Whether you've just started your meditation practice or have been practising for some time, you may be wondering if you should meditate to music or sit in silence.
While the obvious answer is – do what you feel like! If you enjoy listening to music while meditating, then you should continue to do so. Equally, if you prefer silence and to tune into the natural sounds around you, go right ahead.
But is there any science around which is better? And which is the more traditional way to meditate? This article explores the advantages and disadvantages of meditating with music. Moreover, it touches on the kind of music that can help you achieve deep meditation.
What is Meditation?
Meditation is the process of quieting the mind so that you can dwell less on your thoughts and experience your life at the present moment. The benefits of meditation are wide-ranging as it affects the physical, mental and emotional aspects of your entire being. It promotes positivity, boosts the immune system and decreases negative thoughts and feelings like stress, anxiety, depression, fear and anger, which could manifest as symptoms of a chronic condition if they're not addressed immediately.
Slowing down the amount of thoughts entering your mind allows you to think clearly and regain control over your emotions and overall wellbeing.
The practice of meditation teaches you how to deal objectively with the circumstances in your life, rather than letting your thoughts dictate how you should react to them. Each type of meditation offers a unique experience and requires a specific mindset to help you achieve your goals.
What are the Different Types of Meditation?
There is not a single form of meditation that works for everyone. Some people perform their meditation practice with music, others find it easier to achieve a meditative state in silence, while some prefer to have natural sounds in the background like birds chirping or the rustling of leaves in the trees.
You must be comfortable with the type of meditation that you choose to ensure that you achieve your goals effortlessly. We list below the most popular types of meditation. Some of them can be performed with music, while others are best done in complete silence.
Also known as breath-focused meditation, this type of meditation employs breathing techniques like alternate nostril breathing, diaphragm breathing and intermittent breathing, to reduce stress and regulate the heart rate. As the goal of this form of meditation is to promote peace of mind and relaxation, playing an instrumental background music can help calm your mind and body. However, a piece with slow tempo is preferable to one with fast and aggressive chords.
This type of meditation involves the repetition of a sound, word or phrase to achieve deeper levels of mindfulness. Chanting the "Om" sound is fairly common in mantra meditation as it helps clear the mind and increase self-awareness. There are even stories of meditation practitioners who would produce an original recording of their own mantra and listen to it over and over again, mastering the length of each syllable's sound to perfection. Because of the need to focus on a specific word or sound, incorporating music in this meditation practice might not help.
In guided meditation, the student is guided by a trained teacher or practitioner in person or through video or audio recordings. The teacher explains the different meditation techniques and how these can create a deeper meaning in life. When done in person, the teacher may play recorded ambient sounds in the background to get the student into a meditative state. However, if you're working with a video or an audio file, looping your favourite artist's songs could be more distracting than helpful and hinder you from cultivating focus and clarity.
Meditation does not always require you to sit in a quiet place. You can practise it even while in motion, and this form of meditation is called movement meditation. It teaches you how to be mindful of the postures you carry out at the present moment regardless of what you are doing, so you learn to pay attention to the different parts of your body and how they feel during movement. You can meditate while walking, dancing or doing yoga, unmoved by the noise in your surroundings or, better yet, experience this type of meditation with music in the background.
Spiritual meditation is the practice of connecting with the universe by increasing self-awareness. It's usually done in silence to achieve your deeper levels of consciousness. It is labelled true meditation in the religious context as practically all religions practise it in accordance with their faith.
Mindfulness meditation, otherwise known as modern meditation, is the most popular form of the practice in the Western world that anyone can do even without the guidance of a teacher. It involves breathing exercises to calm the mind and body and reduce stress. This form of meditation aims to increase your awareness of how you feel at the moment, so you simply observe your thoughts as they come and go. Incorporating music into this practice can help guide you down the path to self-realisation.
Music: A Modern Meditation Addition
Going back to the early days, there is no evidence of music as part of meditation practice. Then, meditating was done in silence or with natural ambient noises – birds, bees, trees, people, and other things like that. Music has only been introduced in recent times to accompany meditation. You can pick up CDs in a record store's "meditation music" genre or download and play relaxing sounds of nature – waves, rainforest, rain, birds – with a gentle backing track.
Research shows that the practice of meditation in the modern Western world is mostly associated with relaxation, as opposed to a ritual or spiritual practice. Many people would compare it to receiving a massage or other relaxation-focused treatment, where the therapist plays some soft meditation music to help you unwind.
