Meditating Music

Perfect and pure meditation, I suppose, would require no noise at all, or at least a complete tuning out of the noise. But for those of use who need a little help centring ourselves, focussing, concentrating, or zoning out into a meditative-like state, sometimes music can help. And some music is better than others.

Perfect zoning out (or zoning in) music should be simple, uncomplicated, and undisturbing. Too much texture, layers of voices, harmonic complexity, or too many dynamic changes provide too much to think about. Beethoven's symphonies may be amazing, but they are dynamic and exciting; Chopin's Nocturnes for piano may be beautiful, their melodies sweet and plaintive, but they are complex. Many types of Western Classical music are great for inspiration with their great climaxes, beautiful harmonic progressions, and heart-wrenching melodies, but they are ultimately distracting. 

Oddly enough, one finds the best music for meditation (or at least I do) at the ends of the chronological spectrum of Western classical music. Gregorian chant, from as early as 400 CE, is incredibly soothing, steadying, and "timeless" in its mono-melodic, cathedral-reverb simplicity. It also is highly suggestive of a space for personal reflection or prayer and offers a sort of isolation from the outside world. It is truly beautiful, and can certainly be listened to for its own sake, but it can easily serve as an "atmosphere setter" and form a fusion around our consciousness, drowning out noise and worries, and granting us the serenity that some find in a quiet church or a quiet forest. 

If you don't know what Gregorian chant sounds like, imagine in your mind's ear a group of men singing one melodic line in unison, stretching Latin words over many notes in a rhythmically free manner. It may stay on the same pitch for the entire time, or the melody may wind beautifully for a long time. And of course, it's best sung in a big cathedral where the reverb is rich and enchanting.

Travelling now nearly to the end of the time spectrum, we find Minimalism. Minimalism was a reaction against the complexity that twelve-tone composers celebrated at the beginning of the 20th century. Developed during the 1960s and 70s, it embraced simplicity; it was based on the notion of reduction, the paring down of materials in a musical work. Every musical element - harmony, rhythm, dynamics, instruments - remains fixed for the duration of the piece or changes very slowly. It is "intention-less" and without climaxes. Composers were inspired by the time-suspending qualities of Indian, African, and Balinese music, and by Eastern philosophies, meditation, and sometimes even by the harmonious simplicity, steady pulse, and rhythmic drive of drug-oriented rock and roll (it was the 60s, after all).

In trying to imagine what a minimalist piece may sounds like, take for example any five notes in a simple rhythm. Repeat it over and over and over, maybe changing one of the notes (and keeping it changed) for the rest of the piece. Gradually you may decide to change the other notes one at a time, as well. And that's it - a bona fide minimalist piece! Works by Philip Glass, Steve Reich, or John Adams are great to listen to.

Listening suggestions (found at your friendly neighbourhood McGill music library):

  • Gregorian Chant:
    1. Glory of the Angels - CD 8089
    2. Chant Grégorien Propre des Messes du Cycle de Noël - CD 164
  • Minimalism:
    1. Steve Reich: Piano Phase - on CD 2486
    2. John Adams: Phrygian Gates - on CD 6790


Radix article originally published in February 2007 by Kris Keech

Browse the full Radix archive here.


Back to top