Translating & Conveying Emotions

I recently watched a TEDx Talk from Adam Neely, musician & educator, on the topic of developing a personal language of music ( In it, he describes a performance by Dave Brubeck & Christian McBride in which he witnessed an amazing interaction. These musicians appeared to be having a kind of conversation, through music – exchanging ideas, perhaps “debating”, even sharing humour – all without saying anything verbally.

Adam goes on to explain how music in particular has certain forms & structures that in Western cultures over time, we have come to expect & appreciate – musicians & non-musicians alike. Similar to how jokes & humour are constructed, in some cases deviations from these expected forms can elicit a laugh in response – something unexpected, yet enjoyable, just happened.

I’m sure that we’ve all experienced this in our life: a song or piece of music that just stirs the soul in ways that are difficult to describe. Sometimes there is lyrical content that we get attached to that amplifies the emotion, but it can be the first few bars of instrumental music that we recognize that immediately transports us somewhere else.

How does music (or any art form) do this? Well, as Adam describes, there are conventions in art forms that over time we have come to appreciate, understand and internalize. Art is a mechanism through which we celebrate the world around us, and I believe that as a species we have some aspects that we appreciate that are shared & common. Form, as an example (whether it be visual, textural or auditory), has aspects that we can find beautiful, sensual, strong, ethereal; I believe that through art we have found ways to convey so much emotion.

How does this happen though? Adam describes music as a kind of conduit for direct emotional communication. I think that’s a fairly accurate description. In fact, I believe that all art forms are a way to convey concepts that might transcend language at first. I can’t state this definitively, but I believe that art appeared before written or oral languages. Art was a way for our ancestors to tell stories and convey meaning. It can be a multi-sensory experience and I think that is an initial advantage it has over language.

I believe there are a number of ways that we can take advantage of this. First, I believe that we all have the capacity to better understand our own emotional states, their triggers and the stories that contribute to how we feel. Digging deeper into these feelings and being able to better describe them through journaling, reflecting, and sharing with others is how we can develop these “muscles” – just like practicing an instrument.

Getting familiar with the “vocabulary” of feelings & emotions by experiencing art in any possible form is important. Go to a gallery, listen to music, watch a dance performance, walk in nature, read something by a new author – all of these are ways to explore. We benefit from the learning of others to expand our toolset in order to make sense of our experiences. Sit with your feelings during your experience and see how you have more deeply connected with your emotions.

You may not think that you are an artist but I truly believe that we are all creative at heart. Trust that and explore your creativity in any shape & form. Create something and see how your feelings shape that process of creation, and then share it with others and find out how they experience what you have created. Do they appreciate it in the same way? Are they seeing what you’ve created from a different angle that you didn’t anticipate, and that you can learn from? Flexing these creative muscles can also help you get better at both channeling your emotions into your work, and also in connecting with others.

I believe that art has that ability to transcend language and connect people. I also believe that we can learn from art & creative practices to enrich our language to better convey what we feel. Thank you for the time you’ve taken to read this, and I hope it resonates with you in some way.

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