Tuning In: Mindful Music Listening to Reduce Stress

Mature man leans back in armchair, wearing headphones, smilingStress has a way of upending our lives—it can cause tension in our relationships, anxiety in our thoughts, and tightness in our bodies. You may have a self-care practice in place, or yours may need some shoring up.

Either way, mindful music listening can be a wonderful way to reduce your stress and reconnect with your body and breath. Mindfulness—the practice of being in the present moment—can be practiced at any time and anywhere. I often use mindfulness exercises with people in therapy as a way to tune into their body, breath, and mind. Mindfulness is not about having an empty mind, but simply noticing whatever is there, thoughts and all.

However, if you find mindfulness challenging (or haven’t tried it!), the addition of music can help you stay focused, while simultaneously helping you to connect with music as a source of strength and creative energy. Music can be a powerful way to experience the present moment.

Take a moment to think about the music in your life. Do you listen to music regularly? Is it live music? Recorded music? What kind of music moves you? Helps you relax? Energizes you? Do you play an instrument or sing? What music do you hear around you (perhaps music your kids or partner listen to)?

Now think about your relationship with music for a moment. Is it a source of frustration or a joy? Do you feel disconnected from music sometimes? Does music soothe you when nothing else seems to work? Do you have a lot of music on your phone but never listen to it?

Whether you listen to music all the time or rarely, mindful music listening can help you slow down and be in the moment. Here’s how:

  1. Choose a piece of music to listen to. I usually use instrumental pieces, as lyrics can add a whole extra layer, but it’s up to you. It can either be a familiar or unfamiliar piece (it’s interesting to repeat this exercise with the opposite of what you choose this time, just to notice if anything feels different).
  2. Take a moment to breathe and ground yourself—no matter where you are, or what’s going on around you. Inhale gently through your nose, and exhale deeply through your open lips. Notice your body, and tune into how it feels, whether you’re standing, sitting, walking, or laying down. Just notice any physical structures your body is touching (the floor, the chair, or your shoes) as well as any physical sensations (tightness, tension) in your body.
  3. Just listen. Use headphones or earbuds if that helps you focus or shut out external noise. Give yourself permission to only listen to the music, without simultaneously checking your email or refreshing your Facebook feed. If it helps, close your eyes (if that’s challenging, it’s likely because you really need the break!).
  4. Notice. Let yourself be aware of anything you notice, without judgment or self-criticism. Notice the pace of the music, the sounds of the different instruments, or the shifts in volume. Notice if you’re more aware of a certain part of your body as you listen (i.e., “I often feel vibrations of cello music in my chest”). Notice any thoughts or feelings that come up—perhaps the music is connected to a memory, or perhaps an anxious thought is trying to pop through. Let any thoughts just pass through your awareness, and then gently bring yourself back to the sounds of the music.
  5. Reflect. Take a moment to breathe and check in with your body, breath, and mind (see step 2). Does anything feel different? Do you notice any shifts after listening to the piece of music? Do you feel calmer? If the piece you chose didn’t feel like a good fit, what might you look for in another piece (i.e., slower, fewer instruments, louder)?

This short mindfulness experience can be a useful thing to practice daily, much like meditating. You might experiment with different types of music as a way to notice different responses. You may also find that repeating the same piece of music is a sort of touchstone, a way to continually reconnect to that place inside where gentle pausing and noticing can happen with ease.

I’d love to hear what piece of music you chose to listen to. Feel free to leave a comment below.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Maya Benattar, MA, MT-BC, LCAT

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Everly

    October 11th, 2016 at 10:20 AM

    Sounds like a good plan to me!

  • Maya Benattar

    October 11th, 2016 at 2:55 PM

    Thanks for commenting Everly!

  • Bethany

    October 11th, 2016 at 2:27 PM

    This really does work for my husband. He gets so into the music that he can literally tune out everything else around him. I think that there are days that his job can be so stressful that he very much needs an outlet like that to focus on when he gets home just to get rid of the yuck that he may have had to leave behind at work.

  • Maya Benattar

    October 11th, 2016 at 2:56 PM

    Thanks for comment Bethany! Sounds like music is a great resource for him :)

  • Tuhin

    October 14th, 2016 at 2:23 AM

    Listening music everyday might be a better option for me. I usually listen music from classic country radio. Listening to my favorite music gives me a piece.

