It was a pleasure to be invited to Seda Röder’s inaugural Sonophilia event on August 15th. This took place just outside of Salzburg, Austria, at the Cultural Centre of St. Jakob, pictured above. With a focus on the transformative power of music and meditation, the day’s events provided opportunities to engage in mindfulness-centred approaches to music, painting, sculpture, tourism, international aid, and business. It was lovely to meet new people and to reconnect with people I associated with more closely when I used to live and work in Salzburg during 1997-2002. It also prompted me to finally get some thoughts down on the topic of music and meditation, something which is absorbing me more and more these days.
Music as an integral part of meditation
Though not essentially or traditionally integral to Buddhist meditation, the move to integrate sound or music into the practice is borne from an impetus which is closely aligned to the tenets of a number of Buddhist and other meditation traditions. One personal view of meditation which I find very helpful is that it is the art of not categorising. Sati, meaning mindfulness or awareness, is fundamental to the Theravadan Buddhist meditation practice of Vipassana. This is focused on breath as a vehicle to fully realising the here and now and ultimately providing deep insight into the nature of reality.
My current understanding, after 15 years of Vipassana practice, centres upon learning to avoid or at least observe often quite dismissive automatic categorisation processes and, most importantly, to avoid grasping—grasping after categories, ideas, emotions, belongings, or any mental state which particularly accentuates the past or future at the expense of experiencing the present in the fullest form possible.
Some form of grasping occurs within most of us on a constant basis, so it is good to at least get to know it well. Grasping and categorisation have a tendency to occupy and control the mind much more than we are aware of when not meditating, but anyone with even a cursory experience of meditation knows full well how difficult it is to gain and retain control of the mind, keeping the focus on the breath or some other object of meditation. Many practitioners refer to this inability to stay focused as “monkey mind” and though it itself can be a fruitful object of meditation I think most meditators see it as the greatest block to higher states of awareness.
The consideration of music in the context of meditation refers me back to the beginnings of my studies of electronic and computer music. Anyone interested in this field will quickly encounter the French pioneer Pierre Schaeffer, who derived the term Musique Acousmatique (Acousmatic Music) from the teaching approach of Pythagoras. This entailed listening in absolute silence to Pythagoras speak from behind some form of screen, so as better to focus the mind on the meaning of the words without the distractions of visual stimulation.
Transferred to the electronic music domain the approach involves presenting music on loudspeakers only, without acoustic instruments played by human musicians. Ideally the listener would not make any effort to identify the source of the sounds used in the creation of this new music, rather, they would appreciate the sound for its particular qualities alone. You might imagine that this would be considerably facilitated by the use of new electronic instruments but of course, being the originator of Musique Concrète, Pierre Schaeffer used only sounds which he recorded from and in the real world. Moreover, very often these sounds were easily recognisable, such as trains, or machinery. Given the acousmatic ideal it might seem contradictory to use such sounds, but it is interesting to note that it is in fact very much in line with the application of sound and music to the art of meditation, at least as far as I explain it in the context of avoiding categorisation and “monkey mind”.
Sound is, in essence, empty of meaning. Emptiness is a difficult concept to understand in Buddhism but it is very important to the Mahayana tradition. The easiest explanation I have come across is to see emptiness as something which needs connections in order to be full or non-empty. So no animate or inanimate object has any meaning or objective quality in and of itself; it only takes on meaning in relation to other objects. This is particularly helpful when approaching music and especially music’s significance in the practice of meditation.
We often speak casually of music as being the universal language. Certainly, with regards to composers, many speak of their particular musical language. In this colloquial manner of speaking there is of course no problem conflating music and language but, strictly speaking, music is by no means a language.
Let’s tighten this up a little and not confuse or conflate language, expression, or even communication in general. Music is, essentially, far too empty to be a language, and this is its very beauty. Though it has syntax and semantics, it lacks the pragmatics that every true language needs in order to function. The most simple proof of this is that it is impossible to say “please eat your dinner” through music alone. Let’s be clear though: this is not to say that music cannot have meaning or that it does not communicate. On the contrary, as Delius said, “it is only that which cannot be expressed otherwise that is worth expressing in music”. But, in order to have an expressive function we need to bring our experiences and memories of music—some personal, some shared—into the inherently empty experience which music necessarily is.
On a related note, it is exactly this property of music—its emptiness, and the power it has because of this—which makes me believe that if music is to be used in meditation practice then it should almost certainly be without words, perhaps without voices altogether. Words and the human voice take us into the realm of language (clearly) and so detract from the power and perfectly personal relation we can have to a purely sonic experience in music without text. How at odds this view is with the use of the voice and text in Western sacred music is quite striking—telling even.
