Meditative or New Age Music has been making quite a comeback over the past few years, due the evolution of the Sound Healing field and the growing popularity of Sound Baths around the world. This evolution has spawned dozens of new meditative musicians, or ‘sound healers’ who are complimenting yoga classes and leading extended meditation sessions where participants lay down on comfy mats and blankets, close their eyes, and listen to the soundscapes played on acoustic or electronic instruments live. These deep listening sessions have opened up a whole new way of experiencing sound and music, often decreasing stress levels, shifting people’s emotional, physical and mental states and much more.
For the most part, the instruments used are acoustic in nature and can include gongs, crystal singing bowls, tibetan bowls, flutes, drums, chimes, string instruments, shruti box or harmonium and other exotic variants. In my own practice, I’ve done both all acoustic sessions and also weaved in my own electronic soundscapes, nature environments and live vocal or flute loop layers. There is something powerful about a meditative music practitioner creating the sound in the space live that affects the listener deeply. As a practitioner, it is a very cool honor and responsibility to guide the listeners through the meditative portal where they can have their own breakthroughs and transcendent experiences.
After facilitating hundreds of sessions, there are certain approaches I’ve found to be extremely effective in inducing deep meditative states. Certainly, one approach does not fit all, and there are specific instruments and techniques that dominate the landscape, but there’s also room to experiment and create your own signature approach within some key parameters. As I speak to some key points, I will be referencing both acoustic instruments used and also suggesting how as audio producers and composers, we can use audio software (or hardware), instruments and tools to try out some of these concepts. And hopefully you will think about creating meditative music in a whole new way.
In the meditative music world, the drone is King. Drones are simply a continuous tone, or bed of sound, often the fundamental or tonal center of a chosen key, that allows for space and other tones, textures, melodies and harmonies to grow from. A drone can also live by itself for long periods of time, with subtle shifts in dynamics, harmonics, overtones, filters and other accompanying but subtle layers. Small, slow shifts in these things go a long way as the participants will be focusing on slowing down and regulating their breathing and the pace of their thoughts.
In the acoustic world, drones are made by playing gongs in a soft but sustained way or by playing crystal bowls by rubbing them continuously one at a time or in harmonic pairs. On the electronic side of things, my go-to is pad or string sounds, especially in an instrument like Omnisphere, a treasure of ideas and options for sound sculpting. Modular synthesizers are also gaining popularity in this field, where custom patches can be designed before a session and manipulated live for variations.
When I am facilitating an acoustic sound meditation session, I am confined to playing one instrument at a time for the most part. In a sense, I’m forced to simplify and concentrate on the evolution of one sound over an extended period of time. This allows me to ‘tune-in’ to the essence of that instrument and create a journey with its unique timbre. This is wonderful for the listener, as hearing chimes will invoke a different feeling and imagery than a flute or a hypnotic pulse of a buffalo drum.
The use of space between notes and literally moments of stillness or silence is paramount in this work. Any chance to provide these ‘spaces’ will allow the listener to ‘fill in’ those spaces or still points, with integrative thoughts and inspirations. In meditation, when we create space between our thoughts and practice being the flow state of being, all kinds of personal breakthroughs can happen. As a sound facilitator, think about ways of delivering sound that can support this process.
In situations where I am using Ableton for backing tracks and loops or in collaboration with other meditative musicians, there is a fun opportunity to create slow, evolving soundscapes by mixing different layers in and out. In terms of electronic composition and playback, slow fade ins/outs of sounds are best, to keep the pace of the dynamics relaxed. I also use filters on drones, synth pads and loops to fade sound in and out, creating a ghostly feeling.
Sometimes, I start with my drone, create a four part ambient flute or vocal loop and then play another instrument over that while playing to create a thick sonic texture, then fade things out one at a time. Loops are also great for creating hypnotic ostinatos, like the heartbeat pulse of a drum or repeating arpeggio on a soothing bell like synth sound. Ableton is great for setting up different effects chains so you can put different sounds in spaces to create more depth.
In terms of working with other meditative musicians in collaboration, this can be achieved with careful consideration to complimenting instruments and keys. Gongs often work well with synth drones and pads as well as crystal bowls given that the notes of the acoustic instruments are in tune with the drone created. The key is to approach the collaboration the same way as working alone. Carefully plan what will sound best together and take a less-is-more and slow approach to bringing sounds in and out for the simple fact that any abrupt or loud sound will shake the listener out of the deep meditative state. Create a basic structure for the improvisation to flourish.
Weaving in the sounds of nature is another way to sculpture your sound journey. One of my clients' favorite sounds I play in every session is the Ocean Drum. The Ocean drum sounds just like its name. Little beads moving across the drum head micmic a rain storm or the sound of ocean waves. It’s an enveloping sound that takes people completely away from stresses and into the present moment. It almost has the feeling of cleansing or clearly away debris.
White noise sweeps generated by synthesizers designed to rise and fall also give this impression. Layering this with ocean recordings can make for a powerful sonic environment. I also use rainforest and canyon bird recordings and play ocarina live as another nature environment option. There are so many variations for this and opportunities to tell a story with carefully selected sounds. I often go to YouTube, online sample library searches and software instruments like SonicCouture’s Geosonics for inspiration and content.
The Health and Wellness industry is expected to grow exponentially in the coming years, as people seek alternatives for pain management, emotional support and spiritual connection. As musicians, composers and producers, this is an interesting field to plug into on many levels. Music and sound have profound effects on the brain, body and spirit and we can be the sound shamans that guide others into more healthy states of being.