Oct 1, 2018 4 min read

Music For Our Journey Toward Equity

Music For Our Journey Toward Equity
Image of white musical notes on a gold background

I don’t sing. 

Let me clarify. What I mean is I don’t sing well, and I don’t sing in public. Yet that day, unbidden, I heard my voice join with the voices of nearly three thousand other conference attendees gathered in the Detroit Conference Center. Wendi O’Neal-Moore, the conference weaver, was leading us in call-and-response singing. The songs were simple and familiar. They required no special talent, only a willingness to join my voice with the voice of others.

During the Facing Race Conference in Detroit, each time we returned from our breakout sessions to rejoin the main conference, Wendi would welcome us back with her voice…and our voices. Wendi called out to us, and we answered. In this way, the voices of the participants were woven together in harmony as the voice of each person was brought into the room. Our answer was its own form of calling to the world, echoing our reason for being there, giving voice to our shared intention. Somehow, after each time this happened, I was surprised to find that my heart was lighter, my sense of solidarity with the group had grown, and my sense of our collective voice and power felt stronger.  

Music has always had a place in the journey toward justice and liberation, and there are so many reasons why it should continue to be part of our journey toward equity and inclusion.


There is something powerful in joining our voices with the voices of our neighbors. It can be simple, yet it asks something of us. It asks us to stand and be counted for this work. It seems that there is also something to the increased sense of solidarity that I felt at the conference. According to the book This is Your Brain on Music, neuroscientists speculate that our mirror neurons may be firing when we see or hear music being performed, and they are at play as our brain tries to figure out how the sounds are being made and as we prepare to echo them back. This mirroring is the same phenomenon that we also experience in storytelling and creating empathy.

Arousing Feelings and Emotions

As we work to prepare the heart of the community, we need to find a way to move beyond facts and ideas and touch people more deeply, helping them to open and helping them to feel more deeply. This means that we will be working in the realm of feelings and emotions. 

As a tool for activation of specific thoughts, music is not as good as language. As a tool for arousing feelings and emotions, music is better than language.

UC Berkeley scientists have studied the role music plays in eliciting emotions.

The subjective experience of music across cultures can be mapped within at least 13 overarching feelings: Amusement, joy, eroticism, beauty, relaxation, sadness, dreaminess, triumph, anxiety, scariness, annoyance, defiance, and feeling pumped up.

They’ve created an interactive map that allows you to explore music along these emotional dimensions. The fact that this is repeatable across cultures suggests that it is more universal than we might expect. We know this intuitively, but researchers have now proven that we are able to elicit specific feelings and emotions through the use of music. 


Music touches so many different parts of the brain on a conscious and unconscious level and also on a chemical level. Hearing a familiar piece of music can instantly take us back to a moment in time and can bring emotions from our past flooding into our present. This can happen in just a few beats of a song. 

The story of your brain on music is the story of an exquisite orchestration of brain regions, involving both the oldest and newest parts of the human brain, and regions as far apart as the cerebellum in the back of the head and the frontal lobes just behind your eyes. It involves a precision choreography of neurochemical release and an uptake between logical prediction systems and emotional reward systems. When we love a piece of music, it reminds us of other music we have heard, and it activates memory traces of emotional times in our lives. Your brain on music is all about…connections.

Memory and Identity

Music that we like is memorable. As we each think back over our lives, we can recall specific pieces of music that were particularly important to us at a specific time in our lives. What we now know is that music from our past can be more than just a memory. It can become part of who we are and how we see ourselves. Scientists have found that music can play a role in building our autobiographical memories.

Emotional music we have heard at specific periods of our life is strongly linked to our autobiographical memory and thus is closely involved in forming our view about our own self.

As you plan your next community gathering, ask yourself what feelings and emotions you wish to elicit. What connections do you want to make? What memories and identities do you want to build? Then ask yourself, what is the role you will allow music to play in accomplishing those ambitions and preparing the hearts of those in attendance?


Levitin, D. J. (2006). This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. Penguin, Pages 267, P192.




Ame Sanders
Founder of State of Inclusion. A seasoned leader & change-maker, she is focused on positive change within communities.
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