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Mindfulness, Music Appreciation and Empathy

09/10/2013 02:39 pm ET | Updated Nov 10, 2013

"Why waste money on psychotherapy when you can listen to the [Bach's] B Minor Mass?" -- Michael Torke, composer (1)

Sometimes people will ask me whether or not listening to music counts as mindfulness practice. I'd say sure,* you can do pretty much anything with an intention to be mindful, but what makes a session of mindful music appreciation unique and distinct from a mindful breathing practice?

Communication

Music is a language of energy, a "vibe" of emotions and joy. It speaks to our core desires and feelings. It spans language barriers and political borders, making it a powerful means through which humans (and yes, animals, too**) can connect.

As with any form of communication we have the option to listen with our whole being, to open up our hearts and minds to what is being shared, or we can listen to music in the background, skip around songs on our headphones, try to make the music fit into what we are already involved in. While these latter options can sometimes come in handy in the energetic ebb and flow of daily life, a session of mindful music appreciation would encourage the former.

Art, Insight and Empathy

Like any great art, music touches the qualities of our experience that are otherwise beyond words. Wisdom, insight, love, fear and joy can all be communicated through subtle textures and vibrations of the musical palette. Appreciating music can be about more than just aesthetic pleasure -- listening can be an act of empathy.

In a recent interview with Origin Magazine, Karen Armstrong, who is author of Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life and founder of the Charter for Compassion, offers some insight into her personal experience with music:

"I remind myself that my pain is not unique. Everybody suffers. I particularly like chamber music. Beethoven's string quartets express pain itself; it is not my pain." (2)

Music can also be a mirror to help us better understand our own inner-world of thoughts, emotions and feelings. Vague inner-textures can find clarity of shape, catharsis and release through the teaching that is always available in musical art -- listening can be healing.

All of this means that musical artists -- composers, musicians and producers -- must always be deciding what kind of energy they want to put into the world when creating a piece. Mostly, I imagine, that decision occurs beneath the surface of thought, in the realm of texture, vibe, energy and mindful attention itself -- creating can be a mindfulness practice, too.

There is an emerging field of music therapy which is beginning to document the psychological and physical effects of listening to music. Research suggests the effects of deep listening to specific kinds of music to be fundamentally good for our bodies, minds and spirits (3).

To support and encourage a more mindful relationship with music, I've put together some suggestions for how to approach a session of mindful music appreciation. These are some guidelines I use for myself, but are of course, just suggestions. Most importantly, I've found, is to set aside any possible distractions and just commit to being with the music, as much as if you were on a date with a very dear friend.

Suggestions for Mindful Music Appreciation Practice

(You can download a PDF of this practice, here. Read through completely before pressing play.)

-- Clear your schedule for the length of the time it takes to listen to the piece of music.

-- Find a comfortable place where you feel able to fully commit your attention to the music. Set the space as your own private concert hall. Consider the lighting, air circulation (important!), fire exits, aromas and cleanliness.

-- Turn off your phone, close the extra windows on your computer, let anyone else in your living space know that you are engaged for the period of time you've chosen.

-- Consider if your body has been sufficiently nourished, so you might not get hungry or thirsty in the middle of the piece. For longer sessions, consider a small snack or supportive beverage to help regulate your energy.

-- Sit or lay down in a comfortable posture -- one that helps you remain attentive and alert, but one where you also do not need to strain or exert too much energy.

-- Once you feel settled, take a moment to contemplate all that went into the making of the music -- the training, composing, performing, recording and sharing of it. It is quite a special opportunity to be able to listen to musical art in this way. Allow any thoughts and images associated with this contemplation rise and fall through your awareness.

-- Take a few deep breaths and relax into the sensations of your body breathing. Rest with your breath for a minute or two.

-- Press play and bring your attention to the sensations of sound and feeling as the piece begins.

-- If while listening to the music, your attention does wander, just gently remind yourself to return to the sounds and sensations of the music.

-- If listening to the music stirs your emotions or thoughts, you can include those inner experiences as an extension of the music and appreciation practice.

-- As the piece comes to a close, thank yourself for taking the time to listen. As it is customary at any musical performance to thank the musicians and composer for their efforts, even in privacy, find some way to do this which feels meaningful to you (bowing, applause and cheering, even in solitude, are quite acceptable.)

-- Take a few minutes to digest the experience. You can do this by doing a breathing meditation or just relaxing. You can also write or journal about the experience if you'd like.

*As a mindfulness coach, I always recommend daily breathing meditation as a core practice, and to use other exercises as a supplement.

** Mr. Christopher is a big fan of jazz.

(1) http://www.quotes-museum.com/author/Michael_Torke
(2) Origin Magazine, Issue 13, p. 83
(3) http://www.stanford.edu/dept/news/pr/2006/pr-brainwave-053106.html

If you'd like, feel free to share your experience of mindful music appreciation on the Living with Mindfulness facebook page, via email, or tweet @lwmindfulness.

For more by Patrick Groneman, click here.

For more on mindfulness, click here.