The revealing power of music

by Apr 14, 2016Pay Attention

Have you ever lost yourself in a piece of music so completely that you felt consumed by it? As if the music was within you and around you and a part of you? As if, in that moment, it was the only thing that mattered?

I love that feeling. It’s intoxicating…a letting go.  It’s like a spiritual out of body experience where the mundanities of daily life melt away and you feel like you’re existing on a different plane. (And if you’re thinking ah yes, sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll… drugs really aren’t my thing.)

I’m lucky enough to be able to play the piano (and played several other instruments when I was younger and had the time, you know, before being a proper grown up and a parent got in the way), and I can regularly lose an hour or two just playing. It’s my go to stress-busting remedy and a cure for most temporary emotional ills.

Playing and listening to music is a valuable tool in tuning in to the real you (pun intended).

Music affects us in so many different ways. It can profoundly affect our emotions, magnifying or altering them with a melody or rhythm. It can evoke deep seated memories transporting you back to another time and place.

“To a certain extent we surrender to music when we listen to it – we allow ourselves to trust the composers and musicians with a part of our hearts and our spirits.” – Daniel Levitin in This is Your Brain On Music.

We allow ourselves to be vulnerable to the emotions the music inspires. It grounds you. It connects you back to yourself.

This, this is why music is so important to me.

The kind of music you prefer to listen to is immaterial; your sort of music will speak to you. Whether it’s classical, pop, jazz, gospel, reggae, heavy metal, hip hop, folk, rock, punk, dance, country, bhangra, new age or any of the multitude of other genres, music has the power to connect us to a primal part of our being.

Music has been used since ancient times as an integral part of human gatherings and ritual. Monks’ Gregorian chants, the tribal rhythms of the shaman, and Buddhist chanting all enhance or even precipitate the participants’ spiritual experience bringing internal focus and a meditative quality to the practice. It acts as a prism through which the light and shade of feeling can be differentiated.

Music doesn’t just affect us emotionally though. Scientific studies have shown music exercises multiple areas of our brain because it needs to carry out so many processing functions in order for us to make sense of it.

If you’re not a musician you may not know the terminology but you understand more than you think. You can identify the sounds of a range of instruments. You can tell the difference between major and minor keys (“happy” or “sad”). You know when a piece of music sounds “right”. You know what to expect as a piece ends. You recognize familiar song structures. You can correctly anticipate what’s coming next. There’s a lot going on here!

If you are a musician the benefits increase because of the interaction required between the more logical left brain function and the more creative right brain function. This is a brilliant little animation explaining how…

The good news is that even if you don’t consider yourself to be a musician you can still play an instrument. Your voice.

Singing not only boosts your mood, it can also improve memory function and problem solving capabilities. It doesn’t matter how good (or bad) you think you are just put your favourite music on and sing your heart out. If you feel the need to enforce a two mile exclusion zone around you while you do so to avoid inflicting your voice on previously happy people, take comfort from Beethoven who reportedly said, “To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable.” Think Lou Reed, Jarvis Cocker or Bob Dylan. Sometimes it’s the imperfections that make the whole perfect.


Make a playlist of music that moves you. Listen to it on headphones, in the dark. Immerse yourself in it. Really tune in to the emotions. Notice what comes up. The real you might have something important to tell you.

I’ll leave you with a piece of music that never fails to move me, the Theme from Schindler’s List played by the incomparable Itzhak Perlman. Quite apart from the fact that it’s from one of the most emotionally powerful films I’ve ever seen, there is an exquisite, haunting quality to this that gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. Enjoy.


(Previously published on Mar 2, 2015.)