However, for people who are well-experienced in meditation, listening to music launches them to another realm where they are able to gain deeper spiritual insights and wisdom. The quality of music they listen to varies according to their mood; some people like soft beats, while others prefer distorted rhythmic patterns of guitar chords.
The Emmy Award-winning composer and professor at the University of Southern California, Richard Wolf, once asked his students to compose a non-verbal guided meditation. The recordings submitted to him varied greatly in terms of the musical elements and tools used during production. He received new-age riffs, a portable air conditioner with electric guitar chords, house music with a hardcore drum pattern and a soothing harp music. This only goes to show that meditation music cannot be contained in a single genre because it's subjective by nature and depends on the listening habits of an individual. It could be any tune or melody that can sustain your focus and lead you to a relaxed frame of mind.
The Historical and Cultural Significance of Music in Meditation
From ancient rituals to modern spiritual practices, the use of music has been an integral part of creating a conducive and transformative environment for meditation. Let's explore the rich tapestry of traditions that have embraced this harmonious union.
Ancient Eastern Traditions
In many Eastern traditions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, music has been intertwined with meditation for centuries. In Tibetan Buddhism, sacred chants, known as mantras, are an integral part of meditation practices. The repetitive and rhythmic nature of these chants helps practitioners focus their minds and deepen their meditative states. In Indian classical music, ragas (melodic frameworks) have been used to create specific moods and evoke transcendental experiences during meditation.
Indigenous cultures around the world have also recognized the power of music in spiritual and meditative practices. Native American tribes, for example, have utilised drumming, flutes and vocal chants as a means of connecting with the divine and entering meditative states. The rhythms and melodies of these traditional instruments serve as vehicles for individuals to journey inward, fostering a sense of harmony with nature and the spiritual realm.
In the mystical tradition of Sufism, music has long been revered as a pathway to divine union. The whirling dervishes of the Mevlevi Order, for instance, engage in a form of meditative dance accompanied by hauntingly beautiful music. The repetitive melodies and rhythmic patterns guide the dancers into a trance-like state, allowing them to transcend their earthly identities and experience spiritual ecstasy.
Even in contemporary meditation practices, music continues to play a significant role. Guided meditations often incorporate soothing background music to create an ambient atmosphere that supports relaxation and focus. New Age music, with its calming melodies and nature-inspired sounds, has gained popularity as a tool for enhancing the meditative experience. Modern composers and musicians create compositions specifically designed to facilitate deep states of meditation, incorporating elements from various cultural and spiritual traditions.
The Role of Music in Guided Meditations
Guided meditations offer a structured and supportive approach for individuals embarking on their meditation journey. These meditations, often accompanied by soothing music, provide practitioners with instructions, visualisations and prompts to deepen their mindfulness practice. The incorporation of music in guided meditations serves a crucial role, enhancing the overall experience and helping participants relax, focus and connect with their inner selves. The following explains how music impacts the meditative process:
1. Creating a Calming Ambience
One of the primary roles of music in guided meditations is to create a calming and serene atmosphere. Soft, gentle melodies with tranquil tones help set the tone for the meditation, establishing a peaceful and conducive environment. The soothing music acts as a backdrop, enveloping practitioners in a soothing auditory space, allowing them to relax and let go of external distractions.
2. Supporting the Flow of Guided Instructions
The right choice of music can enhance the flow and rhythm of the guided instructions. The music acts as a subtle cue, guiding participants through different stages of the meditation practice. It can help transition between visualizations, breathwork, or body awareness exercises, creating a seamless and harmonious experience. The music's tempo and dynamics can mirror the pace and energy of the guided meditation, assisting practitioners in staying present and engaged.
3. Deepening Relaxation and Focus
The carefully selected music in guided meditations is designed to induce a state of deep relaxation. Calming melodies, ambient sounds and nature-inspired compositions help participants release tension, unwind and enter a meditative state more effortlessly. The music acts as a focal point, drawing attention away from distracting thoughts or external noises, enabling practitioners to deepen their focus and concentration on the present moment.
4. Evoking Emotional Responses
Music has the unique ability to evoke emotions and create a deeper connection with one's inner self. In guided meditations, music is often chosen to elicit specific emotional responses that align with the intentions of the practice. Joyful, uplifting melodies can cultivate a sense of gratitude and positivity, while gentle, introspective music may facilitate emotional exploration and healing. The music acts as a catalyst, supporting participants in connecting with their emotions and nurturing their emotional wellbeing.
