Posted by: laurie689 | July 23, 2015

Why Play Music, Anyway?

Ask any number of musicians why they play music, and you’ll get a different answer from each one, ranging from, “My parents made me,” to “I can’t NOT play music  –  it’s my passion!” Assuming we want to play, what is it that drives us to pursue music? The answers are as diverse as are the people.

Have you ever experienced goose bumps while listening to music? If so, explaining passion to you isn’t necessary. Chances are it has driven you to play. If you get goose bumps while you’re playing, so much the better!

From early childhood I always knew I’d be a professional musician. Passion propelled my desire to play well, and practicing was what I wanted to spend my time doing. I probably drove my parents nuts. Why did I love music so much? Because I felt its emotions. Because it spoke more deeply to me than verbal language. Because playing music was how I was able to communicate, and I found that people would listen to my music who wouldn’t otherwise have noticed me at all. It helped me connect with the world.

In a way, music was my therapy. Many years later I would see in a Bill Moyers series, Healing and the Mind, that research had shown that the appropriate expression of all emotions (not just “good” ones) enhances the immune system. (The specific reasons for this are now taught in detail in most therapeutic music training programs.) Notice I said the expression of  –  not just the feeling of  –  emotions. Music expresses feelings as keenly as do laughter, crying, whooping it up, or screaming. When you really listen to music you can hear all those things in various pieces. It is an appropriate way to express emotions of all kinds.

But do you also put those emotions into your own playing? Many musicians are stuck in getting all the notes right above all else, forsaking music’s real purpose. It’s a worthy goal to get all the notes right; after all, that’s one thing practice is for, and since accuracy is what makes a piece musically coherent, it should not be ignored. But it’s not the end purpose of playing.

Can you remember why you started to play music? Surely you didn’t say to yourself, “I want to play music so I can get all the notes right.” Chances are you began to play because you heard some music that gave you goose bumps. If so, that wasn’t so much because all the notes were right, but because you felt the deeper meaning that was inherent either in the composition or in the expressive playing of the musician, or both. If you play expressively, you enjoy your own music far more than if you’re only trying to get it right.

I find it sad that there are musicians who use music as a merely Intellectual exercise, as though they don’t hear the beauty at all. Perhaps they really can’t. Perhaps intellectualizing is their passion, and if so, perhaps for that reason they do get as much pleasure out of playing music as any other passionate musician. That said, regarding listening, the most intellectual individual I know feels and responds to music with every cell of his body.

This discussion naturally leads into the subject of music as therapy. People tend to use music therapeutically even when they don’t realize that’s what they’re doing. We get in the car after a day of work and turn on the music because it’s relaxing or energizing, depending on the genre, and because it can either match or change our mood.  We use music as the soundtrack of our lives.

Aside from the purposely or subconsciously applied therapeutic uses of music, hearing music is like going to a play or a movie. Have you noticed that plays and movies are boring if they have no tension, no negative aspects in the story that must be overcome? That’s because we humans thrive on drama. We create it in our own lives partly because it amuses us, just like movies do. Movies simply reiterate or fantasize life; otherwise, we’d have no interest in movies! It’s the same with music. We sing those sad songs, happy songs, angry songs, celebratory songs because they entertain us by reiterating certain aspects of life. They make us feel our emotions. The brain’s emotion-producing functions can’t tell the difference between an emotion felt while being entertained and one felt due to a real life circumstance. Therefore, playing music is like being an actor. We’re creating drama in music for others to feel. If we don’t allow ourselves to play expressively, there’s little to be felt.

For those who love session playing and jamming, music is also a form of sharing with friends in a way that produces a certain kind of elation. A musical conversation takes place that can elevate the goose-bump factor to new heights.

On the other side of the coin, and equally compelling, is the ego aspect of music-playing, which isn’t so much sharing it as showing off. It’s my guess that this is a struggle for almost every musician. When we’ve worked so hard at our skills, how tempting is it to show them off? After all, why work on them if not to make them heard? So in a way, maybe showing off isn’t so bad.

