Can Music Help With Meditation?

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Music can be integral to many types of meditation. The key is choosing music with the right rhythm, melody, and tempo, according to music meditation experts.

Meditation and music

Music is the soundtrack to our lives. Different songs or genres of music can evoke powerful emotions, help us tap into precious memories, and escape from the stress of daily life.

Given the power of music and sound, it’s no wonder many people who meditate turn to music to enhance or fine-tune their practice. Here’s what you need to know about music meditation.

What is meditation?

Meditation is a blanket term for a set of techniques that encourage a heightened state of consciousness, largely by focusing on the here and now.

There are many ways to quiet your mind, including breathing, mantras, movement, music, and sound.

As many as 500 million people meditate due to a lengthy list of potential mental and physical health benefits, including lower blood pressure, less anxiety, and decreased pain.

(Learn more about the science-backed benefits of meditating.)

“Meditation is the act of bringing the mind back to an object of meditation, creating one-pointed focus with an object of meditation and becoming meditatively absorbed,” explains Kimberly Humphrey, a sound healer at Miraval Austin Resort & Spa in Texas.

“Hearing is one of our most used senses, and many people find that focusing on a sound is a helpful tool to focus the mind away from the running narrative of thoughts it creates.”

Some of the biggest lures at Miraval Austin, and other Miraval properties, are music with meditation and sound-healing classes, she notes.

Man with headphones on meditating at the beachWestend61/Getty Images

How does music fit into meditation?

Music can be the object of a meditation practice, or a background sound to soothe the body with a different object of meditation such as a visualization, Humphrey says.

“In meditation, music supports what we are doing verbally during guided imagery, but its job is to regulate people physiologically including lowering respiratory rate,” says Christina A. Myers, a music therapist at Four Diamonds at Penn State Health Children’s Hospital in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

Still, there are debates about whether music should be used for meditation, says Ferol Carytsa, assistant director and lecturer at the Center for Arts in Medicine at the University of Florida College of the Arts in Gainesville.

“Some feel music can be a distraction, but it can improve mood, create a more relaxed environment by canceling other sounds, and enhance a person’s awareness of breathing,” she says.

For example, focusing on beats per minute of musical selections can help regulate breathing and pulse rate, she says.

Best music for meditation?

There is no one-size-fits-all type of music that can help you meditate or foil your attempts to unleash your inner zen, says Cortland Dahl, chief contemplative officer at Healthy Minds Innovations and a research scientist at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “The types of sound that soothe us differ from person to person,” he says.

If you can’t stand the birdsong, thunderclaps, and ethereal melodies that tend to embody wellness music, you’re in luck. “Music meditation doesn’t have to involve new age or spa music or nature sounds,” Dahl says.

Not every meditator appreciates music with their practice, either. Research out of the U.S. Army Research Lab found that skilled meditators prefer silence, while beginners liked music without a distinct melody.

Listen to your body, suggests Lauren Eckstrom, a certified mindfulness meditation instructor in Los Angeles. “Some days we may want the support of practicing with music, while on other days we may feel more inclined toward quiet.”

And if you start a meditation practice with music, over time you may choose to let the music go and sit in silence, she adds.

(Learn when the best time to meditate is to reap the most benefits.)

How to choose music for meditation

If someone wants to use background music during meditation, soft/quiet music with a slow tempo is best because it can soothe the body and slow down our thoughts, Humphrey says.

“As we are seeking to slow down our thoughts in meditation, we don’t want to energize our thoughts and body with fast or loud music,” she says.

While sound can be beneficial, helpful, and powerful for our body and meditation practice, it can also be harmful, she cautions.

“Fast and/or loud sounds and music can stimulate our body and activate our senses to be vigilant to the outside world, which is the opposite of what we want in meditation, where we are practicing turning the senses inward to prepare for meditation,” Humphrey says.

“Our nervous system is very sensitive to sounds in the environment, and different sounds activate different parts of the brain,” Dahl says.

This can be helpful at times and harmful at others. “Sound can activate our fight-or-flight response or calm us down,” he says.

