of music as a beautiful garden surrounding a mansion.

The instruments and vocals might be different elements of the garden and the flowers and plants themselves are the individual notes.

It’s like a movie that you watch several times and, each time, something new pops into your consciousness (for me it’s the symbolism in 2001: A Space Odyssey and the dialogue in The Big Lebowski).

Like those examples, we hear something a little different when we listen to a symphony or the complexity of jazz-fusion.

We also link music to experiences from our past, most of them happy. 

Perhaps it was a song that was popular when you lived in a certain location or you linked it to a sentinel event in your life.

For example, the song “Undun” by the Guess Who reminds me of the jukebox at a Pizza Inn in Star City, WV where I grew up. I loved going there with my friends because it was the only jukebox in town that had that song.

Elton John reminds me of standing in line outside DeVincent’s music store in Morgantown to be one of the first to get his newest album, rush home and dive into Bernie Taupin’s magical lyrics.


The Wellbeing of Music

Did you know that if you listen to music routinely and for at least 15 minutes at a time, your short-term memory and attention span improve over time? Maybe you already do but you probably didn’t realize the positive effect it was having.

In fact, the research is rich in demonstrating links between listening to music and improved health and wellbeing:

  • Hightens positive emotions;
  • Reduces anxiety related to pain, stress and blood pressure increases;
  • Reduces depressive symptoms;
  • Reduces post-surgical pain;
  • Improves immunity;
  • Reduces protein levels linked to diabetes and heart disease;
  • Improves motivation, attention, learning and memory;
  • Increases workout time and feelings about workout results;
  • Increases work output; and
  • Reduces inhibitions.

Even different types of music have been found to treat specific diseases. For example, the music used to treat Parkinson’s is different than that used to treat dementia and Alzheimer’s. In fact, differences also exist in the types of music used to treat adults versus kids.

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Music and Mindfulness

It’s important to distinguish between listening to music while you meditate and using it as a mindfulness device.

Most of us listen to music as a background to what we’re doing: folding laundry, driving, reading. We aren’t necessarily focusing on the music as the primary activity but if someone turned it off, we’d notice.

When you think about it, these are examples of the most basic type of multitasking.

We now know that multitasking actually makes us less productive and we make more errors when trying to do more than one thing at a time. Today’s business environments are learning what the advantages are to steering employees away from multitasking in order to improve efficiency and effectiveness.

But the net income of IBM is not at risk if we fold laundry with music playing on our iPod, right?

We can successfully navigate both without much risk to western civilization. But you can also make a case that you’re more likely to fold the laundry faster if you don’t stop to belt out the chorus to “Bohemian Rhapsody” or rip the air guitar on “Sweet Child O’ Mine”.

You are more likely to pick up on previously unheard nuances of whatever music you’re listening to if you’re not distracted by matching up socks. And that’s where the music can be used to help us with our mindfulness practice.

The point of practicing mindfulness is to purposely pay attention to the present moment so that we aren’t as distracted by other thoughts or activities.

Those who choose to practice mindfulness by meditating, rarely start by putting on music in the background. They are focusing on their breathing and are engaged in noticing the thoughts that interrupt their focus and bringing the attention back to the breath.

When we practice mindfulness by listening to music, the music takes the place of the breath as the focus.

Of course, you’ll continue to breathe while listening but breathing’s not a task like folding laundry or driving is (if it is, please consult with your local pulmonologist).

See how long you can simply listen to any piece of music before distracting thoughts show up.

It can be as simple as hearing Queen’s “We Will Rock You” which reminds you that you promised your neighbor you’d get tickets for this weekend’s game and you need to get that taken care of before they sell out. When that happens, simply bring your attention back to the music.

If Whitesnake’s “Is This Love” triggers a reminder to delete your browser history, that can wait at least until you’ve completed your practice. The key (no pun intended) is to stay focused on the music and not allow your thoughts divert your focus from it. Notice them and let them go without judgment.

As you’re able to listen to music for longer stretches while successfully managing distracting thoughts,

the next step is to start paying more attention to specific components.

For example, you might just focus on the bass line in “Roundabout” by Yes or the cellos in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

As you follow certain instruments or even background vocals (Mike Mills’ of R.E.M. is great for background vocals), you will likely hear those nuances that you haven’t paid attention to previously. As you practice this day-to-day and week-to-week, not only will you build an expanded appreciation for the music you listen to but you’ll also

start to improve your present moment focus that’s so critical in business leadership today.

Here are some other examples to help get you started or pick your own!


Mindful Follow-Up Questions

  1. Do you struggle at times with distractions that take your focus away from the work you’re trying to complete?
  2. How will you find at least 15 minutes a day to do nothing except listen to music in order to improve your focus and wellbeing?
  3. What kind of music do you enjoy and what are some examples of the elements in those gardens?
  4. Do you notice that when you focus on one thing at a time (like listening to music), the experience itself is more fulfilling?
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