5. Enhancing the Transcendent Experience
For those seeking transcendent experiences in their meditation practice, music plays an instrumental role. The right blend of sounds and melodies can help create a sense of expansiveness, serenity, and connection with something greater than oneself. The music acts as a bridge, allowing practitioners to transcend their individual identities and merge with a larger universal consciousness.
Why Meditate With Music?
Even though music wasn't a part of traditional meditation practice, that doesn't mean it won't work. Some meditation experts say music can form an integral part of mindfulness as it tunes you out of your mundane thoughts and what's around you. This is why many guided meditation apps and programs play background music with a mantra over the top.
An interesting article on Mindbodygreen.com explored the idea that mindfulness is used to "promote insight". In this way, you can listen to music and explore how you feel while listening – how you connect with the music. And so, it doesn't even matter what you listen to; the act of perceiving the music and your reaction to it is what matters.
In addition to helping you reach the core of your feelings, music helps alleviate stress. So combined with meditation, it's a useful tool for managing stress levels and achieving relaxation more effectively.
Of course, if you're commencing a silent meditation, then music may not be the best choice. It's all about what feels right to you, and whether the tunes help or hinder your self-exploration.
Scientific Research on the Effects of Music in Meditation
Music has long been recognised as a powerful medium that can influence our emotions and mental states. When combined with the practice of meditation, music takes on a new dimension, creating a unique and immersive experience. In recent years, scientific research has shed light on the effects of music during meditation, providing valuable insights into its benefits and mechanisms. Let's explore some of the notable findings from these studies.
Brainwave Patterns and Music
Research has shown that certain types of music can induce specific brainwave patterns associated with relaxation, focus and heightened awareness. For example, studies have found that slow-tempo music with a steady rhythm and minimal variations can promote alpha brainwaves, which are linked to a relaxed and meditative state. Additionally, research suggests that music with binaural beats or isochronic tones can help synchronize brainwave activity, facilitating a deeper meditative experience.
Physiological Responses to Music in Meditation
The influence of music on physiological responses during meditation has also been investigated. Studies have revealed that listening to soothing music can lead to a decrease in heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels (a stress hormone). These physiological changes indicate a state of relaxation and reduced stress. Furthermore, research has shown that music can enhance parasympathetic activity, which is associated with rest, digestion, and recovery.
Subjective Experiences and Emotional States
The subjective experiences and emotional states of individuals practicing meditation with music have been explored through surveys and interviews. Many participants reported feeling more engaged, focused and emotionally connected when meditating with music. Additionally, specific genres or styles of music were found to elicit varying emotional responses, such as tranquility, joy, or a sense of transcendence. These findings highlight the potential for music to amplify the emotional and transformative aspects of meditation.
Enhancing Concentration and Mindfulness
Music can play a role in improving concentration and enhancing mindfulness during meditation. Studies have demonstrated that carefully selected music can act as a buffer against distracting thoughts, external noises and wandering attention. Additionally, certain types of music, such as repetitive or ambient instrumental tracks, can provide a gentle focal point for practitioners, helping them anchor their attention and deepen their awareness of the present moment.
Why Meditate Without Music?
While there are people rallying behind meditation music, others say you should only listen to music before or after a meditation to either relax or prepare for the practice. But when the meditation begins, you should slip into silence.
Music can be distracting during meditation, they say. It forces you to multitask, focusing on your breath or mantra while listening to music at the same time. This prevents you from giving your conscious mind the break it needs and the chance for the subconscious mind to come into play. What's more, the lyrics of some songs tend to make the mind drift away.
Instead of allowing you to deepen your meditation practice, music pulls you from your focus. It becomes impossible to truly concentrate on two things at once, which, by the way, defeats the purpose of meditation: to think less and engage more with what's happening at the present moment.
And while others believe that playing music in the background during meditation is relaxing, others beg to differ. In fact, some people reported removing the accompaniment of a meditation audio clip because they find it more relaxing to the mind and body.
The Benefits of Meditating without Music
Meditating in silence allows individuals to cultivate a deeper sense of inner stillness, focus and connection with themselves. Here are some benefits of meditating without music and the unique experiences it can offer.
