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Two slightly related questions:

Is it considered against standard Buddhist doctrine to meditate with music? In particular, "meditation music" - where it's calm, relaxing, peaceful, etc. I'm fairly new to all this; my meditation practice is hardly a year old, although getting stronger and more consistent; I don't have an overwhelming urge to meditate to music, but wondered what light could be shed on the subject from the perspective of the teachings. I am committed to undertaking this path as purely as possible, as it was laid out by the Buddha himself. But I enjoy music and find it draws me into certain mental states that could be useful to cultivate.

What should I do when the inevitable song pops up in my thoughts? This is something I've noted for years (I'm quite musically inclined)...I always seem to have some sort of tune running through my head. Now, when I sit, it becomes much more noticeable than when I'm doing something more secular...say, standing in line at the store, or performing some task at work. I suppose that the tune could become the focus of some mindfulness meditation and help develop concentration. OTOH I can see how it would be considered yet-another-thought, and one that should be avoided dwelling on (unless it happened to be the focus of the meditation). I don't know how useful it would be for insight meditation however. Is there an official stance in the teachings on this?

I hope this is not considered a useless question.

  • No its not a useless question : -) – Orion Mar 18 '15 at 0:28
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    It is OK if you did not choose the music and the person who put it on is not aware (or cares) that you are meditating. Especially if it is annoying country music blaring from the garage next door, with commercials interspersed. Lawn mowers on Sunday morning, good. But personally, I find incessant dogs barking to be more conducive. Mosquito flying around your deeply silent room... even better! – user2341 Jun 23 '15 at 12:45
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The basic Buddhist rules of morality for lay people are called the Five Precepts (they are to abstain from killing, from stealing, from sensual and/or sexual misconduct, from lying, and from alcohol).

There's an extended version of these called the Eight Precepts, of which one precept is to not go to listen to music. These eight (instead of five) precepts are especially for Uposatha days,

The Uposatha (Sanskrit: Upavasatha) is Buddhist day of observance, in existence from the Buddha's time (500 BCE), and still being kept today in Buddhist countries.[1][2] The Buddha taught that the Uposatha day is for "the cleansing of the defiled mind," resulting in inner calm and joy.[3] On this day, lay disciples and monks intensify their practice, deepen their knowledge and express communal commitment through millennia-old acts of lay-monastic reciprocity. On these days, the lay followers make a conscious effort to keep the Five Precepts or (as the tradition suggests) the Eight Precepts. It is a day for practicing the Buddha's teachings and meditation.

According to the three Suttas identified at the bottom of this page, the purpose of the eight precepts is to "emulate the arahants". The eight precepts aren't only practiced on Uposatha days but also, for example, by people who visit a centre such as this one.


My experience of group meditation includes a little bell (ding!) at the beginning, then silence, and then the bell again at the end of the sitting.


Strangely/exceptionally, this page includes the following quote,

How do the Acariyas include listening in watching?

According to the Acariyas, the breaking of the precept lies in the effort exerted in going to watch shows. If we are standing, sitting or lying down in our own place, that is, if we do not put forth the effort to go and watch, and if such shows or entertainments come to us or pass by, it is not a breach of the precept for us, though the sila would be tarnished. But in any case, not to listen or watch is the best. The listening to or singing of songs is a breach of the precept, except with such ballads as contain Dhamma that causes faith to arise as well as arousing weariness with the suffering of our life. For example, one Thera (senior bhikkhu) heard a slave woman singing about life's troubles. When the Thera heard this, he saw the tediousness of suffering and achieved attainments on the Path. This type of song can be listened to and is not detrimental.


FWIW Buddhists' attitude to music may vary with tradition, circumstance, age, etc. For example, this is from a Primary school (the song titles and lyrics quoted later are of 'teaching' songs):

Monks and nuns from the Thich Nhat Hanh collective, in Plum Village, France, pay our school a special visit

Today we welcomed a group of five monks and three nuns from Plum Village. They spent two hours with our pupils this afternoon singing songs, sharing stories and teaching us some simple but powerful mindfulness exercises. Sister Peace reminded us how effective the ‘inviting’ of a bell can be in bringing us back to focused awareness and the children discussed the various ways we use a ‘mindfulness’ bell at the school, as well as suggesting other occasions etc.

  • That is very interesting information, ChrisW. Thank you for posting it. For my particular purpose I won't listen to music while sitting, and will endeavor to note any arising tunes in my head and return to my focus of attention. – Jeff Wright Mar 20 '15 at 12:40
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I am aware of some studies that suggest that "noise" can be an aid to concentration - i.e. people who doodle at meetings tend to be more attentive, people who chew gum in class tend to remember more, and people who listen to classical music write more fluently. In preliminary stages of meditation, you might even find it easier to gather your mind when there is an outside stimulus. Guided mediation is just one example of this. That being said, all four of those activities refer to modes of thought that are distinctly different from what you are aiming at in deeper meditation. When sitting in a Buddhist sense (i.e. for jhana meditation, vipassana, koan practice, etc.), you need to work towards developing applied and sustained thought in a way that is as free from distraction as possible i.e. "Quite secluded from sense pleasures, secluded from unwholesome states of mind..." MN 4. This also infers that the influence of the five hinderances needs to be limited. It goes without saying that listening to music is fairly antithetical to that end.

