Finding Balance: A Treatise on the Power of Music 1

Guitar on flames - the power of music and the need for balance

On Balance and It’s Relationship to Acceptance and Anger

Before we knew we would cancel this Sunday’s sharing circle, we chose a theme of balance. In particular, we wondered how to balance our need for peace of mind, found generally by accepting that which exists, with our need to change and grow and resist, which requires discontentment, even anger. We’ll revisit the topic in September, exploring how acceptance and anger play out in our personal and political lives. Today, we will focus on the concept of balance.

A meaningful life requires balance. When we relentlessly pursue pleasure, we end up miserable, damaging relationships, losing jobs, and disconnecting from ourselves. On the other hand, we end us just as miserable when we obsess about rules, obedience, and chastity.

Balancing the Extremes Within Each of Us

In the parable of the Prodigal Son, we find a similar moral. The story opens as a younger son demands his inheritance, takes his money, then flees to the city where he spends it all on “riotous living” (Luke 5:13 King James version). Remaining behind, his older brother does everything his father asks. He adheres to strict propriety and never allows himself to have fun.

When the younger brother returns home, his sibling scorns him. Although his father asks the elder to come inside and celebrate with them, he refuses. He stays outside and seethes. For all we know, he is there still.

Guitar on flames - the power of music and the need for balance

These young men represent the extremes that exist within us. Though we all tend toward one or another of these types, we have a little of each inside us. If we can figure out how to balance a capacity for joy and playfulness with the traits of loyalty and dependability, we might actually find happiness.

Balance and Artistic Expression

In one way or another, most us seek balance. Indeed, much of our pain arises because we’ve lost our inner balance. Addiction, for instance, epitomizes this loss. So does a crusade to control the lives of those around us. When we work hard, we need to balance our efforts with rest. Cravings, whether for money, security, friendship, applause, power, or relief from discomfort, leave us open to an eager overreaching that upsets our equanimity and destroys what balance we may have found.

Balance is necessary in personal relationships, as well. For instance, to maintain reciprocal friendships, we must be willing to share our thoughts and feelings, while at the same time, to listen. In the arts, balance is integral to our expression and our appreciation. Performing well on stage requires enough anxiety to energize us, but not so much we feel paralyzed. Creating art that lasts requires technical expertise and virtuosity, but also need heart, soul, and an ability to arouse emotions in our audience. As Oliver Sacks writes, in his book Musicophilia, “It is always a balance, a coming together, that is needed.” [1]

In this “coming together,” we sometimes overwhelm our rational mind, getting swept away by the swell of emotion, the bliss of oneness found in masterful music or other art. This is not all bad. Swinging to one extreme or other at times may be part of a satisfying and balanced life. However, when we get inflamed by sensations, we lose balance. In this lies danger.

The Danger of Music

To highlight this danger, Sacks describes the musical ambivalence of Sigmund Freud and Leo Tolstoy. Freud claimed to derive no pleasure from music. Indeed, he seemed to mistrust it, being unwilling to allow the listening experience to affect him because he could not understand it rationally.

Sacks wonders, though, if Freud did not so much lack the capacity to enjoy music as he resisted that enjoyment. Quoting the Freudian psychoanalyst, Theodore Reik, Sacks concludes that Freud didn’t dislike music, but instead “developed an increasing reluctance” to surrender “to the dark power of music.” Such avoidance, Reik comments, may be found in those who fear intense emotions. [2]

Tolstoy, too, understood the risk of intensity. He “adored” the music of Tchaikovsky, but would not listen to it because he feared entering into emotional states over which he would have no control.

The Power of Music

Music’s power to overwhelm our reason is real. It often affects us deeply. As they listen to singers such as Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, Sacks notes, audiences swoon. To maintain order and courage in military companies, governments around the world have encouraged the singing of marches. In his article, “When Music Is Violence,” Alex Ross provides examples of American soldiers in Iraq who psych themselves up by listening to songs with violent lyrics, using the “music to strip themselves of empathy.” [3] In the United States, music has long accompanied protest movements, from the union songs of the 1930s, to the anti-war songs of the 1960s, to the angry, rap music of the twenty-first century.

