Tom Hiddleston, Acting and the Music of Life

‘I want to be able to play my emotions like a piano.’ -Tom Hiddleston, actor

This article examines emotional management in the context of acting from the neurological, therapeutic and metaphysical perspective.


From a perspective of a clinical hypnotherapist, acting is a dissociative state no different from going into a trance. The actor dissociates from current ‘now’ reality and adopts and assumes the reality of the play as well as the constructed reality of the character. While part of the actor’s sense of self devolves into the character , the actor’s conscious mind is still very much involved in the process of acting. One such conscious process is accessing his/her emotions and ‘playing them like a piano’.

Emotions can be recalled through two ways: recalling an associated memory or recalling a physiological State.

Recalling an associated memory

Memory is state-based. How your brain categorises a memory depends on the emotional state that you were in when that life event occurred. Your brain categorises that life event as being desirable or undesirable based on its judgment, which is in turn based on a positive or negative emotion.

For example, a cockroach lands on your shoulder from out of nowhere. You get a shock. The brain then categorises this event as ‘bad’. In order to call up a similar emotion for the purposes of acting, you can recall this incident and the emotion will materialise physiologically. Mirror neurons in the audience then allow them to feel what you are feeling in the moment.

In order to ‘play your emotions like a piano’, you need to recall memories that bring up the desired emotions. You become good at this by repetition

Recalling a State

A State is a term from neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) describing a physiological, inextricable connection between the mind and body where one affects the other.

In Clinical Hypnotherapy for instance, one of the fastest way to improve the mood of a person with depression is to tell them to look up. Depression makes people look and feel down. Looking up informs the central nervous system that something’s different which changes the messaging to the brain. If you keep this going for sometime, it eventually changes the mental loop that constitutes depression, which may in turn ameliorate the depression. Posture is one of the important tools in the therapist’s toolbag.

To use this approach in Acting, the actor has to recall their own unique physiological states associated with emotions such as fear, disgust etc that they intend to use in their acting. Metaphorically speaking, these then form the ‘musical tones’ (emotions) produced through striking the keys of the piano (physiological states).

The limbic system in the brain interfaces with the neo-cortex to decide how to respond to an event. It compares a new situation to a similar one that it has experienced and reviews the desirability of the new situations based on its beliefs and cognitions. Once it has decided what to do and how to feel, it sends these messages through the nervous to various parts of the body for the necessary action.

Conscious awareness of one’s emotional states is necessary in order to ‘play one’s emotions like a piano.’ One has to be aware of what one is feeling when one is feeling it. Not surprisingly, this practice is very useful for self-regulation.

Self-regulation and Meditative practice

In Meditative practice, the meditator focuses on a single thing. This could be a movement such as in the practice of Taichi, or a sound, or a concept, to name a few. Invariably, distracting thoughts and feelings arise. The meditator is told to observe these distracting thoughts and feelings but not be involved in them. Through protracted practice, a heightened sense of self-awareness and conscious distancing from these thoughts and feelings occurs. When one is consciously aware of one’s States, one is able to ride them like a horse instead of being thrown from the saddle. Not surprisingly, this conscious control of one’s emotions is the core of the skill of Acting.

Self-regulation and Jin Shin Jyutsu

Jin Shin Jyutsu is an ancient Japanese form of energy healing that has connections with the Ayurvedic and Traditional Chinese Medicine systems. Re-discovered by Master Jiro Murai, it was subsequently spread by his disciple Mary Burmeister to the USA and from there around the world.

Jin Shin Jyutsu recognises 5 Attitudes:- Worry, Fear, Anger, Sadness and Trying-to/Pretense. Unlike a emotion that comes and goes, an Attitude is an entrenched response to an event. In the language of neurology, an Attitude is a neural loop that is very strongly glued together. Complex emotions such as resentment or disgust are a combination of one or more of these Attitudes.

Every Attitude has an effect on the mind and the body. Being in an Attitude in a protracted period of time gives rise to physical illness such as balding, heart Attack and stroke; or to mental-emotional conditions such depression, bulimia, perfectionism and low self-esteem.

