Music and mindfulness

We feel music in our bodies – whether we start to tap our toes, move with the rhythm, get up and dance; or else sit more quietly, at a classical concert perhaps: listening to music is never just on our heads, in our thoughts. Playing a musical instrument, or singing, involves the whole of the body, but even just listening to music is never a purely intellectual exercise.

Music also involves emotions – emotions which may have nothing to do with how we felt before the music started. Sometimes, music can seem to validate our existing emotional state, but other times it can transform our emotions, sometimes significantly. Music can provide a safe container for working through difficult emotions – a space from which we can explore our emotions and come to develop a new relationship to them.

Like music, mindfulness is an embodied way of living, and like music, mindfulness can help us approach our emotions in a new way. Music and mindfulness have a beneficial effect on our brain functioning and physiology – increasing the connectivity between the left and right brain hemispheres, improving executive functioning, and strengthening the immune system, for example. Listening to music or playing music can also help us step outside our small sense of self, into a larger, more expansive awareness, just as meditation can.

In our society, we place a lot of emphasis on intellectual problem solving, on figuring things out and coming up with solutions. This has its place, but is generally more limited than coming from a more embodied, experiential perspective. Music therapy, and the use of mindfulness in clinical applications, have both been validated through extensive research studies. We can all find ways of including some of these principles into our day to day life – going for a walk in the park perhaps when our mood is low, or baking a cake, singing along to music, or doing some yoga stretches. Sometimes, we just need to ‘be’ for a while, and our perspective will shift. Our life doesn’t necessarily improve because we’ve managed to solve a problem – sometimes simply stepping outside our heads, and making time and space for beneficial activities, can help us to deal with our life much more effectively.

Weekly practice idea:

What is one activity you enjoy, which gets you out of your head and back into experiencing life? This week, set aside half an hour for this activity, and notice how you feel before, during and afterwards.

Anja Tanhane

Accentuate the Positive

‘You’ve got to accentuate the positive

Eliminate the negative

Latch on to the affirmative

Don’t mess with Mister In-Between’.

This song was written in 1944, during a time of wars across the world. With its rousing lyrics and upbeat tune, it no doubt helped to lift the spirits of many who were living through that time. A particularly exuberant version is by Bing Crosby and the Andrew sisters – even those of us who didn’t grow up in that era, and who don’t normally listen to music from the 40s, can enjoy the energy of their performance. And while mindfulness emphasises being with life as it is, non-judgementally and without trying to deny our negative experiences, there is a wisdom in also ‘accentuating the positive’ in our lives.

Our brains are hard-wired for survival rather than happiness, which means we are more likely to worry about what might conceivably go wrong in the future than enjoy what’s going well for us right now. Because of this, for many people, anxiety rather than joy can become the soundtrack of their lives. While serious anxiety disorders require professional treatment, the kind of low-level anxiety many of us live with often responds well to efforts to lift our mood.

What can be difficult, however, is making the time to cultivate positive experiences for ourselves. It might feel selfish, or unimportant, to accentuate the positive. Or we could feel we’re resting on our laurels, rather than ‘getting on with things’, if we’re enjoying ourselves. Through my work as a music therapist, I’ve seen the deep joy and meaning which people can get from sharing positive experiences, for example by singing together. People who have every reason to be depressed – because they’ve suffered a serious permanent injury, perhaps, or because they’ve had to sell their home to move into a nursing home – can beam with joy as they sing along to songs they love. These positive experiences are important for recovery, or to minimise the risk of depression, but they’re also an important part of our lives in general. As the song goes on to say:

‘You’ve got to spread joy up to the maximum

Bring gloom down to the minimum

Have faith or pandemonium

Liable to walk upon the scene.’

Weekly practice idea:

This week, listen to an uplifting song – perhaps even ‘Accentuate the Positive’, and allow its magic to lift your mood and bring a smile to your face.

Anja Tanhane



‘Creativity takes courage.’

Henri Matisse

One of the many wonderful qualities of young children is the way they spontaneously and unselfconsciously embrace creativity. Give them some coloured pencils or a drum, lend them some clothes for dress-ups or put some dance music on, and they’re off. Children don’t worry about not being the next Picasso or Shakespeare, about the fact they haven’t sung for years and their voices are a bit rusty, about wasting their time when they should be doing something more ‘useful’. Creativity comes naturally to them, yet is also crucial for their development. Through creativity, children can process their experiences, learn to externalise feelings, engage with others around them, problem-solve, and explore new solutions.

Of course, as adults, we can also benefit from all these – who couldn’t do with ways to process our experiences, express ourselves, communicate and explore? Yet how many of us feel comfortable being creative without attaching a whole range of expectations, pre-conditions, neuroses and qualifiers to the process? It’s commonplace to hear people say self-depreciatingly,

‘Oh, you wouldn’t want to hear me sing.’

To which I can only say, why not – it would be wonderful to hear more people sing! But we often lack the confidence; maybe we no longer even know where to start. Sitting in front of a blank piece of paper with a pen or pastels, or being asked to sing when you haven’t sung in years, can be quite intimidating. And chances are, our initial efforts will look and sound pretty feeble. Yet creativity can open doors to us which pure rational thinking cannot – doors of self-expression, communication, healing, and community bonding.

As a music therapist, I’ve often worked with people who, for a range of reasons, are no longer able to communicate using words like we normally do. Music can be an incredibly powerful way for them to engage and communicate with the world, and to process feelings of loss, grief, joy, belonging. It seems a shame that, for many people, it’s not until something goes wrong in their lives that they become less self-conscious about being creative. I always feel a little sad when I hear people talking about wanting to be more creative, but lacking the confidence to begin. I’ve seen how much joy it can give to people to sing with others, draw a picture, write a short story or memoir. Dancing, making crafts, telling stories – these are all such wonderful gifts for us humans to have. Often, when people do make a start, they wonder why they didn’t do it years ago.

Some of the core attributes of mindfulness, such as being more non-judgmental and patient, more open and accepting, and cultivating trust and a beginner’s mind, can help us engage with our creativity. Having studied both classical music, with its emphasis on perfectionism and high technical skill, as well as music therapy, where we engage musically with people in a very open, non-judgemental way, has helped me to appreciate both approaches. There is a place for striving for high achievement in the arts, but there is also a place for simply being present with a creative process, regardless of the skill levels of the participants, just because it is so enriching and rewarding.

Henri Matisse is right, creativity does take courage. Perhaps this quote by Goethe can help us make a start:

‘Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!’


Weekly practice idea:

How comfortable do you feel being creative? If you would like to have more creativity in your life, can you bring some of the core attributes of mindfulness to the process to assist you?


Anja Tanhane