The fight-or-flight response, which kickstarts production of stress hormones, can be very helpful if we are under attack, but it’s counterproductive in other cases, he explains.

Musical preference varies greatly, Carytsas adds. “Spend some time learning your musical preferences and identifying the playlists that contribute to relaxation versus the energizing ‘get up and go’ songs.”

Mindfulness meditation and music

“Music meditation is a fine type of meditation that can be used to evoke states of mind such as peacefulness, calm, or ease,” says Diana Winston, director of mindfulness education at the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center in Los Angeles and the author of The Little Book of Being.

Mindfulness meditation at UCLA does not use music, she says.

“Mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment with openness, curiosity, and a willingness to be with that experience,” she explains.

“Typically, we teach mindfulness without music so that practitioners learn to have comfort and ease with silence as they practice noticing the present moment, such as their breath, body sensations, or their emotions.”

Music can be problematic in mindfulness meditation as it is associative, she says. “It can send us thinking about memories, associations, and ideas, while in mindfulness we are trying not to get too lost in thought and to return to the present moment the best we can,” she says.

That doesn’t mean there is no role for music during mindfulness practices. “Sometimes, music can help us to calm our mind so that we can practice mindfulness,” she says.

“I recommend very subdued background music without lyrics that is not too evocative,” Winston says.

Dahl agrees: “Music with lyrics may be distracting as the sound should be the backdrop, not the main show.”

His advice? Find music that is soothing, calming, and enjoyable, and then play it in the background as you meditate.

A type of music known as binaural beat is popular in meditation today, Eckstrom adds. These are essentially auditory illusions that occur when you hear sounds of different frequencies in each ear.

“This type of music has been said to reduce anxiety, increase creativity, improve sleep, and help people enter meditative states,” she says.

Incorporating music into your meditation practice

As with most things, practice makes perfect—or close to it.

Expect trial and error, Myers says. She suggests starting with a song or melody that is familiar.

These free meditation sources have guided and music-based options to help you find the practice that works best for you.

Sources
  • Kimberly Humphrey, sound healer, Miraval Austin Resort & Spa, Austin, Texas
  • Cortland Dahl, chief contemplative officer, Healthy Minds Innovations, research scientist, Center for Healthy Minds, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Diana Winston, director of mindfulness education, UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center, Los Angeles
  • Lauren Eckstrom, certified mindfulness meditation instructor, Los Angeles
  • Christina A. Myers, music therapist, Four Diamonds, Penn State Health Children's Hospital, Hershey, Pennsylvania
  • WORK: A Journal of Prevention, Assessment & Rehabilitation: "A pilot study investigating preferred background sounds during mindfulness meditation: What would you like to hear?"
  • Ferol Carytsas, MM, assistant director and lecturer, Center for Arts in Medicine, University of Florida College of the Arts, Gainesville, Florida

Denise Mann, MS
Denise Mann is a freelance health writer whose articles regularly appear in WebMD, HealthDay, and other consumer health portals. She has received numerous awards, including the Arthritis Foundation's Northeast Region Prize for Online Journalism; the Excellence in Women's Health Research Journalism Award; the Journalistic Achievement Award from the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery; National Newsmaker of the Year by the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America; the Gold Award for Best Service Journalism from the Magazine Association of the Southeast; a Bronze Award from The American Society of Healthcare Publication Editors (for a cover story she wrote in Plastic Surgery Practice magazine); and an honorable mention in the International Osteoporosis Foundation Journalism Awards. She was part of the writing team awarded a 2008 Sigma Delta Chi award for her part in a WebMD series on autism. Her first foray into health reporting was with the Medical Tribune News Service, where her articles appeared regularly in such newspapers as the Detroit Free Press, Chicago Sun-Times, Dallas Morning News, and Los Angeles Daily News. Mann received a graduate degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and her undergraduate degree from Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa. She lives in New York with her husband David; sons Teddy and Evan; and their miniature schnauzer, Perri Winkle Blu.