December 22, 2018

Music as Meditation

Music as Meditation

From my earliest memories, music has flowed through my ears, my mouth and my mind. It was omnipresent, wherever I went. If I wasn't performing, I was listening to it through a stereo or at the least, its notes flowed through my mind. Not only did I listen for simple enjoyment, I loved taking music apart, piece by piece, examining how it was made, seeing the care put into bringing it to live and being inspired to make my own music better.

Becasue of music's everpresence in my life, it was deeply intwined with every moment. Similar to an orchestral score to a movie, it was impossible to separate the music from the experience of living my life. There are many songs and albums that are so tied to times in my life that I can't hear that music without thinking of that time, and vice versa.

Different types of music served as backdrops at different times. At 16, when I first discovered science fiction and fantasy novels, igniting my love of reading, I was uanble to concentrate for long enough to get into a book, unless there was music running in the background. This music tended toward the more mellow side of things, with albums like Eric Clapton's Unplugged washing out the background noise from the world, while my mind slipped into a world created on the pages in the book I held.

Driving music was a completely different story. Much of my youth was spent listening to the many sub-genres of rock, metal and alternative. While my friends were listening to pop-radio, I had the local rock channels programmed into my car stereo. When I received a portable CD player for Christmas, the first thing I did was to wire it up to play in my car so I was no longer reliant upon a DJ to get just the right feeling music at the right time.

As they years progressed, and I spent years studying music, my tastes expanded, both thematically and through time. I discovered big band and early jazz. I took a (thankfully) short diversion into country. A very small amount of rap and hip hop took hold as well. Orchestral was there as well, especially in the scores to movies I love. John Williams will always be the master of all things orchestral, at least in my mind.

As my life has become increasingly focused on building technology, with less and less time where it is less possible to have a constant refrain of music playing in the background, I have become less and less in touch with not only the current music scene, but my discovery of the greats of the past. Sure, I occasionally stumble across someone, but this has become an ever more rare occurrence. While this saddens me, it is a trade-off we all make as we age and mature. The passions of our youth fade away and are replaced with newer hobbies.


The most recent addition to my life has been a meditation practice. While I'm only a few months in, with 14 hours of (tracked) meditation time under my belt, several unexpected themes from this time have become quite clear. The one that has surprised me the most is how meditation and music once served similar places in my life.

One way that music used to serve in my life was a release for the more difficult emotions I was feeling. There was that one year, after my college girlfriend and I broke up, where I nearly wore out the latest Dave Matthews Band album, as it was the perfect method to work out the overwhelming feelings of sadness and loss. There was the half-year of depression after the death of my best friend, Curtis, where his favorite musician, Billy Joel, became my constant companion.

As my use of music decreased, my discovery of new music waned, my use of podcasts to fill my commute increased, I lost something I didn't know I was missing, and that was the pressure relief valve which music could provide, where spoken word could not. The podcasts I listen to tend towards learning and technology news, areas where emotions tend to not intrude. There was no conscious effort to hold back my emotions; they just no longer had a place to flourish in my life.

Last night, while I was driving with my daughter to a family holiday party, I realized she was bored with hearing my podcast, so I flipped over to one of my favorite albums, Dave Brubeck's Take Five. It was something I knew she hadn't heard before as I almost never play it in the car. As the music began to play, I fell back into those old memories, and as the songs flowed by, I realized that I was feeling very close to how I felt during the heaviest parts of meditation.

Pay attention to the time signature(s)

There I was, floating along the river of music, being buoyed up as I navigated through a deep, slow-moving river of emotion. A part of me, deep down inside, remembered how this used to be a constant thing for me, how I used to hop in the car and go for a drive, just to relieve stress. All these years, I had thought it was the drive that did the work, but in reality, it was the time alone with the music that made the difference.

As I've written this post, I started with the above video and then let the music continue to play on random in the background. Working with a new soundtrack isn't something I've done in quite a long time. Sure, I've put on music to play while I was working, but it isn't the same as when you're doing it for the enjoyment of the music and not just a distraction from the noise.

The reasons for why music has decreased in importance to me are numerous and all of them are valid in their own ways. That doesn't take away from the reality that making those decisions to decrease music's influence in my life hasn't had some negative impacts, too. I now know that music helped soothe the anxiety flowing through my mind and body. I knew it was there augmenting the excitement I would feel, but now know more about how it helped to ignite excitement, too. It had been easy to let music become less of a conscious choice, but it wasn't as obvious that it had been such a subconscious part of my life as well.