Our Essential Musical Intelligence

Originally printed in the September - October 2004 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Montello, Louise. "Our Essential Musical Intelligence." Quest  92.5 (SEPTEMBER - OCTOBER 2004):170 - 175.

By Louise Montello

Essential musical intelligence is your natural ability to use music and sound as self-reflecting, transformational tools to facilitate total health and well-being.

Theosophical Society - Louise Montello is a certified music therapist/psychoanalyst, clinical research scientist in the department of psychology at New York University, and founder/director of the Creative Arts Therapy Certificate Program at New School University, where she has been teaching for nine years. She is also associate editor of the International Journal of Arts.  Cofounder of Musician's Wellness, Inc., a not-for-profit corporation designed to promote wellness for professional musicians, Louise has been lecturing on the healing powers of music for over a decade. She has conducted workshops at Arts, Medicine and Music Therapy conferences all over Europe, Asia, Scandinavia, and the U.S.  In 1992, Louise presented her work at the American Occupational Health Conference in Washington, D.C. In 1993, she was invited to lead a seminar at the First U.S./Japan Arts Medicine Leaders Conference in Tokyo. The organizers of the 5th Annual Meeting of the International Association for Dance Medicine & Science invited Louise to Tel Aviv, Israel, to present her work on understanding the relationship between stress and immunity in professional musicians.  Having conducted workshops in Hamburg and Berlin, Louise is well known in the German music therapy community. She has also been an artist-in-residence at the Gotenberg Conservatory in Sweden, at Berklee College of Music in Boston, and at the Manhattan School of Music.  Along with her research and clinical work, she is also a free-lance jazz pianist and composer. Louise currently lives in New York City.Imagine starting your day by finding a tranquil spot in nature where you can sit quietly for a spell and listen with an open heart to the subtly emerging sounds of the pulsating life within and around you that gently reveal to you the secrets of your soul . . .


Imagine being alone on a cold winter's night wrapped in a warm blanket and listening to Brahms's Requiem with candles burning brightly, asking in your heart for assistance in mourning the loss of a loved one whom you have not been able to let go . . .


Imagine using intentional sound making (toning) to give voice to that persistent pain under your left shoulder blade. Feel the chronic tension melting in the creative heat of your expressive self as you let go and allow the music take you where you need to go . . .

All these scenarios are examples of how you can activate your essential musical intelligence (EMI) in daily life. They each reflect a certain level of comfort and intimacy that you can develop with the wise, compassionate, and deeply creative capacity of your higher self (or soul) through your engagement with music. It is my premise that we become overwhelmed by pain, suffering, and ignorance when we are cut off from our innate pinity, and that deep and lasting healing ensues when we reestablish a conscious relationship with this aspect of ourselves.

Although essential musical intelligence is ubiquitous and instinctual, it still requires a conscious effort to integrate its potential for healing into your daily life. There are two complementary phases involved in using EMI to facilitate self-healing and transformation.

The first phase, which I call the witnessing stance, involves the practice of self-observation and inner listening. Witnessing is the process of turning your focus inward and becoming the observer of the permutations of your mind, body, and emotions, as opposed to living your life on automatic pilot, without much conscious awareness. Witnessing can be honed through the formal practice of meditation, in which you sit quietly for a period of time and watch the flow of mind stuff with a sense of detachment; or it can be practiced informally at selected intervals throughout the day as a way of consciously tuning out the noise of external reality and allowing yourself to gradually tune in to the deeper music of your inner self. The process of tuning in to your inner music—the emotional and archetypal landscape that colors both waking and dreaming states—is associated with inner listening. In order to achieve full engagement with the witnessing stance of EMI, it is important to cultivate the ability to listen with the ear of the heart—your innate intuitive capacity that allows you to both hear your inner music and at the same time realize its true meaning. For instance, if you find while engaged in the witnessing stance that you are unable to maintain your equanimity and you succumb to mind-body states that are less than desirable (such as pain, confusion, despair, or psychological numbing), you can call upon your intuitive listening capacity to provide a deeper level of understanding of what is going on inside you.

As you become more skilled at turning inward and engaging the witnessing stance, you will soon become aware of those thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and behaviors that foster health and creativity as well as those that detract from your sense of well-being. The witnessing phase of essential musical intelligence involves your willingness to take regular time-outs from the activities of your day and tune in to how you are feeling. This can be done upon rising to observe if and how certain somatic states, feelings, and attitudes might influence your daily activities; in the evening before retiring as a way of reviewing the dynamics of your day; or any time during the day when you feel the need for centering and mind-body coherence.