Indeed, Tolstoy believed that music can so derange our rational mind, we might betray our own loved ones because of it. In his story, “The Kreutzer Sonata,” music persuades a married woman to be unfaithful. [4]

While music has the power to control us, it can also bind us, help us work together, love together, hope and dream together. Yet even as it unifies us, Ross notes, it separates us, for we are tribal beings. We form families and clans. This bonding is such a deep part of our nature that even those of us who strive to welcome the stranger into their hearts, who claim to be part of one, unified human race, nonetheless form alliances, claim allegiances, and punish outliers. We all do this, even the saints.

Using Music to Control Others

Religious leaders, teachers, protesters, torturers, and others have used music to bring us close and drive us apart. Music can soothe our spirits, encourage uprisings, and literally drive us mad. For instance, the Nazis, Ross writes, were the “pioneers of musical sadism.” At Guantánamo, prison guards used music to torment prisoners at. If this seems ridiculous, imagine being forced to listen to music you do not like, hour after hour after hour. As the French writer, Pascal Quignard, pointed out, “What is heard knows neither eyelids, nor partitions, neither curtains, nor walls.” Though we can close our eyes, we can’t close our ears. Sound can violate us. [5]

Art moves us and changes us. As a performer, I know that when I stand at the podium or sit at the piano, I have power. With my words or my music, I can affect people. With such power comes responsibility. To remember that as we feel the thrill of an audience’s response, we need a balanced mind and heart.

Music and Our Pleasure Center

That doesn’t mean music is dangerous in and of itself. It heals, it soothes, it even helps us maintain sobriety. As we listen to music we enjoy – enjoyment being the important word here, for we do not all appreciate the same kind of sound – our nucleus accumbens lights up. Situated near the center of our brain, the nucleus accumbens is part of our reward center. During pleasurable experiences, dopamine levels in the accumbens rise. [6] Most of us already know that music can turn us on.

Interestingly, though, scientists have discovered that dopamine levels in the nucleus accumbens also rise in response to distasteful experiences. Perhaps dopamine exists not to make us feel good, but to make us pay attention. Whatever makes dopamine surge, we remember. Then we learn to seek what we enjoy and avoid what we don’t. [7]

Because of this, it’s hard to balance our needs, desires, and gut feelings with our goals, responsibilities, and intellectual insights. Just as musicians require years of practice to balance technical competence with emotional expression, so we take years to learn to balance the impetuous pleasure-seeking of the younger brother with the rigid lawfulness of the older one.

Balancing Ourselves and Balancing Our World

As Sacks points out, we need to balance the energy of chaos and creativity with consistency and intellect. White European culture tends to be sterile, emphasizing book learning and the scientific method. This is not bad. We need this approach. On the other hand, romantic and expressive cultures offer a depth and richness we also need. By inviting into our lives diverse experiences and ways of understanding the world, we can find a balance that not only soothes our inner spirit, but also nurtures the world.

How do we do this? We can start with regular spiritual practices. Prayer, meditation, lovingkindness, service to the marginalized all support the peace that comes with balance. Within the younger brother resides a creative wildness that encourages us to surrender ourselves to the beauty of nature, the awe of divinity, and the emotional resonance of art. At the same time, the older brother invites us to embrace duty, loyalty, and order. Once we learn to embrace both parts of ourselves, then we can reach out to embrace one another.

In faith and fondness,



  1. Sacks, Oliver, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, United Kingdom: Picador, 2008, 513.
  2. Ibid 322. See Reik, Theodore, The Haunting Melody: Psychoanalytic Experiences in Life and Music, New York: Farrar, Straus, & Young, 1953.
  3. Ross, Alex, “When Music Is Violence, The New Yorker, July 4, 2016, Alex Ross makes this clear in his article, “When Music Is Violence.”, accessed 7/28/18.
  4. Sacks 323.
  5. Quignard, Pascal, The Hatred of Music, trans. Matthew Amos and Rederick Rönnbäck, New Haven: Yale University, 2016, 71.
  6. Stromberg, Joseph, “Revealed: The Part of Our Brains that Make Us Like Music,”, April 11, 2013,, accessed 7/28/18.
  7. Volman, S., Lammel, S., Margolis, E., Kim, Y., Richard, J., Roitman, M., & Lobo, M. (2013). New Insights into the Specificity and Plasticity of Reward and Aversion Encoding in the Mesolimbic System Journal of Neuroscience, 33 (45),, accessed 7/28/18.

Photo by Dark Rider on Unsplash

Copyright © 2018 Barbara E. Stevens

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