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Music and Consciousness

by Stephen Cope

This past summer, Kripalu launched a pilot program in partnership with Tanglewood Music Center. In this piece, the program’s director, Stephen Cope, talks about the birth of the project and sheds light on the relationship between music and consciousness.

Music and Consciousness

An Evening at Tanglewood

Kripalu Center is located just across the street from Tanglewood—the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. As a result of this happy coincidence, many of the staff at Kripalu spend summer evenings listening to some of the best music in the world. On one particularly balmy July evening two summers ago, I was joined by several senior Kripalu Yoga teachers for a concert by some of Tanglewood’s Fellows—top young musicians from around the world who come each summer to study with the likes of Seiji Ozawa, Kurt Masur, and singing legend Phyllis Curtin.

Brian’s Performance

As a classical pianist myself, I was particularly looking forward to the one piano solo on the program. Brian, the young pianist, looked uncomfortable as he crossed the stage toward the piano. Was he nervous, perhaps? The late Beethoven sonata he had chosen for this recital was daunting. I began to feel anxious for him.

At first, things did not look promising. Brian had trouble adjusting the height of the piano bench. And when he began to play, he seemed tentative, not fully committed. Then, within minutes—and for no apparent reason—everything changed. Brian became absorbed in the music. I began to relax. Soon, his playing appeared effortless. Finally, he seemed to disappear altogether, giving himself entirely over to the keys, the music, and the spirit of Beethoven.

The whole audience became absorbed with Brian in the music—joined together in a state of concentration and delight. When Brian hit the triumphant ending chords of the piece, there was utter silence in the hall. After a hushed moment, the audience spontaneously leapt to its feet, cheering what had become something beyond just a performance.

What Happened?

I sat for a few moments in silence with my friends, stunned. Later, we talked about what had happened. It seemed clear that we had entered into some kind of altered state with Brian. One of our group commented that she felt as though she had been meditating. Another said, "It was like being in a really good yoga class." She noticed that her mind had slowed and calmed and that her body felt relaxed. I noticed that she was glowing.

The State of Flow

In fact, what we had just experienced was the power of an optimal performing state, sometimes called "the state of flow." In these highly refined mental and physical states, the performer finds himself entering a state of relaxed but intense concentration. In these moments, he dissociates from all surrounding distractions and finds himself totally involved with the present moment. As his concentration deepens, there arises an uncommon absence of self-consciousness. Action and awareness merge. Time slows down or disappears altogether. What was particularly fascinating to us was that Brian had taken us all right along with him into this state.

Flow States and Meditation

These kinds of flow states in music performance have a great deal in common with meditation. They both require a highly sophisticated training of attention. And they both result in profound states of concentration—bringing in their wake the kind of calm and equanimity that my friend commented on. Flow states, like meditation, also have delightful side effects, including the attenuation of anxiety, the slowing down of brain waves, heightened access to the unconscious, and access to a highly intuitive part of the mind.

Meditation and Music

Indeed, music and meditation have more in common than most of us imagine. It is most likely, in fact, that the science of meditation originally developed out of music—out of the music of chanting, to be precise. Several thousand years ago, at the dawn of the science of yoga on the Indian subcontinent, one of the most important religious practices was the chanting of the Vedas, the ancient revealed poetry of the seers and rishis of early India. These rishis noticed that when they entered into rhythmic chanting, the mind became highly concentrated and focused, automatically blocking out all distractions. Gradually, they discovered that they could use many different objects as focal points for these same states of concentration. They experimented with these objects and found that they could use internal objects (like sound or the breath) or external objects (like icons) to produce highly focused mind-states. Meditation had been born!

As we pondered and discussed these things that evening, our little group got to thinking: Would meditation practice also enhance the capacity to make music? Would meditation and yoga help performers deepen their capacity for concentration in performance? If music produced great meditation, would meditation also produce great music? We decided to find out.

The Birth of Kripalu’s Music and Consciousness Program

This past summer we designed a meditation and yoga program for the young musicians of Tanglewood’s summer Fellows program—for Brian and his inspiring colleagues. Throughout the summer, a small group of these musicians meditated together each morning and practiced a regular program of hatha yoga. Many of them regularly ate their meals at Kripalu as well, adding the power of a yogic diet to the mix. In addition, some of them availed themselves of expert bodywork in our Healing Arts department—increasing their knowledge of body mechanics and its relationship to their particular instrument.

Do Meditation and Yoga Enhance Musical Performance?

Did it make a difference? While we are waiting for an analysis of the empirical data from a controlled study, it is clear from the enthusiastic response of the musicians that the summer of yoga and meditation did in fact make a profound difference in their performance and in their passionate pursuit of mastery of their instruments.

Many of the fellows said that they encountered fewer problems with performance anxiety than usual during their rigorous summer schedule of concerts. Virtually all of them said that the yoga and meditation profoundly enhanced their concentration, their stamina, and their focus—and also their own personal enjoyment of the music. What was also clear to me was that yoga and meditation enhanced their capacity to remain present and that it increased the subtlety of their connection with their bodies and their instruments.

The Great Mystery

Throughout the summer, many of the Kripalu staff attended the concerts of these young musicians regularly to observe and celebrate their progress. And we continued to notice that when a performer became highly concentrated, the whole audience was affected as well. It turns out that these delightful states of flow—just like states of meditation—have a profound "field effect." They affect not just the performer, but the entire field around the performer.

As yogis have always known, our minds are more connected than we commonly think. Musicians in states of flow—and yogis in states of meditation—experience delightful moments of oneness with all things when the separate sense of self disappears for short periods of time, and we know ourselves to be something greater than only our bodies, minds, and personalities. We know ourselves to be a part of the great Mystery.



Stephen Cope, MSW, LICSW, is a psychotherapist, Kripalu Yoga teacher, and senior scholar-in-residence at Kripalu Center. Author of Yoga and the Quest for the True Self and the forthcoming The Wisdom of Yoga: A Seeker’s Guide to Extraordinary Living, he regularly leads programs at Kripalu.


© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in the October 2005 issue of Kripalu Online. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail editor@kripalu.org.