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Music and Emotional Intelligence

(This is a repost of my post on the Music Matters blog in November last year.)

In light of the inclusion of teaching emotional intelligence in mainstream education in Singapore, here is the chicken-and-egg question that parents are probably burning to ask: does learning music really help your child’s emotional quotient (EQ)? Or do people with high EQ naturally find an affinity with music? Let me respond with my own personal experience. Music, to me, was and is an essential partner in my emotional development. ​ Music helped me discover and make peace with my emotions I was a very emotional child. However, I was socially awkward and could not even look to my family for emotional support. Hence, I turned to the written word and music for solace. Pages after pages of diary entries were filled, and ballad after ballad was tinkled out soulfully (at least, I like to think) on the piano. I joined the choir in primary school, and the concert band in secondary school until junior college. I felt chills go down my spine as I made otherworldly sounds on my instrument. It was such a transcendental experience. It still is. Every day, my emotional connection with myself deepens, and music is like the vector that carries it through.

When I was first exposed to music, I discovered that music can be happy, like Walking on Sunshine by Katrina & The Waves, or sad, like Beethoven’s Piano Sonata in C minor, Op. 13, “Pathetique”. Walking on Sunshine made me want to dance and the Sonata Pathétique made my heart ache. As musical maturity grew, so did emotional nuances. Walking on Sunshine was no longer just happy. It was euphoric. I’m walking on sunshine, whoa I’m walking on sunshine, whoa I’m walking on sunshine, whoa And don’t it feel good?

I realised sunshine, with its warmth and brightness, is associated with good feelings, and walking on it means a giddy floating euphoria. The quick pace of the music and the drumbeat which accents the second and fourth beat (as opposed to the usual first and third), pushes me above ground and constantly ahead, as though I am literally pumping my feet forward on air. I realised Sonata Pathétique is not merely sad. It is not merely in a minor key. It is in the key of C minor, a stormy one for Beethoven. The tragic opening chords are filled with tension and build up to a waterfall of notes that cascade down before morphing into an ethereal melody. This melody, with a reminiscent quality, is rudely interjected by chords that scream tension, as though one’s thoughts are oscillating between a higher order and base earth (you can listen to the tragic introduction here). I could go on and on. In short, I realised that music reflects one’s emotions in life — organic and ever changing. You can’t just assign a single emotion to a song or piece. It is full of nuances, just like how our emotions flow and evolve. In fact, revisiting a piece (whether by listening and performing) can present refreshingly new perspectives. I also realised that music always moves forward. It envelopes listeners and players in sound, and then moves on. Emulating this, I adopted an “embrace it and move on” attitude with regards to my emotions. Through words, I learnt how to be aware of and describe my emotions in detail. Through music, I learnt how to be at peace with them. Music helped me become aware of the feelings of others Children can sometimes be oblivious to how others might think or feel. Developing sensitivity to the thoughts and feelings of others is a skill that can be learnt. Emotional intelligence is the measure of the ability to consider the thoughts and feelings of others before taking action in social situations. We all develop this over time as we age and accumulate life experiences. However, we do so at different rates. Some people barely acquire this skill at all. Without a doubt, emotional intelligence is vital in performing music well. Performers have to be aware of the composer’s emotions at the point of composition, in order to fully deliver an enlightened performance. Being a very straightforward person, I struggled with this as most composers do not reveal their emotional intentions. Reading background information from various sources helped with context. However, I soon discovered that understanding the musical language of that time, as well as the composer’s musical language is key. For example, extreme sorrow in a Mozart opera would not be on the same sound magnitude as extreme sorrow in a Wagner opera. During the time of Mozart, orchestras and instrument ensembles were small, while Wagner favoured huge, meaty orchestras with large wind sections. A lighter, more transparent texture was popular in the classical period, while the romantic period saw greater dynamic ranges and depth. Similarly, to understand the feelings and thoughts of others, we need to put ourselves in their shoes. We need to know how they grew up, how they have lived, their goals and their ideals. How many of us go through life judging others without really understanding who they are? I think my musical education might have helped me hone this empathy.

Music taught me to express my emotions mindfully

When I play a piece of music at the piano, I emote naturally based on how the music makes me feel. On happier days, I might play a sad piece and think of wistful nostalgia. On a grief-ridden day, I might play the same piece and feel each additional dissonance like a growing mountain of tragedy. On an anger filled day, I might play it full of angst.

However, music isn’t one-way. It’s a dialogue between performer and audience, based on the composer’s intentions. It’s a three-way conversation. How do I juggle these three aspects in my performance?

Well, how do we communicate our emotions and thoughts to others in a mindful way? Emotional intelligence. Going that extra mile to factor in others’ perspectives is what we as performers need to do. If a piece were written with a political agenda surrounded with the violence of war, we must put ourselves in the composer’s wartime shoes and relate our own personal experiences to his, then emote with that in mind.

Music was a tool that helped nurture my emotional capacity

I see myself as a person with a fairly large capacity for emotion. For people with already large capacities, music may help to refine it, as it did for me. But, I didn’t start out with a high EQ. I am still learning, every day, to be a better communicator.

Regardless of a child’s personality, I think that sometimes, going with natural affinity is best. If he loves music, let him explore and learn it. Sometimes, maybe, the child knows what is best for him.


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