Cultivating Inner Stillness
Meditating without music allows practitioners to immerse themselves in silence, creating an environment conducive to cultivating inner stillness. In the absence of external sounds, individuals have the opportunity to observe their thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations more clearly. This deepens self-awareness and helps to develop a sense of inner calm and tranquility.
Enhancing Concentration and Mindfulness
Practising meditation without music can sharpen one's concentration and mindfulness skills. In silence, practitioners are challenged to anchor their attention solely on their breath, bodily sensations or chosen focal point. This focused attention strengthens the ability to stay present in the moment and enhances mindfulness, leading to greater clarity of mind and an increased capacity to observe thoughts without getting caught up in them.
Heightening Sensory Perception
When meditating without music, individuals become more attuned to their surroundings and their internal sensory experiences. The absence of external auditory stimuli allows for a heightened awareness of subtle sounds, such as the rustling of leaves or the gentle flow of breath. It also opens up the opportunity to explore other senses, such as the sensation of touch, taste or smell, leading to a deeper connection with the present moment and a richer sensory experience.
Deepening Self-Reflection and Insight
Silent meditation provides a conducive space for self-reflection and introspection. In the absence of external influences, individuals can observe their thoughts, emotions, and patterns of behavior more objectively. This self-reflective practice can lead to greater self-understanding, insights into personal challenges, and the discovery of inner resources and strengths. The silence invites individuals to listen deeply to their inner wisdom and intuition.
Developing Resilience to External Distractions
Practising meditation without music helps individuals build resilience and adaptability to external distractions. In our modern world filled with constant noise and stimulation, meditating in silence trains the mind to remain focused and centered even in the midst of external chaos. This skill can be transferred to daily life, enabling individuals to remain calm and composed in challenging situations.
Case Studies: Personal Experiences of Meditating with Music
Personal experiences can offer valuable insights into the benefits and effects of meditating with music. By sharing the stories of individuals who have incorporated music into their meditation practice, we can gain a deeper understanding of its potential impact.
John's Focus and Productivity
John, a busy professional, struggled to maintain focus and productivity in his daily life. He decided to try meditating with instrumental music playing softly in the background. To his surprise, he found that the music helped create a soothing and supportive environment for his meditation sessions. As a result, he experienced increased focus and mental clarity not only during meditation but also in his work and daily activities.
Sarah's Emotional Release
Sarah had been dealing with unresolved emotional issues and sought meditation as a means of healing and self-discovery. She experimented with different types of music during her meditation practice, eventually finding that serene, nature-inspired compositions resonated deeply with her emotions. Sarah shared how the music acted as a catalyst for emotional release, enabling her to confront and process long-held feelings, leading to a greater sense of inner peace.
Mark's Transcendent Journey
Mark, an experienced meditator, incorporated chanting and mantra-based music into his practice. He described how the rhythmic patterns and melodic chants created a powerful and transcendent experience, transporting him to a state of deep meditation. Mark felt a profound connection to something greater than himself and experienced a heightened sense of spiritual awareness and bliss.
How to Incorporate Music Into Meditation
While some meditation practitioners suggest silence for meditation and others recommend quiet music, the choice is up to you. Perhaps you can try meditating with and without music to see which approach allows you to get the most out of your regular practice.
Should you decide to incorporate your favourite artist's recordings, here are some tips to consider to ensure that it doesn't break your focus.
- Go for instrumental pieces with high audio quality. Soft jazzy ditties, classical music and new-age recordings can help increase concentration and self-awareness.
- Focus on the music, not on the thoughts or memories it tries to bring into your mind. If that happens, gently take your mind back to the present moment.
- It's normal for the voices in your head to start an internal dialogue even with the best music in the background, so don't worry about it. Just constantly take your mind back to the present moment and engage with your environment and the physical sensations you get from the music.
- Take time to experiment with your favourite songs, or even natural sounds from your surroundings, to find out which one works best with your meditation style.
However you look at it, there's no denying that meditation and music produce the same effects. They both have the power to shift thinking and emotional patterns and plant inspiration in people's hearts that lead to better experiences. Additionally, meditation and music can switch off negative thoughts so they don't interfere with the happy hormones that come into play. But whether or not to merge them to foster happiness in your life and achieve optimal health depends on your personal preference.
If you're looking for a meditation teacher in your area, feel free to check out the list of Australia's certified meditation practitioners on the Natural Therapy Pages.
Originally published on Jul 03, 2015