Mainstream Meditation Music is Passive
Meditation music is a genre. It accompanies podcasts, is featured in “sleep music” tracks and fills the air in places where a meditative ambience is in demand. Defining characteristics of the genre include chords that wash over you, played by a soft and lush synthetic instrument. These chords change ever so slightly, creating a shifting soundscape that gives the effect of floating through space or drifting through time. The constant shifting of the chords and the ebb and flow of the sound qualities (which include volume, texture, left-to-right placement of the sound, and the faint ocean sounds that are often present) are important to create a sense of absolute calm that is not static—a wave we can ride until we fall asleep.
This kind of music is very useful when we are half-awake, staring up at the ceiling and waiting to return to sleep. It is great when we are prepared for it. When we want it. When we are absolutely sure of its value.
I have found that sometimes a resistance to this music makes it maddening. When my mind is racing, or I am in a busy or stressful situation, my mind simply ignores the drifting soundscape and barrels ahead with thoughts. The sound of the ether is ignorable because it is rather passive. I find that if I need to reset my brain, I need something a little more active, something that focuses me.
Part One: The Theory and Practice of Pointy Sounds
Pointy sounds have been around throughout history. Snare drums, hammered dulcimers, and many other instruments and natural phenomena produce pointy sounds. These sounds start sharply and loudly, and decay quickly. Their initial momentary loudness is the aural equivalent of touching a pencil point. Pointy sounds are focused, and there is space between them when they are in series. Their inherent rapid dynamic changes make them perfect for recentering your brain.
The “point” of a pointy sound grabs your attention. Your focus on it is inevitable. The sound is sudden and loud, and compels you to hear it. Then, as the sound decays, your brain relaxes. It sits in a suspended place between the sounds. Your attention is released from the point of the sound, but it doesn’t get far. It is soon caught up again in the next sound (a “sound” could be a note or simply a percussive hit) before you can start thinking about anything else. In this way, the catch-and-release effect of successive pointy sounds can keep your brain focused on one thing, while giving it time to relax in the quiet spaces.
Part Two: Focusing the Attention with Harmony
Harmony is the simultaneous or sequential juxtaposition of musical notes that together form a system of tension and release. There is a chord (multiple simultaneous notes) or an interval (two sequential notes) that has more dissonance or potential energy, and then there is the chord that is the resolution, the landing place. In between these chords there can be many other chords, either lengthening or hastening the harmonic journey. The brain expects certain things, most of all the release, the letting go of dissonance. Whether or not your brain knows what key a piece of music is in, it knows when you’ve returned to that key, to that solid ground.
The expectations of your brain have an effect on the attention you pay to a melody or a line of music. If the music resolves in a predictable way, over and over, your brain gets used to it. More often than not, when listening to a predictable harmonic progression, your brain zones out. Maybe a simple, quickly resolved chord progression will relax you at first; after many repetitions your attention will want nothing to do with it.
Composers and creators of music know to balance the more predictable sequences with surprises–questions that go unanswered for longer than expected or fresh variations on an established theme. There is a phenomenon used in music composition called a “half-cadence,” wherein rather than coming back to the expected chord, the music takes a different direction at the last moment, making a more elaborate and circuitous route to the final resolution. Devices like the ones I described are what make music interesting.
Harmonies and interesting chord progressions pertain to the development of effective meditation or mind-clearing music in that if you boil off the orchestrations and arrangements, you end up listening to simpler and less obscure presentations of harmonies that are perfect for your brain–they are predictable enough to induce relaxation, and surprising enough to engage and center the mind on the music of the present moment.
What do I mean by “simpler and less obscure presentations?” What is, in this case, the ideal musical “presentation” for a simplified harmonic progression?
The answer is pointy sounds.
A New Kind of Meditation Music
If you are struggling with racing thoughts or confusion, a piece of music consisting of a simplified melody and harmony played using pointy sounds will combine the elements needed for your brain to focus and relax and completely let go of your thoughts.
The piece I wrote as an example of these theories is meant to match the tempo of breath. If you breathe in for a slow count of four and breathe out for the next slow count of four, the music will guide you through a complete mental reorientation. At some point, you might notice, if you keep breathing in a steady pattern, that the release will switch to being on the out breath and the tension will be on the in breath, rather than the other way around. This way, your brain will remain engaged.
Try listening to the meditation track linked below. Closing your eyes, using headphones, and having the volume at a high enough level to take over your focus is important. It might take a couple of listens to get used to the structure of the focus that you need to have. See where the music takes you, and notice how little you have to work.