Building Tolerance and Empathy Through Music

How all music can be healing when we listen consciously.

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Music Reflects Life

Musicians create music that reflects life from their perspective. As listeners, we develop an affinity to music that makes us feel comfortable and often resist listening to music that makes us feel uncomfortable. However, being out of our comfort zone can open hidden pathways within us if we’re willing to expand our listening patterns and habits.

Years ago after taking my sons to school, I parked in the driveway and continued listening to their HALO video game soundtrack CD. It was mesmerizing – the heavy drum rhythms, expansive orchestration, full chorus and powerful guitar tracks unlocked hidden aspects I was surprisingly ready to explore. My natural tendency had been to resist listening to this type of forceful music as it felt invasive, overwhelming, and too intense. This day was different; I was ready to explore and feel my resistance. The result was an unexpected realization that all music has the potential to bring inner peace when we listen in a conscious way. The key is how we listen.

Society categorizes music in genres to help identify the aspects of life reflected in that sound – classical, rap, new age, metal, rock, blues, country, etc. It’s natural to listen to genres that feel most familiar to us. I admit, as a classically trained professional harpist, my musical tastes exploded when our two boys were old enough to call me out on my subconscious prejudices and racial assessments of the music they enjoyed. It was not comfortable to honestly explore my inner judgments but it was necessary if I wanted to develop a deeper sense of tolerance for the music my boys passionately listened to every day.

Building Tolerance

We began slowly, listening to heavy metal music during our morning drive to school; not just heavy metal but black metal, death metal, symphonic metal, from groups around the globe. At first it was painful to endure the apparent nonsensical growling vocals, incessant power bass drumming, and whaling electric guitar riffs. The energy moving through this music felt forced, angry, combative, even threatening and those were feelings I didn’t want to experience; mostly because they were feelings I didn’t want to address within myself. The boys were persistent and knew it was time for me to grow out of my comfort zone. Some days the entrainment of the drums and bass were too much and we’d change the track. Using discernment was an empowering step in building tolerance and helped open honest communication between me and the boys that grew into a comfortable morning ritual. 

It takes courage to use music as a method of self-discovery; to honestly feel the feelings resonating within your body as you listen to new styles of music. Listening in small doses, almost like musical homeopathy, increased my tolerance and appreciation for this new genre.

 Building Empathy

The lyrics often eluded me until I asked the boys, “What are they saying?” This simple question forever changed my perspective and experience of metal music. I learned about the ancient myths and historical figures eulogized in the lyrics and stories of band members who endured personal tragedy. My heart opened to feel this music as an expression of another human being’s experience of life and as a result I learned more about myself.

Music is an expression of the philosophy of our times and of our diverse cultures. Each culture is composed of individuals experiencing life from their unique perspectives, inspired to express themselves through their distinctive style and genre of music. As we encounter these diverse genres, we have the opportunity to learn more about ourselves, if we’re courageous enough to explore.

Conscious Listening

While driving home one evening I decided to do some ‘conscious listening.’ I turned on the radio – a country song was playing. Normally I would immediately change the station but chose to listen to the words and feel the story. Unexpected empathy emerged as my heart quieted the preconceived judgments within my mind. What a different type of listening experience! I changed to a rap station, listened, felt, and noticed a growing empathy for that musician’s message. The next station played hits from the ‘80s. Memories of high school flooded my mind as I listened to familiar songs with fresh ears and an open heart. I discovered a lot about myself that evening simply because I chose to consciously listen and honestly feel.

The Universal Language of Music

There is a healing quality in all music because it’s an expression of someone’s thoughts, ideas, emotions, pain, joy, and spiritual connection.  As human beings, we are intimately connected to one another and music has the potential to build bonds of community that release fears, repair misunderstandings, rectify differences, restore hope, heal and unify our mind, body and soul.

In a world full of separation, anger, prejudice, fear, judgment and pain, perhaps by expanding our familiar musical tastes we could slowly develop a listening ear for others who may not fit into our comfortable genres. Perhaps listening to music that expresses life experiences from different perspectives will naturally nurture more tolerance and empathy for our brothers and sisters around the globe.

Music is a universal language, but only to the extent we are willing to listen consciously.  Music can be a profound step in the exploration of self, in the conscious act of honest reflection that goes by many names – mindfulness, meditation, self-discovery, self-empowerment, and enlightenment.

I believe that “Peace begins within” and music is a powerful way in.

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