I would say that developing skill is about one’s own enjoyment. If I didn’t use my best skills in a performance, I wouldn’t feel satisfied. I like to challenge myself. But I will not try to use any skills I don’t truly yet have one hundred percent! That doesn’t mean I play perfectly all the time. It means I play what comfortably challenges me that I know will come out well – unless my finger happens to slip, which can happen on even the most basic tunes anyway. So I play to share, in the hope that it will cause goose bumps, laughter, tears, outrage, and celebration, and that maybe someone in my audience will be inspired to play.

However we use music, it’s good for the brain. All you have to do is google “music and the brain” or some version of that, and you’ll come up with more information than you have imagined on how music listening and music playing affect and enhance our neurologic systems, how it makes us smarter, how it can stave off dementia, how we absorb information better when music is being played, and so on.

So, getting back to the original question  –  why do we play music anyway  –  there are many reasons. Because it’s beautiful, because it’s our passion, because it’s a way to communicate, because it gets us in touch with our emotions, because it gives us a way to challenge ourselves, because it connects us with others, because it’s therapeutic, and because it makes us smarter.  (Have I missed something? Probably.) Whatever your reason, go for it! You’ll contribute to a happier world.



  1. Hi Laurie

    Nice article! It reminds me that when I was feeling blue in high school I would go to the piano and play for hours – easier to do than futz around with pedaling, and so many collections and books of pop songs to have fun with. It also reminds me that, as I told you at the time, I used to use a CD of yours and Michael’s to lull first grandson to sleep, way back in 1997-8. Also that just yesterday the younger grandkids, 10, 7 and 4, that I take care of were having a grand time in the car singing Wizard of Oz and The Wiz songs – the older two were in a production last week). Isn’t music wonderful?

    Love, Joyce

    PS – I’ll let you know more about dinner with Tristan as the date approaches. We may be a small group.


  2. Hi Laurie,

    Thank you for your thoughtful post about the many reasons why many of us are driven to play music. Coincidentally, I attended a choral concert yesterday that was based on this theme, and I thought you might like to see some of the ‘reasons’ they found for why they sing. The program for the concert is on-line at And if this link doesn’t work you could just go to their website, and click on the program link.

    Kenny Werther said in his book, Effortless Mastery, that there is a magical moment when you’re playing, when you play one note that sings above the others and takes your breath away with its beauty. I have played the harp for many years as an amateur, and this is what keeps me coming back again and again: that one, heartbreakingly beautiful moment when you hear the whole cosmos in one glorious note.

    Many thanks for your heart-filled presence in the harp world!

    Patty Martinson

  3. I just LOVE the blogs you write, Laurie! All about awareness, and how we can enhance our playing, and even more so the quality of our life with more awareness!
    Why am I playing and listening to music? Because it makes me feel alive, with gratitude for the gift of having music available in my life. Ultimately, it makes me feel connected with the Creator. Wow! That’s huge….

  4. Hello, Laurie.

    I’m doing some research in preparation for starting my own blog about community music, and I happened upon your post. Everything you wrote spoke to me, especially the part about music as the soundtrack of our lives. And all of those benefits of music should never be taken for granted by any musician, professional or otherwise.

    I’d like to share your post on Facebook, and perhaps even come back for an interview once my blog site is up and running. Major kudos for this well-written and inspiring piece!


  5. Thank you for this article. I was asking myself why am I playing. Because I cannot figure out quite. Since I was little i am strongly connected to the music. But now sometimes i feel so boring playing. I get bored very soon. I have drums at home, guitar, bass guitar.. I enjoy so much these things but at some point i don’t know anymore why, for who am I playing.
    It happened many times when I was in very famous vocal group that after concerts I felt so depressed, empty. Even though I enjoyed concerts. But I guess it was something about ego. Ego wanted so many attention and after concert there was no attention at all. Like a cut. And then I asked myself if its worthed to play, sing and to feel like this at the end of the concerts.
    So now I am quite afraid of this, even though music is really important to me.

    • Dear Nastja, I have just now seen your comment, and I’m sorryI didn;t respond sooner.
      It’s probably not uncommon to feel as you do. But we are just channels for the music to flow through; even though we must work hard to gain the skill to be those channels. It’s a privilege, and it’s not about the performer – it’s about the music. The music, played well, is the reward. That’s why we do this. May enjoyment find you through your music!

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