Embracing a mindful relationship with music

Kaitlin Mcmanuse explores how embracing a mindful relationship with music can allow a shift in how you think, feel and experience music.

Early in 2020, when live music was still something we were lucky enough to be able to experience in Victoria, my sister and I went to a Michael Dunstan show at the Northcote Social Club in Melbourne. On the way to the gig we listened to the beautiful sounds of his music, which allowed our worries to wash away and our shared curiosity and excitement of the evening to grow.

Live music offers a unique opportunity to practise presence and a mindful relationship with music due to the array of distractions that may be present. Whether it be people moving around the venue as they talk, sing and dance, drinks being ordered, poured and drunk or even your own internal noise, it’s important to notice when your attention strays and redirect your focus to what can be seen and heard on stage. This ensures that musical moments and the magic that comes with them aren’t missed. Perhaps more subtle but no less important, you can also connect with how music makes you feel. I recall how my stress levels shifted throughout this gig and feelings of hope, peace, connectedness, gratitude and perspective emerged.

”Take a deep breath. And allow the music to flow through you. Revel in it, allow yourself to awe,” suggests author Kelly White. At this show I listened deeply, and with intention, to the charming sounds I could hear and meaningful words that were sung and spoken. There were lighter and darker moments throughout the performance, where the energy within me and in the room shifted. This experience mirrored the wisdom I later took away from the artist’s words on mindfulness.

I left the gig reflecting on how focusing on “just this moment” can allow us to experience both lightness and darkness with greater ease, knowing both will come and go as they please.

Listening with presence

Music therapist Evan Sillence suggests music “can be used as a tool to facilitate social connection, to express our emotion and to regulate our emotional and physical state.” He describes the different ways music can shift how people feel emotionally and physiologically: “By checking in with our mood and the level of arousal in our body, we can then make the decision to regulate or alter our emotional and physical state by playing or listening to certain music we usually associate with the state we would like to achieve. For example, if we are feeling anxious and heightened, we can use music we associate with calmness and safety to evoke calmer feelings.” These effects have also been confirmed in research. In the journal article, Effects of Music Interventions on Stress-related Outcomes: A Systematic Review and Two Meta Analyses, Martina de Wittea and colleagues established that music interventions can be used for “stress reduction in a variety of settings because of the positive effects of music listening on both physiological arousal (eg heart rate, blood pressure and hormonal levels) and psychological stress experiences (eg restlessness, anxiety and nervousness).” In order to fully experience the healing benefits of music, you have to be truly paying attention to all you can hear. As Evan reflects, “Most people listen to music as an accompaniment to other daily activities, ie background music.” Given mindfulness and meditation practices can be challenging for many, he suggests listening to music as an alternative. “Making music listening the primary activity is a great alternative to traditional meditation. You can do this by just focussing on your breath, the music and nothing else,” he guides, adding that, “instrumental music is often better for this as singing and lyrics can elicit interpretation and analysis which can distract from the process.”

Evan’s reflections and recommendations ring true for me as I write this story. I pause from writing because the captivating instrumental section in Michael Dunstan’s song “Shutter”, which includes the delicate sounds of an acoustic guitar, grabs my attention. Pausing allowed me to fully pay attention to the beauty of what I could hear. It seems instrumentals really do have power in capturing one’s attention.

Healing with sound

In the journal article Exploring the Music Therapist’s use of Mindfulness Informed Techniques in Practice, Brooke Medcalf explores how a mindful relationship with music can also potentially help people deal with difficult thinking patterns. “Music or sound [can be used] as an attentional target, [where individuals] can practise shifting awareness between external stimuli and inner thoughts and emotions. [By] training one’s attentional capacity through exercises that encourage focused listening, people can strengthen awareness and tolerance of unhelpful, ruminative thoughts.”

Music can also foster a sense of social connection. “Music exists across all cultures and forms a large part of most people’s identities, making it an incredibly accessible tool for connecting with people. Its ability to start conversations and to allow individuals to bond on deeper levels continues to amaze me,” shares Evan, adding, “music is usually intrinsically emotional, so by sharing musical experiences with others, there is a deep social bond experienced between people through the shared attention of the emotionality of the music. It can even provide a sense of social connectedness without people physically being present with each other.”

Music also has healing benefits by helping people process and express their emotions. Evan expands on this notion: “Music allows us to express our emotions in creative, safe and enjoyable ways, through instrumental play or sharing songs that resonate with our experience. This can often act as an alternative to verbal expression when we struggle to find the language to describe our experiences. If we do want to use words, we can even reframe and de-stigmatise certain emotions through the process of songwriting.” He also shares how music can help individuals accept their emotions: “Songs that resonate with our own experiences can also be used as a mirror to help us feel validated and accept our emotions as they are.”

Being grateful

Music can help us cultivate a sense of pleasure and gratitude too. “Music experiences make gratitude practice so much more accessible. Listening to songs with positive associations constantly reminds us of the people or things in our lives that are important to us. Sharing musical experiences with others creates pleasant and meaningful memories we can return to later in our gratitude practice,” shares Evan. “The associations we have with songs and certain people/events are encoded in our minds with deep emotion and often leave vivid memories. These memories and associations are powerful resources in helping to remind us of things to be grateful for,” he adds.

According to musician Marilyn Manson, “Music is the strongest form of magic”. Whether you are connecting to the therapeutic benefits of music by watching a live band, listening to your favourite song, strumming on a guitar, tapping your feet to a beat or humming away to a tune you enjoy, I invite you to engage in a mindful relationship with music to experience the magic it has to offer.


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