Music and Meditation

This page is a response to the interest expressed last Meetup (7th October) in using music for meditation. Both are such large topics that I won't even attempt to address their combination analytically, and certainly not comprehensively. Instead, I'll ask you to treat this simply as a first attempt to put down some useful thoughts that you'll need to adapt to your own ideas and experience. At a later stage I may come back and re-edit it into something better for a wider audience.

First up, what meditation is NOT. The simplistic popular view is that it requires sitting on your backside, staring at the tip of your nose, and trying to make your mind go blank, which is, of course, absurd. Meditation is a state of mind that everyone experiences from time to time, usually involuntarily, and often without even realizing that they've entered it, experienced it, and left it. What remains of it depends on several factors, but often results in a change in ideas, beliefs and intentions that can lead to actions different from those that would have eventuated had the meditative state not occurred. If you reflect on this, you'll understand one reason why a CONSCIOUS awareness and use of meditation is so important.

A second essential is that there are two fundamental types of meditation. The Sanskrit word rupa means seed and arupa means without seed:

Thirdly, the meditative state need be neither happy or enjoyable. It can be and often is; but some of the most insightful meditative episodes involve struggling through dark, difficult, hateful, even disgusting emotional states similar to those encountered in certain nightmares, from which one emerges deeply troubled and sometimes afraid. A period of slow, deep reflection is then required to understand what these things were and are, why they have entered your consciousness, and what they can teach. It is a mistake to think that "good" people do not experience such things, only those that are bright and joyful. Life – true life and reality – contains all of them, and eventually we each must learn to deal with them all, individually and communally. By experiencing and resolving them imaginatively we can prevent the necessity of enduring them physically, which is what happens if we persist in rejecting and avoiding them.

In other words, the proper use of meditation does not require certain emotional states: rather does it utilize a wide variety of them for specific purposes. This is a very important insight that deserves elaboration.

Drugs have always been used to enter altered states of consciousness, and meditation is just that. However, where drug-induced altered states are both enhanced and limited by chemical side-effects, meditative states are free of them, but more difficult to achieve intentionally. Recreational drugs are most often used in the hope of entering some type of euphoria, although individuals differ widely in what they regard as such. The same is true of meditation: many practise it in order to achieve states of relaxation, insight, bliss or forgetfulness. There is nothing wrong with this, but it is a narrow use of a very broad and potent faculty.

One example of a non-ordinary meditative state is that achieved by a competent martial artist engaged in a potentially dangerous fight with a determined opponent. He or she will be experiencing a complex mix of emotions including fear, anger, resourcefulness, determination and calculation, but his state of mind will be one of calm contemplation in which quiet, accurate observation and the ability to make and act on immediate decisions is paramount. In this state of mind, emotions are simply energy sources to be employed instantly and appropriately in order to achieve the desired objective of defeating or disabling the opponent. The common error of assuming that competent meditators or martial artists have somehow "risen above" fear and other emotions is quite wrong: rather have they learned how to experience them fully and powerfully without being dominated by them, and so to employ them for desired ends.

Nonetheless, the ability to enter and enjoy a happy and rewarding meditative state is undoubtedly a blessing with real benefits in daily life, and can certainly serve as the beginning of wider use of the technique. It is best, however, not to seek or expect some kind of ecstasy. Experience will eventually teach that ten minutes of still, quiet contentment is far more valuable than an hour of ecstatic arousal, this being a major reason why drug use eventually proves disappointing, even dangerous. Extremes of many kinds do occur in life, but to seek them out deliberately is seldom wise, and to indulge them as regular occurrences is at first enervating, then debilitating and eventually harmful. So too with meditative states, especially those of the passionately religious kind that have always been popular, and today draw enormous crowds seeking fervour and conviction.

This is where music can be such a valuable aid to meditation, especially for novices or those uncertain of the process and purpose of their practice. Those who are so fortunate as to respond naturally to music will find it very easy to enter a desired mood by playing or performing specific songs or tunes, and so to establish and maintain an emotional state conducive to meditation.

An instructive anecdote

At this point I feel obliged to recount a warning in the form of a curious anecdote.

There was on a time an elderly Chinese couple whose marriage had survived the usual vicissitudes and carried them into marginally comfortable retirement. The wife found herself well satisfied with the security of unchanging daily routines, but her husband grew restless; and after losing interest in several pastimes eventually took up music in the form of the erhu, a two-stringed Chinese cello. Being a man of strict discipline, he sat regularly for several hours a day experimenting with different notes that, whilst often discordant, were nonetheless comforting to his wife in convincing her that he had at last found a pleasing pastime.

After several weeks, however, he settled on a single note, and thereafter sat, in a mood of intense concentration, bowing this single note, albeit in varied rhythms and volumes. This enforced tedium so strained his wife's patience that eventually, against all past custom, she ventured a cautious criticism.

"Husband," she said. "I have noticed that when others play this most excellent instrument, they move their fingers about, play different notes, and compose melodies and perhaps songs. Would it not be more pleasing to try these variations yourself?"