Regarding your experience that you hear music more readily when sitting - that's a fairly common occurrence. You are just becoming aware of another level of your mind that was previously obscured by grosser thought (for what it's worth, I have the same experience when I'm backpacking or doing any other activity that isn't thought-intensive). You do need to get beyond that state, however. As you apply concentration, you will eventually push past that boundary and into deeper, more silent layers of the mind.

  • +1 for: "You are becoming aware of another level of your mind that was previously obscured" I would say that this is the entire path, and defines nonduality exclusively. But then, I am an idiot. – user2341 Jun 23 '15 at 12:51
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Based purely on my experience -- i.e. I don't know what any of the Buddhist literature says -- music is a two-edged sword.

On the one hand it doesn't at all help develop concentration or insight. It may feel like it is, but I think it is nothing but a feeling.

But on the other hand, it did serve to get me meditating at all. I found (still do) meditation to be difficult, and it wasn't something I enjoyed doing. Music made it a bit easier and got me on the cushion. However, once I'd built meditation into my routine, I stopped using music. So it served as "training wheels", and was best discarded as soon as possible.

Of those two effects, I think the first is the stronger. And with hindsight, perhaps a better approach for me would have been to join a local sangha, and used simple camaraderie to get me over the initial hump of starting to meditate. Then music wouldn't have been needed at all.

  • Total +1 for that last paragraph. That is excellent advice! – user698 Mar 20 '15 at 0:00
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The biggest issue with music is:

  • you can get attached to it
  • can created mental recitation of the lyrics which in turn creates verbal fabrications

Hence best is to resort to more conservative meditation pratice. Having said tha as an alternative meditation pratice Richard Shankman teachers mindfulness of sound. This is not necessarily all modern "music" but may be something like the sound of a Gong.

Alternative Meditation Practices

The breath is commonly taught as a universal meditation subject, suitable for everyone. But for some people the breath is not a good object to work with. I knew a man who had a choking incident as a child, and paying attention to his breathing brought up feelings of anxiety. Another person with asthma found that she became tense whenever she focused on the breath. If you are one for whom the breath does not work well, there is nothing wrong; this will not hinder your ability to meditate. It’s just a matter of finding the right practice in these early stages to substitute for breath meditation.

Here are some techniques you can try if you think mindfulness of breathing is not a good practice for you. These common alternatives are not the only methods that can substitute for mindful breathing, but the full range of possibilities is beyond our scope here.

Mindfulness of Sound

In the instructions for mindfulness of breathing we let all other experiences stay in the background of our awareness, not forcing or pushing them away but bringing a gentle sense of allowing them to be in the background while giving some preference or predominance to awareness of our breathing. In the same way, with this practice we allow other experiences to stay in the background and we give preference or predominance to the experience of sound. You may feel a natural draw or pull to awareness of hearing, and this practice can be very calming and settling. Those for whom mindfulness of sound works well commonly report it as an easily accessible and even compelling meditation object. You may be drawn to awareness of the sounds themselves or you may be more naturally aware of the act or the process of listening or hearing.

Mindfulness of sound entails working with either inner or outer sound. Even though it may be very quiet where you are meditating, you may feel drawn to rest your awareness in listening to however many or few sounds may be present at any time. Other people hear an inner sound, a clear perception of ringing or some other sound, experienced not through the ears but in the mind. You can see if you have such an experience and if you are drawn to rest in awareness of inner or outer sound.

If you are working with mental noting, you can mentally repeat hearing or sound if that helps keep you stay connected and centered with the auditory experience. If you practice mindfulness of sound, just substitute hearing every time I use the terms breath or breathing.

Source: Beginning Meditation Instructions: Excerpted from “The Art and Skill of Buddhist Meditation”.

Also see my related answer: What did the Buddha say about music?

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Listening to music for entertainment and music in a meditation technique are two different things. Tibetan Buddhists use sounds of gongs a lot to facilitate disciples to enter deeper state. But it cannot be classified as music as it does not build up excitement. Modern music excites therefore it is incompatible with Buddha's path. But many other paths exist which rely on music and dance of certain kind (not modern music) to facilitate meditation. But if you are a disciple of Buddha you can check out through your experience if commonly available meditation music (like sound of gongs,nature etc) helps you or not. But eventually you will come to a point where all such things will become irrelevant. There will be a silence within which is not affected by anything outside.

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