I love music. In fact the powerful surges of pleasurable energy that I used to experience in my body when listening to music as a teenager was one of the things that made me curious to learn meditation. These experiences of rapture (the Buddhist technical term is “priti”) opened my eyes to the fact that there were ranges of experience outside of our normal expectations.
“Meditation Music” Is Not a Traditional Concept
The idea that you should listen to music while meditating is very common. But this probably goes back to seeing meditation as little more than a means of relaxation.
Traditionally, the idea of listening to music while meditating would be completely out of the question. In no Buddhist lineage that I know of is there any kind of musical accompaniment to sitting meditation.
The notion of listening to music while meditating is a very modern one, and probably comes from the fact that many alternative health practitioners play relaxing music in the background while performing their healing arts. This music became known as “meditation music” and the assumption grew up that we should listen to music while meditating.
Traditionally there would simply be silence or ambient background noise to accompany meditation.
“Meditation Music” Stops Us From Going Deeply Into Meditation
So-called meditation music is meant to be relaxing, and of course meditation does help you to relax too. But meditation goes beyond relaxation and helps us to be more alert and focused. It also helps us to do things like cultivate kindly or to deeply question the nature of our experience. Music is likely to get in the way of those activities.
If you’re trying to pay attention one-pointedly to your breathing, then you can’t also listen to music. And if you’re trying to listen to music then you can’t fully concentrate on your breathing.
Music produces pleasant feelings, which is why we listen to it and why music is now almost ubiquitous, being thrust at us in stores, elevators, and even on the streets. If those pleasant feelings are being supplied by “meditation music” then we won’t reach deeper into ourselves to find our own sources of happiness. So-called meditation music therefore is a kind of crutch that hinders our practice rather than helping it.
If you find silence disquieting or unpleasant, then you’re not able to be at peace with yourself. The way to get comfortable with silence is to practice being with it. In this way we learn to be at peace with ourselves. Listening to music while meditation makes that process impossible. You’ll never learn to be deeply at peace with yourself if you’re dependent on music.
In fact, as we get deeper into meditation, we stop registering sounds altogether. Our ears are still functioning, of course. And the signals they’re generating are still being sent to the brain. But when we’re fully engaged with being mindful of our inner experience, we simply stop hearing sounds.
Listening to music while meditating stops that depth of mindfulness from happening.
Music As Meditation
However, focusing on music is fine, and I wholeheartedly suggest that you try doing that, but I also suggest that you try doing it at a time when you’re not meditating.
I’d go further and suggest that listening to music, if done properly, can be a meditation in itself, just as walking or washing the dishes can be. You can take many activities and make them richer and more satisfying by taking more awareness into them. Music, as we’ve seen, is just one example. We’ve included links to some excellent Buddhist music that makes a perfect focus for a “listening meditation.”
Listening to music as a meditation practice can be a very powerful practice. As I became more familiar with the experience of the dhyanas (Pali, jhanas), which are very concentrated, calm, and blissful states of meditation, I realized that I’d been experiencing these states for years while listening to western classical music. And I’ve found that I can experience all of the dhyanas while treating music as a meditation object.
If you’re going to listen to music as meditation then you have to take it seriously as a practice. Try not to do anything else at the same time. Don’t work, or read, or balance your checkbook while you’re listening. Switch off your phone. Darken the room. Just listen to the music. Make sure you’re in a comfortable position that supports alert attention. Sit or lie down comfortably, and just pay attention to the music. You’ll probably find that you enjoy it like never before.
Nature Sounds As an Accompaniment to Meditation
One auditory accompaniment to meditation that I do think is reasonable is recordings of natural sounds, such as water, birdsong, etc. In the Buddha’s day the vast majority of meditation would have taken place outdoors. Even when meditation took place indoors, the buildings would have lacked glass windows and silence would have been extremely rare. So you could argue that meditating in the presence of natural sounds (or recordings thereof) is closer to the original practice of meditation. On the other hand, just because silence was rare in the Buddha’s day doesn’t mean that people then wouldn’t have found silence useful as a background for their practice.
Additionally, though, many of us live in very urban environments where hearing natural sounds is rare. I believe that contact with the sounds of nature fulfills a deep need for a sense of connectedness to the natural world, and that recordings of those sounds can help fill that need.
Also, natural sounds are more random and less “catchy” than music, and the mind is less likely to become attached to and distracted by them. In fact, it’s easier to tune out random natural sounds as we get more absorbed in our experience. We’re more likely to get “stuck” listening to music.
So at worst I’d say that natural recordings do no harm, while at best they may help us to fill a need for the experience of natural sound. Music on the other hand is likely to be a distraction, or to artificially produce pleasant feelings, thus preventing us from finding those pleasant feelings from within.
Ultimately It’s Up to You
I’ll just add that you’re completely free to choose to listen to music while you meditate. You’re free to listen to the news while you meditate, even. But in making those choices you’re also choosing the consequences that follow on from them — that you’re taking away an opportunity to be deeply at peace with yourself. I’d suggest that choosing silence is a more spiritually helpful option. Even if you initially find silence intimidating, you’ll get used to it. Millions of meditators have. And in time you’ll find that silence is more conducive to peace and tranquillity than music ever could be.