Once your internal feeling states are illuminated and clarified during the witnessing phase, you may then allow yourself to move gently into the deeper, more musical essence of your being, where you can intuitively sense what you need to become more balanced and whole. As you enter this second transformational phase of using EMI, you may either consciously choose to engage in specific musical activities that help to create balance and harmony within, or you can allow spontaneous music or sound to emerge from a deeper source (improvisation) as an agent of change in harmonizing and transforming the specific physical, mental, and emotional energies at the root of your problem.

Developing a witness stance is a prerequisite to using EMI for health and healing. There are many exercises that can help to strengthen your capacity to observe the modifications of the mind-body. My favorite one involves breath awareness.

Breath Awareness 

Take a few minutes now to observe your breathing. In a comfortable seated position, be aware of the air as it enters your nostrils and again as it leaves your nostrils. Continue to follow the movement of your breath. You might notice some jerks or pauses as you breathe, or even a faint breathing sound. Do not try to change anything—just watch. You may even become impatient and resist this self-reflective activity. That is all right. On your next exhalation, allow the breath to release these impatient feelings, and as you inhale, bring your awareness back to your breath. If any thoughts arise, simply let them go for now and bring your focus back to your breath. Soon you will notice that your consciousness begins to shift. You feel more present and rooted in your body, calmer, and more relaxed. You are moving into a state of being versus doing. You have become a witness to your internal states. You will now be able to consciously connect with your essential musical intelligence.

One way of deepening your connection with your essential musical intelligence is to keep track of the choices you make every day in creating your unique musical and emotional environment. How are you using music right now to maintain a sense of emotional and physical balance, to help you to understand yourself better, and to give voice to your creative vision? You can document your relationship with music and sound by keeping a music and sound awareness journal, where you make daily entries that reflect your expanding capacity to listen with the ear of your heart (intuition) and use music and sound to create and transform your inner and outer realities. 

Your Earliest Musical Memory 

A more immediate way to reconnect with your musical intelligence is through conjuring your earliest memory of music. When we are children, listening to music usually evokes a mood of awe, wonder, joy, celebration, and love that we openly share with our parents and loved ones. Thus, for most of us, this earliest memory reflects an aura of safety, security, and trust in the inherent goodness of the world around us. It is often our first conscious experience of the vibration of the deeper self.

After many years of practicing music therapy with people from all walks of life, it often seems to me that this musical memory is like a keynote of the soul's mission or desire in this lifetime. It is uncanny how the emotional quality of the music almost always mirrors the temperament of the inpidual as he or she moves through life.

You can recover your earliest memory of music quite simply. Take a few moments to relax by practicing the witnessing exercise described earlier. Once your thoughts are stilled and your body is calm, allow yourself to travel back in time—as far back as you can possibly remember—and connect with your earliest memory of being with music. It should come quite easily. (If it is difficult for you to retrieve early childhood memories, you might try looking at some childhood photographs.) Pick the very first memory that comes along. Allow this memory to increase in vividness by focusing on the colors, sounds, smells, feelings, and bodily sensations that you experienced then. Write down your impressions in your music and sound awareness journal.

Did you notice any correlation between that earliest memory and your relationship with music today? What about your temperament, your personal mission, the quality of your emotional life? Take a few moments now to contemplate the remarkable self-reflecting quality of music. In your relationship with music, you can discover the origins of your current emotional makeup. As you learn to activate the transformational power of EMI, you can, over time, literally recreate your internal world so that it reflects only the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that are in alignment with your higher self.

As you begin the process of reconnecting with EMI, it is important to allow yourself regular downtime so you can let go of the pressing demands of outer reality and surrender to your soul's desire for peace and solitude. It is in moments of stillness that EMI comes alive. It is really an age-old process.

In ancient Greece, people with physical and emotional ills traveled to the healing temples of Aesclepius where they were lulled into altered states by soothing music that allowed them access to the healer within. In these altered states they received dreams and visions that helped them to symbolically transform the root causes of their pain and suffering, leading to miraculous cures. EMI is not activated through the conscious mind but through the realm of imagination, the domain of the soul. In this dimension there is no concept of time. Everything is happening in the eternal now. In this realm there are infinite possibilities to create and transform your reality. The more comfortable you are living and playing in this imaginal world, the more your musical intelligence will manifest its healing presence in your life. 

The Heart of EMI 

Essential musical intelligence is always present in our lives. Its power is most available to us when our hearts are open and we are in a receptive, intuitive, playful, or prayerful state. Our earliest memory of music is so profound because as infants or young children, our hearts are open. We have not yet developed the defenses that protect our hearts from hurt, nor have we developed a strong ego that pushes forward with its own interests, ignoring the still, small voice of our essential musical intelligence.

