Praying with Music

‘just got back from hearing the BSO play Brahms at Strathmore… What a joy!  I was also challenged and surprised by how much I enjoyed a much more modern pice: Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto #1.  Think about the following exercise for your ride home in the car / metro or even while jogging on the treadmill.


It’s hard to get away from the noise of our world.  Hectic lives, car horns, the sound of the metro passing underground, smartphone alerts, push notifications… Even if none of these existed, you  can easily hear five languages at any given moment walking down a street or sitting at a cafe in DC.  Silence is golden… and ultimately the ideal setting for discernment of what’s going on inside each of us at any moment.  But coming from our noisy world, many find real meditative silence intimidating.  

Consider this… consider turning a weakness (distracting noise) into a strength (music for meditation). Some of what follows is drawn from St. Ignatius’ Loyola’s techniques for the discernment of spirits.  Other parts may sound like contemporary trends in “mindfulness.”  I’ve read significantly on both, and both influence my own prayer life, but what follows are ultimately just my own musings.

The Goal – A greater degree of self-understanding.

What you’ll need – music to listen to, some time by yourself, a pen and paper… and an open mind.

I find purely instrumental music (classical, jazz etc.) best for this.  Listening to lyrics can break my train of thought, but if you have the discipline to do so, you can use sung music as well.

Step 1: Listen to your music track once just to hear it.

Step 2: Listen again to get to know it better

Step 3: Listen a third time and begin taking notes.

What are you noting?  It depends on what you notice the most… maybe it’s the pace of the music… maybe a particular instrument stands out…maybe thoughts of an individual come to mind… or something you did …or forgot to do during the day.  Note your emotions too.

Don’t Judge Your Notes!  There’s no right or wrong here… You’re just collecting data to establish “This is where I’m at today.”  So you’re not “wrong” to notice a flute in the middle of a cello concerto.  Realizing you forgot your dry cleaning isn’t necessarily a foolish distraction in this exercise.  It’s just data.  Finally, the feelings you experience in the music make you neither vicious nor virtuous… they’re just data to be considered.  Analysis comes next.

Once you’ve journaled your experience of the music, begin asking the questions like “Why?”  or, “What was behind [fill in the blank]?  Some of the answers may mean nothing.  Some generate more questions.  Others may be self-illuminating.  Others may inspire prayer: “God, thank you for [fill in the blank].” or, “Lord help me to [fill in the blank].”  Still others may need unpacking over time.

Finally, consider that the more deeply we explore the mystery of our own self, the more we begin to know the mystery of Christ who is our origin and end… all of which can only be helpful as we venture out into the noisy world all over again tomorrow.

2 thoughts on “Praying with Music”

  1. Thank you for this blog! This particular post intrigues me. I’ve tried meditation before and here is where I have difficulty – any sound, even classical music distracts me. I played piano and danced ballet for many years and I have so many memories associated with music that I get distracted by those associations. I’ve never been able to “just listen” to music. I’ve also tried “contemplative prayer” in absolute silence and I get distracted and forget what I’m saying. Saying the rosary is soothing to me because I have a tangible reminder of where I am and what I’m praying. I would love to learn to be more contemplative and meditative but seem to lack the ability. Any suggestions? Thank you and God bless you.

    1. Thanks for your comment Julianne. To begin with, let me say that silence as a meditative milieu is never bad. In fact, ultimately it’s the best. That being said, we’re talking about consecrating the ordinary (music / sound) for the sacred (prayer). As an exercise, consider this: What if, among your “sound-based distractions,” God is trying to communicate something? Mother Teresa used to pray with the windows of her Calcutta chapel open to the cacophonous street outside. In fact, she insisted on it. She wanted her sisters always to be reminded of who they were praying for. Just as you recall memories of your music and dance when you hear music, I often recall memories of travel (who knows why, but I do). I use this seeming distraction as an opportunity to give thanks and revel in the many joys God’s given me. The spiritual masters all say that thanksgiving and the humility inherent in it are the foundations of prayer. Perhaps your memories are a spur in that direction. Other distractions: Thoughts of people may lead me to intercessory prayer for them. Examining event from my day may lead me to praise or (for that matter) to Confession. Anyway, those are just a few thoughts. Peace!

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