At one point as I was developing my meditation practice, I faced a dilemma about how I should allocate my precious morning hours: to music or meditation?
For years, as a professional composer and music producer, I had a morning regimen that included practicing a musical instrument. Over time, my sacred morning music hours gave way to a different set of rituals that included seated meditation, yoga sequences, breathing exercises, and other mind-body and self-mastery protocols. Although I felt amazing afterward, time constraints and the need to address the pressing obligations of my day meant sacrificing time with my instruments. In the process, I neglected my first love – Music.
I was stuck between two of the most powerful forms of alchemy I had ever discovered for helping me survive challenges, reconnect to my soul, and thrive in an increasingly disruptive world.
After almost a year of this internal conflict, I heard a little voice whisper, “Bring your guitar to the altar.”
So I listened, and I did just that.
The Muse and the Meditator
I’m certainly not the first to chant, sing or play music as part of their meditation practice. Music has been used to accompany meditation, prayer, and mind-body rituals by countless cultures around the world for thousands of years.
And you can do it, too.
“Music is the easiest method of meditation. Whoever can let
himself dissolve into music has no need to seek anything else
to dissolve into.” – OSHO
How to Meditate with Music
If you don’t play a musical instrument, you can still meditate with music. You are the instrument, and you are the alchemist. Similarly, if you don’t feel comfortable chanting or singing as part of your meditation, don’t worry. You can still reap the benefits of marrying music and meditation.
So, how can you consummate this sacred union?
Let me start by addressing the three relevant questions people ask me most often about Music and Meditation.
1. IS IT OKAY TO MEDITATE WITH MUSIC?
This first question is the easiest to answer. Yes, by all means, it is okay to meditate with music.
History supports you. People of all races and cultures have been meditating to music for generations, opening up the portal to a more immersive and transformative experience.
Science reinforces the fact that music has many positive effects on your state of being that align with and support the practice of meditation. In a meta-analysis of four hundred studies on the potential impact of music on mental and physical health, Dr. Daniel Levitin summarized the growing evidence that music improves the body’s immunity and can be more effective at reducing anxiety than prescription drugs. Levitin and his associates discussed the evidence that listening to and playing music increases the body’s production of the antibody immunoglobulin A, as well as natural killer cells—the cells that attack invading viruses and boost the immune system’s effectiveness.
Both listening to the right music and practicing meditation have been scientifically validated to achieve many other common benefits, including:
- Reducing stress and stress-related illnesses (by lowering the stress hormone cortisol)
- Improving clarity and focus
- Accelerating recovery
- Increasing happiness
- Helping regulate emotions
- Enhancing creativity and intuition
Granted, there are many kinds of meditation, and not all of them use music. Some meditation practices like vipassana or mindfulness meditation are traditionally done in silence, using only the sound of your breath.
Whichever path you choose, there is no right or wrong way, nor universal process, to meditate. The key is to find the approach that works best for you.
If you are new to meditation or have struggled with other techniques, the use of music as part of your practice can create a safe container and help you more easily drop into and maintain a deep, focused meditative state. It also helps mask distractions and noises, like movement in the house or distant traffic.
Even if you have been practicing meditation for years or typically practice silent meditation, I invite you to try music as an option. It can enhance the experience and effect, offering you new pathways to a more transcendent state.
2. WHAT KIND OF MUSIC SHOULD I USE FOR MEDITATION?
The second question is a bit more complex. There is no one answer, no right or wrong, no one-size-fits-all.
Your musical preferences will be a key consideration in your choice. If the music you play while meditating annoys or distracts you, it will likely prevent you from fully relaxing, feeling safe, or staying present and focused—and could even make meditating more difficult.
I usually recommend nonrhythmic instrumental music with a slow tempo or open feeling of time, and music that is not emotionally arousing. Music with vocalizations or a repeating mantra or message can work, as long as it doesn’t distract you. Music created to be non-arousing can be found in some forms of classical, world, or New Age music.
