Music-Enhanced Meditation for Stress Relief

Dr. Jaffe often mentions incorporating music into relaxation practice, as music has been shown to have both emotional and physiological effects. Faster music can help you concentrate and feel more alert and optimistic, whereas slower music can soothe your mind and relax your body. How is this possible? Let’s focus today on music’s ability to promote relaxation and calm.

The Science

Brainwaves. Research has shown that music with approximately 60 beats per minute can cause brainwaves to synchronize into an alpha rhythm, which is present in a relaxed conscious state.  After approximately 45 minutes in this state, the brainwaves slow even further into delta rhythm, inducing sleep. Stanford University researchers have noted that “listening to music seems to be able to change brain functioning to the same extent as medication.”

Cortisol levels.  As we discussed last week, cortisol is the main circulating stress hormone. Recent research out of Finland has shown that listening to your favorite calming music can significantly decrease cortisol levels in the body. This can lead to lower blood pressure and reduction in the stress response.

Mental Health. A large body of research has examined music’s effect on mental health. A literature review of 349 studies showed that 68.5% of them reported a positive effect on mental health outcomes. Other studies have found improvements in general anxiety and depression, as well as in the specific reduction of anxiety and physical pain in cancer patients, ventilated patients, heart disease patients, and those undergoing surgery. It’s becoming more clear across the board that the physiological and emotional effects of music promote wellbeing and healing. In fact, music has been used to help people access and process trauma and other issues they may be facing. One example is the Helen Bonny method of guided imagery with music (GIM).

The Music Types

It has been reported that Indian-stringed instruments, Native American music, Celtic music, and nature sounds mixed with classical, light jazz, or “easy listening” music all promote relaxation. Baroque music can help promote focus, relaxation, and improved learning. The specific type of “relaxing” music may not matter physiologically. In a study of Taiwanese elders, relaxation response measured by heart and respiratory rates was significant across six different pieces of music, regardless of which piece they preferred the most. Interestingly, another study found a high correlation between music preference/ familiarity with a person’s perceived level of relaxation.

The bottom line? Explore various relaxing compositions and select a few that resonate and connect with you and help you feel calm. Stay away from things that might elicit negative responses. (As an example, if the sound of dripping water makes you uncomfortable, you would want to avoid a relaxation track with the sound of water dripping off a roof.)

The Practice

Dr. Jaffe recommends listening to music as part of a daily meditation practice. He enjoys listening to classical music (or earlier) while practicing abdominal breathing under the light of a green dichro bulb. Each of these three practices alone can reduce stress, but together are even more powerful. The music allows you to reduce the chatter in your mind while being in the moment. The comprehensive benefits include decreased stress, and increased resilience and renewal. Listen to Dr. Jaffe on Instagram Live as he talks a bit more about music and your mind.

To start your own music-enhanced meditation practice, follow the steps below:

  1. Choose music to help you relax. Choose music you enjoy, with a slower rhythm, approximately 60 beats per minute. Make sure there are no words, as lyrics can distract and engage your conscious brain, preventing relaxation.
  1. Choose a comfortable position. There is not one position that works for everyone. The goal is to be comfortable, but not so comfortable that you fall asleep. Some people prefer a cross-legged meditation pose, others prefer to sit in a chair, while others do lie down. You can experiment across different sessions to find what feels best to you. 
  1. Close your eyes and breathe into your abdomen. For specifics on this technique, check out our earlier blog post on Abdominal Breathing. Inhale through your nose deeply into your abdomen for a count of 7, then exhale slowly through your mouth for a count of 8. Repeat. 
  1. Focus on the music. Once you are breathing deeply, you can shift your attention to the sounds you are hearing and how the music is making you feel in the present moment. If your attention wanders, bring it back to the music. 
  1. Continue for 15-20 minutes. If the first time you practice, you find it difficult to stay with it for the full 20 minutes, start with 5 minutes, then increase the duration over time until you can comfortably and repeatedly meditate for 15-20 minutes daily.
  1. Fine tune. If you find that your music selections are distracting, try a different type. Dr. Jaffe enjoys classical music, or earlier pieces such as madrigals or polyphonic music.  Try one of those, Baroque music,  light jazz, or new age music, as long as it resonates with you and  evokes relaxation.

If you are having trouble locating or creating a suitable relaxing playlist, there are many YouTube videos that can be found if you search “music meditation.” This 3-hour piece by Peder B Helland is accompanied by beautiful nature images and video, so it can be used outside of a meditation practice, as well.

The Last Word

Music can be a powerful tool in your stress-reduction toolbox. Choosing music you enjoy coupled with green light therapy and abdominal breathing in a daily meditation practice will provide the trifecta of stress-reducing benefits, and result in improved resilience and renewal.