All negative emotions have one thing in common- Fear. Fear causes the adrenal glands to go into overdrive, releasing a flood of hormones that prepare a person to fight, freeze or flee. The fear reaction is short-lived in the animal kingdom. Humans are however, capable of keeping the fear reaction going for a long time, resulting in the body hurting itself.

In Jin Shin Jyutsu, the various Attitudes can be resolved (‘harmonised’) by holding one’s fingers. Holding the thumb harmonises Worry. Holding the index finger harmonises Fear. Holding the middle finger harmonises Anger. Holding the ring finger harmonises Sadness. Holding the pinky finger harmonises Trying-to/Pretense.

The right side of the body represents one’s current lifestyle. The left side of the body represents one’s past.

To ‘play one’s emotions like a piano’, one must be aware of them. Where they are negative, one has the option to harmonise them with Jin Shin Jyutsu.

Harmony, Melody and Rhythm: the building blocks of JIn Shin Jyutsu

Mr. Hiddleston’s analogy of acting as ‘playing one’s emotions like a piano’ is similar to the Jin Shin Jyutsu concept of the body reflecting the music in one’s life.

‘Many say that life entered the human body by the help of music. But the truth is that life itself in music.’- Hafiz, poet

The Bustline: seat of Harmony

‘The heart is a thousand stringed instrument that can only be tuned with love.’- Hafiz

In Jin Shin Jyutsu, the emotional centre of the body is located in the region around the first three ribs, in a ring around the body. This region, known as the ‘bustline’, is where Harmony in one’s life manifests. A ‘stuck’ bustline gives rise to respiratory and thoracic projects such as asthma or bronchitis, sinus and vision issues, dizziness, fertility projects and lack of mental clarity. When the bustline is in harmony, unconditional love is the result.


The Melody of Life is located at the region around the lower ribs, going in a ring around the body. This region is also known as the ‘waistline’ in Jin Shin Jyutsu. It represents the Mind. Musician and mystical teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan calls melody the ‘life current’ riding on the breath* . The melody may have highs and lows; it may be consonant or dissonant; there may be pauses, accelerations and ritards; it may be loud or soft. In Speech, the word is the Melody. In song, the Melody is written by the composer for the singer to follow. Disharmony in the waistline may result in digestive and vision projects, shoulder and neck pain and projects of the Mind to name a few. When the waistline is in harmony, balance and equilibrium is the consequence.

The Hipline: the Rhythm of Life

‘I got rhythm. I got music. I got my man. Who can ask for anything more?’- Ira Gershwin, “ I Got Rhythm”

The Hipline is located in the region around the hip folds, going in a ring around the body. It represents the state of the physical body which in turn indicates Rhythm in the body. Disharmony in this area may result in fatigue and lethargy, frequent illness, joint stiffness and pain, to name a few. When the Hipline is in harmony, one is so happy that one feels like dancing. This again echoes Mr Hiddleston’s advice in another interview to ‘dance more’.

As in a song or a piece of text, Melody, Harmony and Rhythm are inextricably intertwined, each one affecting the next. The combination of Melody, Harmony and Rhythm in Speech is known as ‘prosody’, while the same combination in song or other instrumental composition is known as ‘music’.

‘Upon the rhythm of the breath health depends. This at once shows that both the mind and the body are sound when musical, and disorderly when unmusical,’ says Hazrat Inayat Khan. Deep breathing is crucial to functional vocal production. At Vocalogy, we use Jin Shin Jyutsu to harmonise body and mind for deep breathing and sound posture. Upon this foundation, vocal training takes place. The nett result is the freeing and development of one’s natural voice upon a foundation of perfect alignment of mind and body.

What then, is the value of music appreciation to the Actor or to a non-musician? As Hazrat Inayat Khan put it, ‘the true use of music is to become musical in one’s thoughts, words and actions. One should be able to give the harmony for which the soul years and longs every moment. All the tragedy in the world, in the individual and in the multitude, comes from lack of harmony, and harmony is best given by producing it in one’s life.‘

May your Life be beautiful music!

*: All references are to ‘The Mysticism of Music, Sound and Word (the Sufi Teachings of Hazrat Inayat Khan Book 2)’

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