Mindfulness & Music
When you hear the word “Mindfulness” what do you think of?
Perhaps yoga, or meditation, or maybe an Oprah segment.
It’s a bit of a buzz word these days- to the point of being co-opted by corporate culture, but mindfulness just means attending to the moment.
That can look like checking in with your body during a yoga pose, or sitting in silent repose, meditating, but it doesn’t have to. If that’s not your thing- don’t write off mindfulness just yet!
Using a mindful approach helps us to separate ourselves from our thoughts and emotions, so that we can acknowledge them and feel them, while still maintaining our internal regulation.
If you’ve ever felt overwhelmed, out-of-control, or found yourself judging yourself for your thoughts and feelings, practicing mindfulness may help navigate the stormy waters of daily life. I’ve long struggled with angry outbursts, and while I haven’t eliminated anger (nor should I!), through my own mindfulness practice I’ve learned to delay my reactions enough or step back and apologize when I find myself getting upset easily.
I love using music with mindfulness because it’s something that automatically commands our attention in the moment- time is the most basic element of music, and the constant motion of sound waves helps keep us grounded in the present, instead of thinking back to what just happened, or forward to the things to come later in the day. I find even using just one song (3-5 minutes) to practice helps reset my brain if I’m feeling stressed or anxious.
How Can We Pair Music and Mindfulness?
Try these music and mindfulness experiences for yourself with this video:
A simple thing to practice is approaching a song you may already know and love with “beginner’s mind,” listening to it as if it were the first time and trying to notice (without judgment) as much as possible about the recording. Are there audio textures and layers you didn’t hear when you were singing along? Can you feel the vibrations of the music in your body? How is the experience different on headphones versus on speakers? We approach all these observations with a gentle curiosity, not judging ourselves or the music.
(A challenge might be to listen to a song you don’t like as a curious observer, noticing your negative emotional reactions if they occur, without letting them overtake the experience.)
If we find that we get sidetracked with thoughts away from the music, we let it go, forgive ourselves, and move on. As we practice being kind to ourselves, it’s easier to extend that kindness to others, as well.
Mindful Music Practice
If you play an instrument or sing, you may find that adding mindfulness to your practice routine improves your playing and benefits your mental health. Techniques like the Alexander Method tap into some qualities of mindfulness, like attuning to how the body feels in the moment, and acknowledging discomfort instead of fighting it or ignoring it. Really checking in with you hands when you play guitar may lead to more ease and better technique to prevent repetitive motion injuries. Mindfully singing may help you increase your body’s relaxation and add resonance and openness to your upper register.
Listening to your own musical output in the moment and truly paying attention can help you achieve your ideal sound, while letting go of judgment and negative thoughts can improve your mental relationship with your instrument. Can you notice what you like and dislike about your playing without beating yourself up about it? If you do judge yourself, can you refocus and not layer judgment onto the judgment? It’s a process, and it may be very difficult to let go of these habits at first- that’s okay! Try not to judge yourself if you feel like mindfulness is a struggle- that, in itself, is part of the journey.
Jacobson Progressive Muscle Relaxation is a process of isolating different muscle groups, tensing/flexing them, then releasing them, with the goal of reducing tension. Adding music to your PMR practice can help you keep a steady slow pace, and increase the physiological effects of relaxation. Adding deep breathing can also be helpful- following the pace of the music can make it easier to keep your breaths steady and even.
I find that instrumental music works better for me for these activities- lyrics/singing can be distracting from paying attention to your body. Whatever genre you like is fine- I’m more drawn to jazz than classical; you may prefer world music, or electronic compositions.
Repetition is one of the things that makes music effective, which makes it a great way to practice empowering thoughts. I love the work of songwriter Betsy Rose in this area, but you can also write your own lyrics to suit your own goals. Whatever thoughts we reinforce and repeat influence our own reactions and responses to events and interactions. So by singing to ourselves ideas like “I am kind,” or “My mind is a clear blue sky” we help to support a mindful, grounded response and unlearn previous reactions that may not have served us well.
"Practice Makes Better"
By practicing mindfulness/deep breathing/PMR when we are not in an elevated state, we increase our ability to use the same tools under stress. In addition, we improve our baseline groundedness/centeredness. It’s much easier to adapt in the moment when we already have a solid foundation. If you’ve ever felt like your baseline is unstable, you know that a little thing can entirely derail your day, even if it doesn’t seem like a big deal on the outside.
If you’re already inclined towards music, using music to support your mindfulness practice is a great way to make the process more intuitive, enjoyable, and effective.
Approach it with curiosity and a beginner’s mind, and you just might notice things you never realized before!
Would you like to attend a LIVE online Music & Mindfulness class for adults?
Come join us in this class co-hosted by the Bower Center for the Arts