This “non-arousal” approach is typically designed to neutralize and regulate your emotions, as opposed to emotionally engaging, inspiring, and motivating you. The slower tempos tend to be less stimulating and can help you slow your breathing, activate the parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation response), and settle your busy mind.
While non-arousing music is more common for meditation practices, it doesn’t mean that listening to emotionally engaging music cannot be a great source of meditation. Or that music with a pulse cannot help your system regulate and induce a state of relaxation or flow. The key is that you use music that takes you into, not out of, your meditation experience.
If you simply search for “meditation music” online, you may discover an almost-overwhelming list of musical options. You may have to listen to and practice with a few different recommendations before finding a favorite recording, artist, or collection.
Remember, you are “practicing” meditation. It is a personal journey and a never-ending adventure toward understanding yourself.
3. HOW CAN I USE MUSIC TO MEDITATE?
This final question will again depend on you, the meditator, as well as the desired effect you would like to achieve.
One thing to consider in your musical selections is how you want to interact with the music. A common approach is to use the music and sound to form a kind of sonic temple, creating a conducive and supportive environment for your meditation. In another application, music can become, along with your breath, the focus of the meditation itself.
In the latter approach, the music becomes a guide, an anchor for your focus, and a companion for your breath. Active listening improves focus and engagement while relieving stress, regulating emotion, and improving health outcomes. Just as music can be your guide into deeper meditation, meditation can take you more deeply inside the music.
If you are using music as your backdrop to a more traditional meditation practice, remember that music is not the focus. Rather, it is a tool to help you shift gears, relax your mind, and create a more supportive container. As you enter deeper into your meditation, ideally the music (along with other environmental distractions) will slip outside the field of your attention.
Whichever meditation path you choose, you will know you have chosen the right music when you feel more whole, regulated, and at peace following your meditation.
PLAYING AN INSTRUMENT TO MEDITATE
Another option is to use a musical instrument. The key here is to make sure that whatever you choose to play is simple enough that it doesn’t trigger self-judgment or frustration. Even with an instrument, it is not about performing the music. It is about letting the music perform its alchemy on you. The awareness of the physical instrument should all but disappear.
As you play, stay mindful of your breath, making sure it remains steady and relaxed throughout your meditation. Allow the music to move through you naturally, never allowing the listening or playing to take you out of your meditative state.
BECOMING THE INSTRUMENT
If you are willing to give it a try, let your body become the instrument. The benefits of singing, chanting, or toning while meditating can surpass those of using a musical soundscape or a separate instrument. Using your voice directly integrates breath (a core component of any meditation practice) and sound. This powerful combination creates a resonant field of healing vibrations from deep within you.
You can employ a number of techniques to integrate your voice into the meditative process. I recommend a variety of those in my Music & Meditation chapter in Amplified.
Other Tips for Using Music in Meditation
PREPARE WHAT YOU LOVE IN ADVANCE
Select your preferred music in advance, and keep it ready at hand, especially for morning meditations. Even applying the mental effort to choose between multiple musical options can take your mind in the opposite direction from the optimal meditative experience.
DON’T LET YOUR DEVICE UNDERMINE YOUR MEDITATION
Be cautious if your smartphone is your audio source, as it is intentionally designed to steal your attention. Multiple studies, including a recent one at the University of Austin McCombs School of Business, have shown that even having your phone turned off but in sight diminishes your attention and your ability to stay focused and presence.
If your phone is the only source for your meditation music or a guided meditation, be sure to turn off the ringer and notifications, and close other software prior to starting your meditation.
Both music and meditation have been repeatedly validated by scientific studies for their transformative effects. Each in and of itself has essential ingredients for a healthy and fulfilling life. By marrying them together, you can quite often amplify the experience and the benefits. Even in small doses, the right combination of music and meditation can be healing, enjoyable, and pay back the time allotted with compounded dividends for your ultimate health and happiness.
This excerpt is adapted from my bestselling book Amplified, available online or at a bookstore near you.