Monday, 1 February 2016

Music for meditation?

There is an enormous interest in the relatively new genre of music concerned with meditation and relaxation, and it forms a lucrative market for producers of new-age music.  As this subject brings together two of my interests, music and meditation, I thought it worthwhile to comment on this popular trend and explore the thinking behind its use.
The origins of the word meditation are from the mid-16th century
Meditation n. quiet thought, reflection
Mid 16th century: from Latin meditat- 'contemplated', from the verb meditari, from a base meaning 'measure'; related to mete. Greek medesthai to be mindful, take thought, plan.  The Welsh meddwl, both senses of mind, to care for and to think.
(sources Chambers Dictionary of Etymology)

As a distinction is made between meditation and contemplation:
Contemplation….the act or fact of looking at or considering. (CDoE)

Both of these definitions are in keeping with Western religious attitudes, and it should be the case that it satisfies a large number of Christian worshipers who would turn to plainsong, masses or hymns as their source of music for contemplation.  It is clear though that the new kid on the block is not of this nature.
From the perspective of 20th century music John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen both have a part to play in the fusion of meditation and music, the notion of non-thought occurs regularly in their writing and music.  “Stimmung” (KS) is a model for much of the popular music that follows, there are many levels of design to this work, one part is the use of texts relating to the names given to gods/goddesses, but there are erotic verses as well.  The title which literally means tuning reminds one of the phrase “Turn on, tune in, drop out popularised by Timothy Leary in 1966 two years before Stimmung (1968 Madison, Connecticut). The 60’s was the period for the popular exploration of Eastern philosophy, the echoes of which are still with us today. Stockhausen’s title also refers to the term die stimme – voice, and this needs further examination in the context of this blog.

The voice has a significant role in meditation and takes many forms, chant turns up in most religious traditions; comparing the recitation of The Lord’s Prayer with shamanic throat singing may seem a world apart but their intentions are not. When I discussed meditation and the voice with Herbert Whone (1) he constantly turned the conversation to “the inner voice, the one that is never still”, and he used the phrase monkey-jumping to describe the way in which it (the inner-voice) had the remarkable ability to move from one consideration to another with considerable ease.  This is really the heart of the problem that faces a majority of our population and causes us to search out a solution, usually a solution at the cheapest price and least effort. We are distracted beings, for musicians whose concerns are tied into the moment by moment exposition of material this isn’t good news.
In the musical world there is a popular element to many of the recordings made for meditation, the production is slick, the sounds modified to be acceptable, the use of soft synthetic voices, and recordings of natural sounds for urban dwellers.  All of this is wholly acceptable for people who want to follow an easy route to a difficult problem. Like learning a language we all know the usual tricks of “Learn to speak…in 10 days”.  I have nothing against such marketing, there is no untruth in the comment, it is of course, partially true.
A recent popular meditative movement is mindfulness, it has many qualities, it is not based on religious teaching, it has simple procedures to follow, it may be taught to any age group. It does not have a problem with using music as an accompaniment to use. The term often used is insight meditation.
As we restrict the blogs to 1k words here is a straightforward and short account which draws together some of the positive attributes of mindfulness for the performer and listener:

There is no particular type of music for mindfulness exercises; it can be the metal clang of cymbals or the clang of heavy metal. On a personal level I can recall as a teenager listening with great care to “The Rite of Spring” and noticing after the music had finished that the notion of listening to a recording (on a rather cheap mono player) had vanished.  There was an acute response to the material in terms of feeling the phrasing, the melodic units etc. I had, by paying attention to the music, slipped into a more refined listening.  This was not the last time I experienced “improved” listening, the most recent was with our study of Bax, and the music was the third movement of the third symphony.  I have listened to this many times in the last couple of months but only once experienced such a deep contact. 

Do musicians who listen regularly and pay attention to music naturally enter a form of meditation?
My belief is that they do, but this is not to say that using meditative techniques in addition to listening doesn’t refine the process.  At university I was taught the Alexander technique to assist performance skills, and it was quite a gently amusing sight to see those involved in its use at afternoon recitals sitting in such a different way to the slouching composers and researchers (myself included).  The point is that this technique also had the attention drawn onto a particular focus, rather like the difference between hatha and raja yoga. As such it was a valued tool in improving the skills of the students. (In passing I will pass on the information that Adrian Boult was strongly influenced by the technique).

I was asked by a friend to write a work which would assist with his use of mindfulness, so I spent some time listening to other approaches.  In the end I turned to my own experience.  Many decades ago while passing a rehearsal of a Cage piano piece for prepared piano I couldn’t help but stop and listen for a period of several minutes.  Later that night, just before sleeping, the sounds came back to me, as if there was a performance taking place in the room, it stopped as suddenly as it started. This is one source of my interest in bells and bell like sounds.  The music link below takes us to an exploration of bell sounds with phrase lengths based on breathing.  It never achieved popular status, but it seemed to satisfy one customer and I still listen to it myself to stop the monkey leaping from tree to tree.



1.       Herbert Whone: The Simplicity of Playing the Violin (1972), with a foreword by his friend Colin Davis and illustrated with his own drawings. Two further volumes, The Hidden Face of Music (1974) and The Integrated Violinist (1976)