Music get’s a bad rap (no pun intended) in traditional martial arts circles. And, let’s face it, training to defend your life is a serious business and not a place for distractions. With the advent of musical kata competitions, and the mixing of breakdance moves with martial arts, it is no wonder that traditionalists get their feathers ruffled. Music is also used heavily in martial sport training from boxing to mixed martial arts. The image of a pumped up athlete, blasting out repetitions to a strong rock beat is something we are familiar with. On the other hand, the traditional dojo or training hall is a contemplative, sometimes spiritual place where students both train hard, think hard, and get in touch with their inner-selves.

But, there are sounds in the dojo, from the yells, to the scuffling feet, to snapping gis and, of course, the teachers voice. Music might be a distraction in such an environment but, when training alone, it can be useful to fill the void. One of the hardest parts of training is admitting that you are not always completely focused. No matter how serious your intentions, sometimes your mind wanders. In the dojo, you forget your mind in the presence of others. Alone, it is harder to escape your thoughts and many people choose not to train on those kinds of days. But it is exactly those kind of days when you have to press on and break through your mental doldrums because, if you aren’t careful, those “I don’t feel like it today” days start popping up more often.

A big part of the “wandering mind” syndrome is the relative quiet of training alone which is why music can be a valid training tool to help with focus. The key is to remember what the goal of the music is: to create energy and atmosphere that quiets the mind and gets the body moving. I find certain music is a little like having someone else in the dojo. Instead of being alone, I am surrounded by another presence and I tend to train with more emphasis and focus. Be sure and choose your playlist carefully. There are certain problems in practicing instinctive movements while listening to an even rhythm. Some types of pop, rock and hip hop have such dominate rhythms that it is hard not to move with them. The same can be said for songs with clear and evocative lyrics that make you stop and think about what is being sung. I like fast paced rhythmic music that also has and underlying continuous “gray noise” such as heavy rock guitar. I like expressionistic singers who are either unintelligible or singing about vague and ambiguous subjects. In general, I like music with energy and it is rarely music I would listen to under other circumstances than training.

One last point; some martial artists have suggested traditional Asian music is a good background. Others like new age or world music that speaks to the contemplative side of training. I don’t have a problem with either of these but they don’t create energy, they create ambiance. Be aware of the difference and don’t be afraid to try out some good old noisy rock the next time you are not in the “mood” to train.

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