Her husband paused in his recital, placed his bow on his knee, and gave her a withering look.

"Wife," he replied. "You are a woman, long of hair and short of understanding. Those other poor fools are looking for the right note. I have found it."

Upon which he raised his bow and continued his performance.

As with all things, moderation is the key to long-term success; even, perhaps especially, as regards excellence.

The usual approach to meditation is to use concentration as a preliminary; and, where time is available and intention is established, then to progress to contemplation, and perhaps further to the early stages of samadhi. Many find it difficult to achieve a degree of concentration sufficient to pass on to meditation, but the use of music can obviate this need. A stable emotional state obtained by using music can be a much easier entry point. However, the type of music used has definite influences on the quality or "colour" of the succeeding meditative phase, and deserves close attention.

Let me first say that the choice of music for meditation is intensely personal, so what follows reflects my own tastes and preferences, and should not be treated even as recommendation, much less advice. You must choose according to your own. A good example is that Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon was long a favourite, and occasionally is so still. Back in the days of 12" vinyl LPs, I'd often let the record finish – about forty minutes for both sides – then sit on for another half-hour or so in quiet, deep satisfaction and wonder. To me the album provides a trip deep into outer space, and what I experience there must remain private. According to Billboard it spent 884 weeks on the Top 200 albums chart – 17 full years – so I'm not alone in my love of it.

Melodic beauty

People with a natural love of music inevitably respond strongly to what can be called melodic beauty. As with all types of beauty, it resides in the eye – or the ear in this case – of the beholder, and trying to define it has little value. All who experience it will know what it is to them, and that listening to a delightful melody arouses an inner joy like no other. When using melody for meditation it is best not to arrange a sequence of different tunes, but to chose a single one that is played several times repeatedly – preferably with intervals of silence bewteen repetitions – until it is fixed in the mind. The recording should then be silenced, and an attempt made to repeat it quietly in the mind. If this is successful, the melody and its attendant emotions can be sustained for some time, but will gradually fade into the silence and stillness of rupa meditation, the seed being the established emotions.

Because this type of meditation has little if any intellectual content, it cannot be developed along intellectual lines unless the emotions are consciously related to a thought, image or concept. It can, however, serve as a useful prelude to other activities: reading, study, discussion or sleep for example. In simple form it is often used to open a group activity by establishing a shared emotional state. Couples can use it to reconnect at the end of a busy working day. Parents can use it to calm and quieten children prior to setting them household tasks or homework, and individuals will find many uses for it once mastered.

Rhythmic patterning

Tapping out a rhythm on hand drums or other simple instruments establishes a temporal pattern that steadies and calms the mind, frees it of other distractions and allows it to enter a sort of dynamic quiescence, a simple form of meditative concentration. Repetition of the same pattern serves the same purpose as japa mantra – the repetition of a word or phrase as a meditative technique – but without the connotations and ideas always associated with words. It is thus very useful for those who dislike the religious associations of many mantras.

It can become tedious, even boring over time, and so prevents the onset of meditation. The best remedy is to learn freeform rhythmic improvisation, introducing variations of the basic pattern, then constructing "patterns of patterns". This gives the mind a focus of concentration and so prevents boredom, allowing the meditative state to emerge.

Melodic improvisation

More complex but deeply satisfying is melodic improvisation. This obviously requires a certain skill set and level of achievement, but is well within the capabilities of anyone of normal musical sensibilities prepared to spend some time acquiring them. The best-known formal traditions are the ragas of Indian music. However, improvisation is a skill expected in some degree of all competent musicians, and has always been practised and performed in Western music. The best-known modern variant is jazz.

Harmony singing

Two or more people singing harmony can create unique musical experiences for themselves, and so generate deeply satisfying communal meditations if so desired. This has been a remarkable feature of the Abrahamic traditions, especially Christianity which developed the art to a very high degree of skill and achievement.

It is a specialized topic with an extensive literature and innumerable forms and schools, and so deserves much fuller treatment than can be provided here.

Instrumental performance

Music either made with intruments or accompanied by them can certainly serve as a form of, or introduction to meditation; but the distraction of playing an instrument makes the attaining of a deep meditative state difficult for all but the most experienced.

Meditative musical genres

There are so many schools and styles of music that have been composed specifically for meditative use, or are suited to the purpose, that even a brief general discussion would be far too long for this page. Instead I'll list a few personal favourites that others might like to try in addition to their own preferences.

Guitar instrumental

The Shadows are largely forgotten today, but were the first big-time guitar instrumental group, and have always been amongst my favourites.

Light orchestral

My favourites here are Percy Faith and Mantovani, both well-known to older generations but probably less so to younger folk.

Percy Faith:

Mantovani: to be added later.

Choral orchestral

I'll mention just one for now, Fauré's Cantique de Jean Racine. it won him a well-deserved prize for composition back in the day:

Christian Choral

Again just one for now, the King's College Choir with Agnus Dei:

I'll update and add to this page if there's sufficient interest in it.