Should I Meditate with or without Music?
Music can make us want to dance. It can remind us of a moment from many years ago. In Hollywood, music drives movies. Parents sing music to babies to help them sleep. Music can do many things – it can thrill us and excite us, it can calm and relax us, it can make us smile and bring us to tears.
Because music can help us unwind, many people have begun to use music while they meditate. Traditionally, Buddhists would never have done this! They would have sat outside in nature, so in a kind of imperfect silence. But still no music or sounds playing on their iPhones.
We find that there are both pros and cons to using music meditation. Here are the upsides (and the downsides) as we see them.
For people who start meditating, silence can be quite intimidating, so music brings reassurance and familiarity when embarking on this new journey. Also, music can very quickly induce a particular state of feeling in us. Depending on the piece we choose to sit with, music can quickly take us to a place of more calm and relaxation. This can be a big plus if we are meditating right after work, for example – maybe the mind is all over the place even more than usual, and music can help us begin to focus more. A certain kind of musical piece can also make us feel something more like rapture – waves of energy or pleasure – simply brought on by listening to the sounds. This too can be of benefit to us in the practice of focusing. If the music induces a powerful state in you, it can make it easier to concentrate all your attention on it, instead of the mind chatter – to notice your feelings, and bring more awareness into the experiences happening within.
For those reasons, music is usually a great tool when you’re getting started with meditation. It definitely makes learning meditation much easier at the beginning, and this is why we’ve integrated music into our program. As you become more experienced with meditation though, it is probably a good idea to try meditating without music, and ultimately we recommend that you meditate without music. One of the objectives of Meditation is to train our “attention muscle”. We want to come back again and again to our single point of focus, whether that is our breath or a repeated sound or something else. You can ‘t listen to music in the background and focus completely on your breath – that’s already multi-tasking, which is the opposite of our goal!
Another reason music can hinder our meditation is because of that rapturous state it can induce. It’s a wonderful feeling, and we might mistake it for a sensation we are shooting for in our meditation practice. But actually, because music on its own produces pleasant feelings, it ends up taking us away from our job of digging more deeply into what’s really going on inside us as we sit. Have you ever walked into a store, feeling kind of grumpy or low, and perked up suddenly when you heard a familiar pop song on the radio? Stores do that to purposely put you in a pleasant mood (so you’ll buy some more!) During meditation, it’s better to not create states of emotion from outside sources – instead, we want to be brave and see what’s inside.
And what about using music mixed with binaural beats? You might have heard about binaural beats. These are sounds that have been found to produce specific stimuli in the brain; depending on the frequencies of the tones sounded, different brain waves get produced. Some people have started using binaural beats for relaxation – for example, inducing alpha wave creation, the kind associated with a state of deep relaxation; or theta waves, which occur during periods of deep meditation. A number of meditation methods present this as a quick shortcut to Nirvana. Our opinion? Be careful when messing with your brain! Under normal circumstances, you get the brain waves you are ready to support at any given time. While the relaxing effect seems to actually work, we can’t be sure that inducing brain waves ourselves isn’t doing us harm. If you’re really interested, give it a try – just be cautious.
If you want to try meditating without music, but silence is a bit intimidating, you might try ambient nature sounds. The Buddhists were sitting outside, but they probably had a lot more natural sounds in the background than we do – especially if you live in a city, and your natural sounds are garbage trucks and police sirens screeching by! Nature sounds are generally not very catchy, so they won’t grab your attention as much as a good tune.
One more option for using music is to use it as its own meditation – instead of using it during your regular practice, make listening to music its own practice. Sit down, turn off your phone, and press play. Really listen. You’ll be amazed at what you hear. This is the reason we’ve included a number of music pieces in the Self-Practice section of our program.
If you decide you do want to try meditating with music – or maybe mix it up, some meditations with and some without music – we have music in the Breethe meditation app in our daily meditations, specialty tracks, and in self-practice audio tracks. We also use nature sounds in some of them. Of course, if you don’t want to use music, you can still listen to the voice tracks and just switch off the music. Try it now, and decide for yourself.
Start with this free YouTube music meditation video to meditate or sleep better…
Also check out Lynne’s answer to a user question about meditation music in this YouTube video:
So one of the questions that comes up is “Should I be meditating with music?” And, music is really an interesting thing because for many people, they find it very soothing, they find it very relaxing, and just meditation music in general is a wonderful tool to help us relax.
But in general, what we’re trying to do when we meditate is we’re really paying attention to all of our senses. So we’re being fully present and aware for all our senses: our sense of smell, our sense of hearing, our sense of taste, our physical body and how it’s feeling.
You’re there. You’re fully present. So music, at the beginning, when you’re listening to it, can be a way for you to pay attention with your sense of hearing.
Ultimately, as you progress,what we’re trying to do is be completely aware and present for the sounds around you. So ideally you want to have less music, and be aware of – really the sound of your breath – the more subtle sounds that you might miss if you’re listening to the music. So I hope that clears it up.