According to the teachings of Eastern mysticism, the heart is the seat of the soul, and the soul is the link between spirit and personality. Spirit expresses itself in the form of emotional energy that is colored by the dynamics of specific archetypal issues that we grapple with at a given stage of our development. Emotions can propel us toward greater feelings of self-worth, creative expression, and harmonious relationships, or lead us to self-doubt, suffering, and destruction. At the level of the heart chakra, we begin to discriminate between emotions that are life giving and emotions that are depleting. As we open to the music of the heart, we are compelled to act out of love and compassion in our dealings with ourselves and others; we recognize that the most powerful energy we possess is love. 

In most spiritual traditions throughout history, music has been used as a way to awaken and purify the heart. According to the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes, "music has power to ease tension within the heart and to loosen the grip of obscure emotions." The ancient Chinese sages who authored the I Ching equated music with enthusiasm: "The enthusiasm of the heart expresses itself involuntarily in a burst of song, in dance and rhythmic movements of the body. From immemorial times the inspiring effect of the invisible sound that moves all hearts and draws them together has mystified mankind." (68)

In the Sufi tradition, also known as "the path of the heart," surrendering to the practice of devotional music is believed to be the most direct path to enlightenment. The Sufis use song, poetry, and improvisation to passionately express and transform their feelings into spiritual ecstasy as part of their daily ritual of worship. 

In trying to understand the relationship between intelligence, music, and the heart from a more scientific perspective, I asked my friend Ted, a neuroscientist and classical pianist, what it means when someone plays a piece "by heart." He replied matter-of-factly, "To play from memory." "But," I asked, "shouldn't it really be to play by mind' or by brain'? What does the heart have to do with memory? Isn't that the domain of the mind?" My scientist friend was stumped. I was compelled to get to the bottom of this conundrum, and after conducting a bit of my own research, I learned that in many traditions, along with being a center for feeling and aesthetic sensibility, the heart is associated with thought and intelligence. In fact, within the framework of traditional Chinese medicine, mind and spirit are intimately related, both being housed within the cave of the heart. In the Japanese language, one word that is used to describe the heart is kokoro, which refers to the "mind of the heart."

Current neuropsychological research indicates that the heart has its own independent nervous system, which is actually referred to as "the brain in the heart." According to Doc Lew Childre and Howard Martin, authors of The HeartMath Solution, "The heart's intrinsic brain and nervous system relay information back to the brain in the cranium, creating a two-way communication system between heart and brain. The signals sent from the heart to the brain affect many areas and functions in the amygdala, the thalamus, and the cortex" (31).

The amygdala, an almond-shaped structure deep in the limbic system of the brain, specializes in processing strong emotional memories. As we know, music is a perfect container for strong emotions; thus, the heart-brain-music connection. But how did we musicians who have been playing by heart all these years know that? Suffice to say that the heart is an important nodal point for essential musical intelligence. 

The Voice of EMI 

By opening your heart to the music of your soul, you can pave the way to an even deeper personal relationship with your essential musical intelligence. This relationship manifests itself through the throat chakra, your most vital center for engaging with EMI. When centered in the consciousness of the throat chakra, you open yourself to receiving nurturance, not only physically, through the food you eat and the air you breathe, but spiritually, through your direct relationship with one or more of the glorious forms of Absolute Being. Take a moment now to recall a time when you had the experience of being literally filled up with feelings of joy, awe, and wonder related to some extraordinary (or sometimes quite ordinary) occurrence in your life. Perhaps you have had this kind of peak experience while deeply engaged in creating art (sculpture, music, dance, poetry), or communing with nature (witnessing a brilliant sunset, playing with your new puppy), or during periods of heartfelt prayer or spiritual practice. Often just listening to a few bars of a patriotic song or literally stopping to smell the roses on the way to work can evoke the sensation of awe that reminds us of a reality far greater than what we perceive with our five senses. The word "awe" is associated with childlike innocence and wonder and is itself a breathing sound that seems to express the act of taking in—in-spir-ation—breathing in spirit. This receptivity to the life of spirit is the keynote of the throat chakra and the true power behind your essential musical intelligence. At the level of the throat chakra, you naturally open to the innocence of the pine child within and consequently release attachments that block your experience of receiving nurturance (love, harmony, and beauty) from a higher source. 

In addition to opening to peak experiences as a way to connect with the consciousness of the throat chakra, many people experience this shift when they are caught in the throes of personal crisis or illness. Often physically or emotionally challenged inpiduals spontaneously connect with Absolute Being when they have exhausted their ego reserves and are forced to surrender their will to that of a higher power. Through "letting go and letting God," these people often experience profound personal and spiritual transformation that can lead to the healing of their deepest wounds.