As a meditator
My personal approach at incorporating sound and music into meditation would be, from the perspective of the meditator first and foremost, to treat sonic objects no more or less cursorily than the mental objects we might more negatively associate with “monkey mind”. When external sonic objects are treated equally to internal mental objects we can achieve a non-judgmental distance to them, one of non-involvement. This is fitting and appropriate to staying centred on the present, i.e. not ignoring what is happening within and around us but not getting carried away by it either.
To take this idea a little further, using sound or music in meditation is also one way of dealing with the disturbing effects of “monkey mind”. Just as we may use the internal counting of breaths as a technique to stay focused, we can use an openness to external sonic events as a way to take us out of obsessive and grasping mental states. Important here though is that this should be undertaken in an acousmatic fashion, focusing not on the cause or nature of the sound or even the evolving structure of the music created by the sound, but instead concentrating fully on the singularity and richness of the sonic event. There is of course a whole body of work on this very topic which was begun by Pauline Oliveros and which goes under the name of Deep Listening.
As a composer
It has been interesting for me to observe how meditation has affected my compositional approach. I have undertaken nothing purposefully or intentionally different in my compositions since starting to meditate, rather, my meditation and my compositional life have been running parallel for years. Only now are they starting to come together to the point where the connections are clearly audible.
It is obvious to me now of course that meditation would have an effect on my music, just as it has on every aspect of my life, and in some ways the effect has also been along predictable lines. Recent pieces are more tranquil, slower, have less notes, and most importantly are less teleological in their development: they sit more and move less. These are the aspects I would take to further extremes in the development of musical structures aimed especially at the meditative setting.
Whilst working on and mixing hyperboles are the worst thing ever I often found myself in a mental state I knew very well from meditation. for rei as a doe was the first piece I wrote that was very clearly meditative in its structure, development, and duration (it lasts 40 minutes) even though it was written for the concert context. Music for Parallel Consumption is an experiment in self-reconfiguring automatic mixing and delivery via an app rather than on disc or in performance. I think the app platform and this approach has an awful lot of potential, especially for meditative applications. The very fact that a piece can be presented with many different variations means that the meditator must remain open for new external stimulation, preferably without a drive for categorisation and without knowledge, memory, and expectation of a well-known unfolding form.
Some specific tips
The following are some perhaps well-known but also some personal approaches to integrating sound and music (imagined or otherwise) into meditation.
- Listening to and welcoming ambient noise. Most beginner meditators find it difficult to stay focused in all but the quietest of environments. Instead of being disturbed by the sounds around you (“I can’t concentrate with that racket going on!”) try to be accepting of all sounds, paying just enough attention to them so as not to be rejecting.
- If, on the other hand, you are lucky enough to be in a very quiet space you might find it helpful to engage in Nada Yoga: the sound of silence. There is an excellent free book on this approach published by the Forest Sangha called Inner Listening. It involves listening to the background noise of the body, in particular the high pitched tones and white noise (refrigerator-like sounds) that many of us hear directly inside the ear, and which some of us will recognise as tinnitus even. The composer and meditator John Cage spoke about his experience in an anechoic chamber (a specially-designed extremely quiet space producing as close to zero sound reflections as possible). Though no external sound was audible, Cage heard one high and one low sound. An engineer explained that the high sound was his nervous system, and the low sound was his blood in circulation. It is possible that this was a correct interpretation, but it is also possible that Cage had tinnitus to a greater or lesser degree. Either way, such sounds can be used as an object of meditation.
- A particular approach I employ regularly when trying to attain concentration is to imagine two alternating held tones: one with the in-breath and one with the out-breath. Generally I use a falling minor third but when concentration is difficult, I find switching to a rising major second more invigorating. The advantage of this approach is that you mentally sound these tones continuously, only switching pitch when you sense the in-breath changing to the out-breath. I’m sure I’m not alone in finding that, when concentrating solely on the breath without imagining tones, it is the point when we seem to be neither breathing out nor breathing in where I am most vulnerable to “monkey mind”. Keeping the tone constant at this point helps stay focused.
- Of course if you prefer to actually sing these tones then you could start employing the techniques of Toning. This is the quintessential 1960s hippy experience I suppose: sounding the OM. Feeling the effects and resonances of sung tones in the body is appreciated as a focus of meditation by many practitioners and can certainly help develop concentration.
- Last but not least of course, in the context of this post, is listening to music or sound tracks whether created specially for meditation or not. I used to use the albums permafrost and teimo by Thomas Köner. After speaking to people about these I have the distinct impression that they are much darker than a lot of people might like for meditation. But they are also much more slowly developing and less traditionally organised in their musical structure than most meditation CDs available in what we loosely call the New Age sphere. They are therefore, to my mind, much more suitable for meditation. Most New Age/Spiritual CDs specifically created for meditation are in my experience far too active, far too tonally and therefore teleological structured for anything other than rather superficial meditation activities. This is where the development work lies.