Emotion Within Music

For most of us, moving music to the foreground of our minds is a rarity. But actively introducing this focus on music into our lives can make an important impact.


Are you ready? Dim your eyes.


A wave of quiet shushed the ‘class’—a group of kids huddled in the back of the local church—as I clicked play on the recording. Dimming their eyes meant not only silencing their vision, but their thoughts and actions, removing distractions and fidgety movements. For the majority of them, collected here at a local summer camp for low-income, under-resourced kids, listening to music for the sake of listening to music was a first.


And for most of us, moving music to the foreground of our minds is a rarity. But actively introducing this focus on music into our lives can make an important impact.


Many music scientists and philosophers believe that music’s purpose is to capture emotion. They’ve come up with something called ‘expression theory,’ which essentially means that music is like an extension of the composer or performer, and that’s how emotion is captured. On the other hand, there’s arousal theory, which says that the ‘expressiveness’ of music is based on how much emotion the audience feels. But either way, both of these theories can help us inject more mindful music into our own lives.


Becoming an expression theorist sounds hard, but that just means putting as much emotion into your music as possible. Whether you’re playing a C major scale or jamming out with your friend’s band, think about what emotion you want your playing to capture. Becoming an arousal theorist means communicating with who you’re playing for, whether it’s someone you’ve never met before or yourself.


In our makeshift music appreciation class at the back of that church, our eyes dimmed, we became theorists, music philosophers. Michael, who dealt with anger issues and really disliked math and science, found comfort in Beethoven, recognizing his anger in Kendrick Lamar and harmony in a seventh chord. Similarly, Natalia begged me to let her take her harmonica home after seeing her mom and little brother’s eyes light up as she played. For the first time, we captured our emotions in music.