By releasing your own egoistic preoccupations at the level of the throat chakra as you practice the exercises that follow, you can increasingly allow yourself to become a clear channel for the expression of your higher self. Because your higher self exists simultaneously within and beyond the mind, it often communicates its wisdom symbolically through sound, music, movement, poetry, and mandalas. Thus, the throat chakra is also the center for imagination and creative expression. You create your own reality through the words that you speak and the artistic forms to which you give birth. The more you direct your creative energies toward the expression of your core truth, the more you activate the transformational aspect of your musical intelligence to create harmony, balance, and healing in your life and in the world around you. 

You can connect with the consciousness of the throat chakra through devotional musical activities such as chanting, singing inspirational songs and psalms, songwriting, and vocal and instrumental improvisation. Through spontaneous music making, you can safely express the entire spectrum of emotions, allowing your EMI to transform feelings that are no longer serving you into creative power for change. It is not necessary to be involved in a particular spiritual tradition to open the throat chakra. As you open to the presence of grace in your life, you naturally respond in kind with your own soulful creative expression. Thus, creativity and nurturance are actually two sides of the same coin. When you are being creative, you nurture yourself by receiving guidance from the higher consciousness at the center of your being. In the creative process that provides the framework for using your essential musical intelligence, you open to the source of your most profound healing. 

Six-Steps to Healing through EMI 

The following six steps delineate the healing process of EMI that you can put into practice in your daily life as a way of transforming pain and negativity into increasingly deeper levels of creativity and personal power.

  • Identify the problem. Learn to recognize dissonance in your body or mind that may be causing physical or emotional pain or limiting your creative expression. To do this, you must activate the witnessing stance and practice mindfulness: tuning into your thoughts and feelings at regular intervals throughout the day and taking the time to reflect on pain and frustration instead of pushing them away. Once you can identify the problem—you are fuming with rage, stuck in a horrendous traffic jam, late for an important meeting—then you can call on EMI to provide a healthy solution.

  • Remember your true worth. You are precious and infinitely loved. This is a difficult step for many people, particularly if you have experienced early abuse, abandonment, or trauma. You may feel like you don't matter and consequently relinquish your power and play the victim role. It is so important to realize that, regardless of what happened to you in the past, you do matter. Health, harmony, happiness, and abundance are your natural birthright. Tuning in to the feeling that you are loved no matter what happens is wonderfully soothing and can instantly defuse the fear and tension of unmanageable situations (such as a traffic jam). In activating this step, it is most helpful to actually remember a specific time when you felt that you were loved unconditionally. Allow this memory and the associated feelings of safety, security, and self-worth to become deeply anchored within you.

  • Become proactive. Empower yourself to take responsibility for your own life. Know that although you cannot always prevent or change negative situations you can call upon the creative power of your musical intelligence to help you to transform maladaptive reactions (rage, tension, self-destructive behaviors) to difficult situations. These reactions are ego oriented and, consequently, fear based; they originate in the part of the mind that is unable to see the whole picture. Asking for help from your EMI initiates the switch into a more holistic frame of consciousness.

  • Connect with your throat chakra. Bring your attention to your throat center and focus your breathing there for a few moments. As this area becomes more energized, imagine that your center of receptivity and expression is opening and expanding. Allow yourself to surrender to the transformational power of EMI as it offers you a musical solution to your problem.

  • Express yourself. You will receive a musical solution if you allow yourself to hold the tension and listen for your essential musical intelligence. In dealing with a traffic jam, for example, you may be drawn to make up a funny limerick about the situation or to sing your most centering Buddhist chant. Or you may simply pop your hippest James Brown tape into the cassette player, turn up the volume, and channel that rage into a funky rendition of "I Feel Good." Give yourself up to whatever musical idea comes until you begin to feel a significant shift in consciousness.

  • Give thanks. When you feel more centered and whole (perhaps even joyful), acknowledge yourself for being proactive and sincerely give thanks to your EMI for its presence in your life and the unlimited possibilities that it offers for healing.

    You may liken this six-step transformational process to other stress-management techniques that you have tried in the past. What makes this process unique, however, is that through using music and sound to explore areas of dissonance, you are working directly with the energy of the negative feeling state, engaging it through the creative process of musical expression, and allowing your essential musical intelligence (the intuitive wisdom of your higher self) to transform it into a more desirable, harmonic state of being.

    As you begin to practice these steps regularly, the process of engaging with EMI eventually becomes more automatic. Before you know it, you will be conditioned to use EMI to root out and harmonize both internal and external dissonance without much conscious effort. Once you have established an ongoing relationship with your essential musical intelligence, it is important to work systematically, so that all the parts of your self are working together in alignment with a single goal—to sound the music of love. It is only in this state of coherence among the different levels of consciousness that deep and lasting healing can occur.


    Bly, Robert. The Kabir Book. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1993.
    Childre, Doc Lew, and Howard Martin. The HeartMath Solution. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999.
    Wilhelm, Richard, trans. The I Ching or Book of Changes. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1950.

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