Can EQ be taught through music?

Learning must be experiential, rather than cerebral, to truly learn and incorporate emotional intelligence.

It has been almost 25 years since Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence made waves, and at this point we can agree that EQ is crucial for great leadership. However, despite the development of diverse classes and workshops, these concepts remain difficult to teach. Some people believe if you were not born with these skills or learned them as a small child, you are out of luck.

However, Goleman believed that the issue isn’t that humans are incapable of learning EQ; it’s just taught the wrong way. He pointed out, in his seminal ’96 Harvard Business Review article, that “the problem is simple: They focus on the wrong part of the brain.” Learning through the typical classroom situation utilizes the brain’s neocortex, the center of conscious thought. This is ineffective because emotional intelligence is not processed or learned consciously, but rather through the feelings, impulses and drives of the limbic system.

Learning must be experiential, rather than cerebral, to truly learn and incorporate emotional intelligence. A great way to teach leaders EQ experientially is through music, especially when engaging in musical improvisation, or creating music together as a group, in the moment.

Here are a few reasons why:

Rhythmic entrainment engenders trust.

Initially, groups with no musical training must learn how to play together, and it may take a little time to agree on the beat. We all move to a different tempo, some of us faster or slower than others, and it requires some compromise for the group to play together. We also need to trust each other and let go in order to find the beat. Once found, entrainment, or the locking in to rhythm, is an excellent way to unify a group of people. Sadly, many people have only experienced the feeling of unification through musical entrainment while dancing in bars after a couple of drinks in their 20s. Bodies moving together also breathe together, creating community through moving or playing to music. Entrainment is primal; once we find it, we know: it feels right. Rhythmic entrainment is the first step to finding trust within the group.

Nonverbal communication.

Once initial trust is established, musical improvisation is a great way to develop nonverbal communication. It is difficult to improvise with others without engaging in, for some, undeveloped behaviors due to our very verbal world. For example, when two people are playing together, it becomes clear pretty quickly if they are not listening to one another and responding in kind. This is similar to a conversation in which both people are talking over the other and little actual communication is happening. How does a string quartet, lacking a drummer or conductor manage to start a piece in perfect synchrony? Good musicians connect through deep listening and using eye contact to “read” what others are doing. This skill is imperative to good leadership because if you can’t connect on this level, you will miss 90% of what is happening.


When we stop talking because we are engaged in making music and are forced to communicate through other means, group members become more aware of themselves and others. The playing field is more even, the power dynamics less important, and music humbles us to our simplest being. Empathy is important, Goleman stated, because “a team’s leader must be able to sense and understand the viewpoints of everyone around the table.” He explained that empathy is important due to the increasing use of teams, the quickening pace of globalization, and especially to retain good workers

Leaders seek out change as opportunity.

Creating music as a group can be a difficult undertaking for some people. We often did this as children, but have forgotten how to play (or are very scared of it!). Creating music together as a group means facing unpredictability and factors we cannot control. As scary as this can be, participants can become more comfortable with practice, especially if they can remain open to saying “yes…and” to whatever is happening in the moment, similar to the advice given during acting improvisation. In other words, rather than resisting what we cannot control, we learn to move with the changes and perhaps even welcome them.

This skill of welcoming change directly applies to the workplace. According to Peter Drucker, “Above all, effective executives treat change as an opportunity rather than a threat.” Another industry icon, John Kotter, agreed that leadership “is about coping with change.” Resisting change means losing opportunity and even falling behind. Drucker believes good leaders set direction and vision, alignment, and provide a sense of belonging, which are all accomplished through good EQ.

Musical improvisation is a great way to teach concepts of group trust, nonverbal communication, which then builds empathy and develops the skill of welcoming change as opportunity. Group members learn to relax into the creative process while learning these skills and eventually enjoy innovative changes in the music, because this provides interest, excitement, and possibility. We can forge new ground and go somewhere unique together, wholeheartedly, and have a great time doing it.

Quotes by Daniel Goleman, Peter Drucker, and John Kotter in “On Leadership” from the Harvard Business Review.

I’m a music therapist of 20 years, ready to share how every_body can learn to lead through music.

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