  • Maya

    October 15th, 2016 at 7:40 AM

    Thanks for your comment Tuhin! It’s a great idea to listen to your favorite music every day.

  • Nina

    October 15th, 2016 at 6:27 AM

    It can be a real stress reliever. I mean, think abut what a good play list can do for you working out. It gets you moving and motivated to finish.
    Same thing when you are looking for something to calm you. You find the right mix of music, then that can automatically reduce and relieve those stress levels that you could be experiencing.

  • Maya Benattar

    October 18th, 2016 at 9:03 AM

    Absolutely! Thanks for commenting Nina!

  • Jay

    October 17th, 2016 at 10:17 AM

    It can’t just be any head banging music. I need a little tranquility to actually feel it.

  • Maya Benattar

    October 18th, 2016 at 9:02 AM

    Thanks for your comment Jay! Sounds like you know what kind of music works for you, which is such a great start :)

  • Tao2112

    October 5th, 2017 at 5:05 AM

    The resurgence of Vinyl is stress relieving as well. Shopping for records can be as much fun as listening. And you can’t hit the FWD button and examine the artwork and learn about where it was recorded, lyrics…the whole nine yards.

  • Maya

    October 5th, 2017 at 8:32 AM

    Thanks for commenting! I agree, the process of shopping for records can be really relaxing as well. I do love the feel of a record (or CD) in my hands. :)

  • Rich

    June 6th, 2018 at 2:14 AM

    Maya I love this article. I am working on a project for building a database of top songs in each Nation throughout the world with the goal of sharing the music so people can experience/appreciate something new. I would like to suggest the audience listen to and contemplate one song a day and knew that mindfulness should play a role in the experience. A search on mindfulness music listening led me to this article which is the best written piece on the subject I have found.

  • Maya Benattar

    June 11th, 2018 at 9:29 AM

    Thanks so much for commenting, Rich! I’m so glad to hear the article resonated with you.

  • Karen

    August 15th, 2018 at 5:53 PM

    I generally listen to piano/orchestral music. I know a lot of the words and that keeps me meditating on the music. Kind of discovered this by accident after getting bored with other mindfulness types.

  • sheila

    December 12th, 2019 at 3:57 PM

    I listen to Elliot Smith. As soon as I started listening to him I realized that his music calmed me. Now I plan to use the suggestions in your article to achieve mindfulness while listening to him. Thanks.

  • Maya

    December 13th, 2019 at 8:34 AM

    Thanks for commenting Sheila!

  • Leslie

    October 2nd, 2020 at 5:03 PM

    This might be way late to respond, but here I go.
    The album Tabula Rasa (ECM label) features the music of Estonian composer Arvo Part. It is still a marvel of a release. The “new simplicity”.
    Any of the pieces (especially the ‘Cantus…’ to me) are ideal music for this purpose.
    1. Fratres for violin and piano [Gidon Kremer and Keith Jarrett]
    2 .Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten
    3. Fratres for 12 Cellists and Orchestra
    4. Tabula Rasa

  • Mindful

    May 19th, 2021 at 11:06 PM

    Really true. Mindful music really a boon to reduce stress. Even psychological scientists have discovered that mindful music make changes to brain structures and transforms emotions to achieve your goal. regulation. So, it’s good to explore a path of mindfulness in life.

  • Katherine

    September 27th, 2021 at 10:01 AM

    Faure vocal version of Pavanne – I had a special needs student relax to this and the teachers commented all day about how it really changed the child.

  • Amy

    December 14th, 2021 at 8:35 PM

    You know what? I’ve to agree with you when you said that music can inadvertently calm our nerves and allow us to relax. My husband is looking for some interesting music to listen to, now that he’s living his life as a retiree. I’ll ask him to consider this option when he has some free time later. paulineking music

  • Diane

    September 17th, 2022 at 2:03 PM

    I usually listen to hard rock music. This week I will try to listen to instumentals more, like “Pirates of the Carribean” or “Star Wars”. I do feel calmer when listening to instrumental parts.

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