Music, a Tool to be More Mindful?

By Zenisha Shah, CEI Writer and Counselor at Innisfree House School

Today’s schools and education look a lot different from what they were a decade ago. Digitalization of media has changed learning and socializing. Students are exposed to so much more information, knowledge, and media throughout the day. The way we learn, share information, and make friends is changing. In this world of smart gadgets and instant gratification, the distractions are innumerable. The same computer helping us study is the one giving us a notification of our favorite game when we are in our online class. The same phone that helps us keep in touch with our best friends is also making us upset for not getting enough likes, followers, or subscribers. We are also exposed to global news and information 24 hours a day which can lead to vicarious stress and anxious thoughts! 

Now more than ever, it’s easy to live in the past and worry about the future, but what about the present moment? Is there a way we can help ourselves and our students embrace the present? The benefits of mindfulness for educators, families, and students are innumerable. These benefits include stress reduction, better attention, increased empathy, compassion, and resilience. Mindfulness has also been shown to decrease anxiety and depressive symptoms, and help us better manage emotional reactivity (Ackerman, 2020). What if something we have been exposed to before we even saw the world—music—is combined with this effective, highly portable, and inexpensive technique of mindfulness? 

As Abbey Dvorak, a professor of music therapy has identified, there are 3 ways to use music that if structured appropriately can be used to support a mindfulness practice. These include using music to aid mindful meditation, to improve mindful listening, and to increase active engagement (Dvorak & Ruiz, 2019). 

Music to Aid Mindful Meditation and Listening

Incorporating meditation in schools has proven not only to improve academic skills but also enhance desirable social, emotional, and physiological changes (Waters, 2019). However, some students and adults do find it difficult to cultivate a meditation practice. Using musical instruments can help by centering as well as grounding the individual. Using music as an attention target can help individuals concentrate on the given moment. For example, teachers can use a music triangle, sound bowls, or bells to help students focus their attention. Activities like noticing the sounds around you or noticing when the sound of a music triangle turns into silence helps the students to concentrate (Waters, 2015). 

Music can enhance mindful listening and awareness, by focusing our attention inward. The melody, rhythm, and changes in notes provide an experience that allows us to be more aware of our feelings and sensations (Van Dort & Grocke, 2013; Medcalf, 2017). Even asking students to clap their hands continuously for 20 seconds and then feel the physical sensations can add to the mindful experience. Listening to music as an attentional target can also help train our minds to shift awareness between internal thoughts/emotions and external stimuli, which can in turn aid acceptance and thereby release of unhelpful thoughts (Graham, 2010). 

Some tips to practice music meditation include (Scott, 2020):  

  • Choose any music that you and your students find relaxing.
  • Allow students to choose a position that helps them relax.
  • Use the music as an attentional target. If you find yourself distracted by thoughts or sounds in the environment, gently redirect your attention to the music and present moment.
  • Set some time every week or day to practice meditation, using the songs as a measurement of time. 

Music Making to Increase Active Engagement

Like mindfulness, music can help increase engagement in classrooms or the activity at hand (Tatter, 2019; Sachs et al., 2017). Research suggests that learning to play a musical instrument can enhance cognitive engagement by positively impacting brain networks that help with executive functioning (Sachs et al., 2017). 

Even baby rattles, rhymes, and songs are used by parents to grab the attention of the child as well as engage them. Music also plays a vital role in early cognitive and social development including speech, numeric skills, and empathy (Bayliss, 2014). Even though there is no conclusive evidence or robust research on combining mindfulness and music for our young learners, there is anecdotal evidence. Mindfulness training has a positive influence in decreasing attention problems, impulsivity, and social adjustment problems (Bogels et al., 2008), whereas listening to music in the classroom has proven to improve learning by helping children better regulate their emotions (Foran, 2009). 

The collaborative nature of music could also enhance engagement. As mentioned in our earlier blog “Music, Helping us Cope and Giving us Hope,” the universal language of music connects us and acts as a social glue during these challenging times. Music, like mindfulness can be used to increase empathy, emotional regulation, and community resilience. As educators, we can combine these two powerful tools to create a fun, emotionally sensitive, empathetic, and engaging learning environment.

In our world of  instant gratification and continuous distraction, where we are continuously challenged to keep doing, music and mindfulness can help us take a moment to enjoy our being. Schools can use music to aid meditation, enhance mindful listening, increase engagement, as well as promote well-being and resilience! As Stevie Wonder beautifully sings it,

“Music is a world within itself

With a language we all understand

With an equal opportunity

For all to sing, dance and clap their hands”

References

Ackerman, E.C. (2020). Mindfulness in education: 31+ ways of teaching mindfulness in schools. Positive Psychology.

Bogels, S., Hoogstad, B., van Dun, L., de Schutter, S., & Restifo, K. (2008). Mindfulness training for adolescents with externalizing disorders and their parents. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 36(2), 193-209. 

Bayliss, S. (2014). Why music matters: Library music programs are fun and support early learning. School Library Journal, 60 (7).

Dvorak, A.  & Ruiz, E.H. (2019). Comparison of music stimuli to support mindfulness meditation. Psychology of Music.

Foran, L. M. (2009). Listening to music: Helping children regulate their emotions and improve learning in the classroom. Educational Horizons, 88(1), 51-58.

Graham, R. (2010). A cognitive-attentional perspective on the psychological benefits of listening. Music and Medicine: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 2(3), 167-173.

Medcalf, B. (2017). Exploring the music therapist’s use of mindfulness informed techniques in practice. Australian Journal of Music Therapy, 28.

Sachs, M., Kaplan, J., Der Sarkissian, A., & Habibi, A. (2017). Increased engagement of the cognitive control network associated with music training in children during an fMRI Stroop task. PLoS ONE, 12(10). 

Scott, E. (2020). How to practice music meditation. Verywell Mind Blog.

Tatter, G. (2019). Research stories: Making time for mindfulness. Usable Knowledge, Harvard School of Graduate Education.

Van Dort, C., & Grocke, D. (2013). Music, imagery and mindfulness in substance dependency. In L. Rappaport. Mindfulness and the arts therapies: Theory and practice (pp. 117-128). Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Waters, L. (2015). Why meditation should be taught in schools. The University of Melbourne. 

Wonder, S. (1976). Sir Duke . On Songs in the key of life. Tamla.


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