Among his many other accomplishments, Confucius is said to have been an archery instructor.  If you want to know whether he considered this a career or whether it was just a side gig between studying the I Ching and writing the rules for an entire society, you’ll need to consult a better historian than I am.  He was alive during an age in Chinese history known as the “Warring States Period,” so it was probably a seller’s market for anyone who knew how to shoot a bow well. 

In writing about archery, Confucius placed great emphasis on there being music to accompany the activity.  This is in keeping with his belief in the importance of ritual in daily life, and this focus on ritual is one of the principal differences between his view and that of the Taoists – Lao Tzu was a direct competitor in the Chinese “marketplace of ideas” at the time.

Whatever our opinion of Confucianism or Taoism, there’s no question that music can contribute positively to the environment of an activity.  I like having music playing when I’m practicing archery, tai chi, working out and so on – the music I select being appropriate to the activity and according to my own tastes.  Anyone with a gym membership knows that a gym without lively, upbeat music is out of the ordinary.

My students will likely be wondering, as they read this, why it is then that I play no music during our classes, and they deserve an answer.  I used to play music during my classes but I’ve since stopped, and this is on purpose.

In my last formal class, my instructor played music in the studio while we were learning and practicing.  It was pleasant enough and I wasn’t so much of a music snob to take issue with the fact that it was the same thing every single week.  At least it was the same thing every week until Christmastime, during which he’d play the sorts of Christmas tunes you’d expect to hear in a trendy department store in 1963.  Take my word for it – “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” adds a layer of challenge to tai chi that no one in the history of the martial art ever seriously contemplated.  In short, it was a distraction.

I’m self-aware enough to know that the music I prefer while practicing is odd (polyphonic and Gregorian chants, for example), and unlikely to appeal to many students.  This is fine – all musical tastes are intensely personal.  But when we’re learning – taking in new information and engaging in unfamiliar activities – we don’t need any additional distractions, and a quirky taste in music can only be a distraction, even if (perhaps especially if) we enjoy it. 

In other words, music is great for practicing; for learning, not so much.

I positively encourage you to find music that contributes to a pleasant atmosphere when practicing at home.  I can offer little in the way of advice – you don’t need me to tell you that Metallica is probably not the best choice.  I will, however, suggest music that either has no lyrics or whose lyrics are in a language you don’t speak.  We unconsciously dedicate a portion of our attention to the lyrics in songs we understand, and this leads to the distraction we wish to avoid when practicing.  Likewise, avoid music with strong rhythms, such as dance tunes.  Tai chi has a “rhythm,” but it’s one which does not conform to the steady beat of a march or dance music.  Setting aside the Orientalism I try to avoid in my class, one of the reasons traditional Chinese (or even Hindu) music features so prominently in tai chi classes is the fact that so much of it lacks any percussion.  It “flows,” and this is exactly what we’re supposed to be doing in our practice.

So by all means practice with music, but don’t expect any in class.