Practicing mindfulness while listening to music: a beginners guide.

Practicing mindfulness while listening to music: a beginners guide.


We have all been told we need to meditate for 20 to 50 minutes a day. But many of us do not have this time to spare. So what if we can incorporate our practice into something we really like? Most of us do like listening to music, don’t we. This article teaches you the ins and outs of practicing  mindfulness while listening to music.

This article is NOT about background meditation music. Frankly, I never use this kind of music as it tends to distract me. But that is a personal opinion, as I see that many people like to practice meditation like this. I prefer using just a quiet room.

Except, obviously, when I practice mindfully listening to music. In which case I prefer other music than meditation music. Again, a personal preference.

Is this some weird technique? 

No, mindfully listening to music is not a strange technique. Altough I really appreciate strange things like this picture that was graciously made open source by June Yarham.

First off, let me reassure you that this is not some weird thing just to put off doing real mindfulness meditation. If such a thing even exists.

If you go back to the definition of mindfulness, it says to pay attention in a deliberate way, without judgement. It does not specify what one should be mindful off. 

No, we are told to keep an open and curious attitude toward anything we are experiencing in the present moment. 

That does sound like listening to music. Sorry, I could not help making this little play on words.

But seriously now.

Mindfulness meditation has two main fields of action into which it makes our lives better. In both situations, this is done by simply paying attention.

The first way in which mindfulness improves our wellbeing, is by reducing our negative thoughts and feelings by simply acknowledging them. In this way, we learn a lot about our negative feelings. And one of the important insights we get from this is that these sometimes gloomy moods are not nearly as bad as we think them to be. 

As a matter of fact, most of the time, they have not even a substantial basis for existence as in the following quote that is attributed to Thomas Jefferson:

“There are indeed (who might say Nay) gloomy & hypochondriac minds, inhabitants of diseased bodies, disgusted with the present, & despairing of the future; always counting that the worst will happen, because it may happen.  To these I say How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened!”

Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, Apr. 8, 1816

Or the more succinct version by Mark Twain:

“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”

Attributed to Mark Twain in Reader’s Digest, Apr. 1934

The second area in which mindfulness works, is to make us more aware of the beauty that is all around us. It does this by making us aware that we live a large part of our live on autopilot and that we miss out on a lot of the wonderful things in our lives. Actually, the classical MBCT and MBSR programs start with this via the raisin meditation whose main aim is to make us realise just this. 

Furthermore, these two programs put some emphasis on the role of gratitude in increasing our level of happiness. 

So listening to music neatly fits in this second action field of mindfulness.

But it is more than that! To uncover this, let’s look at the actual practice.

A script for the actual practice of listening mindfully to music

Step 1

Listening mindfully to music can be a very intense experience. Photo courtesy of lysander07.

To start, chose a piece of music that you suspect you will like but have not listened to too many times. 

The reason for this is that when you take a piece of music you really, really like and almost know by heart, is that you might get caught up in the music, forgetting the mindfulness practice altogether.

As an example, you might chose a song from one of the artists whose music you like, but chose one of the songs you did not listen to a lot. Or never at all. 

To begin with, I would also avoid up-tempo songs for the same reasons I do not recommend choosing a song you know too well.

A final recommendation is to take a song that is not too long. Let’s say a couple of minutes maximum. The reason why becomes clear in step 3.

Step 2

Listen to music in a mindful way is best not combined with other activities. This is a very good illustration of how not to do this practice ;-). Photo courtesy of music oomph.

Now that you have your song, I guess you are eager to listen to it.

But not yet. Let’s prepare for our session by first bringing our attention to our body. Feel yourself sitting or lying down. Maybe feel the weight of you earphones on your head or the sensation of your earbuds in you ears. During half a minute or so, feel yourself sitting. 

Also notice whatever is going on inside of your emotions and thoughts. Notice if there is anticipation, or dread, or something else.

And finally shortly connect with your breathing. Feel the air flowing in and out of your body.

This step does not have to take a lot of time. One minute is already sufficient. But feel free to make this in a longer mini meditation is you feel so. A couple of minutes of preparation is always nice.

Step 3

Now that we are fully prepared, we can push the play button. But do this mindfully too!

Once the music is playing, bring you full attention to the experience of listening to this particular song? Notice not only that you are listening, but also how this particular song is making you feel. What are the thoughts that it engenders?

You might be surprised as to how often your mind thinks about random stuff while in the middle of listening to a wonderful song.

Also notice if your emotions, moods, thoughts, etc. change during the song. And if it is caused by something in the song or that this is just a random event.

Try to be as mindful as possible throughout the whole song. Remember, it should only be a couple of minutes long, so hang on. If you do lose yourself in the song and forget about the practice, no worries, use the end of the song as a reminder to come back to the practice. Gently bring you focus back to how you feel and what you are hearing.

If you got lost and remembered the practice during the song, wel, then congratulate yourself. That is no easy feat. Mindfully listening to music looks like a simple exercise, but it fact, it is not. But do not let that stop you from trying. It is a most rewarding one.

Step 4

Make sure the next song does not start automatically after the end of the first one. This will allow you to recover your mindfulness if you lost it during the song.

Now bring your attention to how you feel, now this song has finished. During a couple of seconds, notice what this song has done to you. Did it make you happy, or sad, or something else. Notice also how it is that you know this. Is it located somewhere in you body? Or is it more general. It does not matter which one it is, just be curious about how it is that you can know the way you feel.

Next, during a couple of seconds, tune in fully into your breathing again. Just notice the in and out flow of the air from your lungs. This will bring you right back into the moment.

You do not need fancy stuff to listen to music. And old radio like the one my grand parent had is sufficient. Image courtesy of Chris Heidenreich.

Step 5

If you want, you can start over. The only difference is that, now that you are already mindful, you should make an exercise out of choosing the song also. Notice what song you are drawn to. Why does it appeal to you. And equally important, how does this feel in your body, what are the associated emotions and thoughts. 

Since you choose a song that was a bit easier to practice mindfulness, you can maybe now try to discard the guidelines I gave in step 1 and try a song you do know by heart, or an up-tempo song. See how this goes. Were my guidelines warranted? Or did it not make a difference? Remember that you are the only judge.

Why not mindfully watching television?

I hope you liked the exercise and learned to appreciate your music more (or, decided you finally did not like this artist, it’s all up to you).

But you like watching television too probably. I know I do. So why not do a practice of mindfully watching television. 

In general, there is nothing against the practice. On the contrary, I would encourage you to do it as often as possible. And if you do, I’d advise you to use a timer to come back to the moment.

You see, the problem with television is that it is extremely addictive. When my kids watch television and I pass by to get some tea, I have a lot of trouble detaching myself from the screen. I get fascinated by whatever is playing and forget about the present moment altogether. 

And I see the same when I do the conscious effort of watching television mindfully. I get absorbed within seconds into whatever is playing.

I do not have this with audio. Here I can stay much longer with my experience. But feel free to experiment and to let me know how you fared when you tried the practice.

Can mindfully listening to music replace my regular mindfulness practice?

The sad answer is no, I am still convinced that there is a need for regular sitting practice. You need to hone your skill of coming back to moment and I thing that sitting or walking meditation are the best for this.

But mindfully listen to music is a great addition to the repertoire. You could do this when you only have a short amount of time to spend to the practice, or, when you really do not feel like doing a sitting meditation. 

I hope you will enjoy this practice as much as I do. Let me know in the comments if you plan on trying the practice or if you already have some experience with it.

Featured image courtesy of Alper Tecer.

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