SFJAZZ.org | Michelle Lani Shiota

On Music and Awe

Michelle "Lani" Shiota

Photograph by Joseph Fanvu.

A Message from Dr. Michelle "Lani" Shiota and her husband, Dr. Bob Levenson

Much has changed since Lani shared her story last year. The pandemic has taken away many activities that bring our lives joy, including evenings of extraordinary music shared with fellow aficionados through SFJAZZ Digital programs. At the same time, it has given us the gift of extended time together, both working from home in San Francisco rather than constantly traveling for our jobs.

We have moved some of our own artistic activities online, with Lani teaching dance classes via Zoom and Bob doing virtual music recording projects. We're grateful for online performances we can still enjoy together, like the Fridays at Five streamed concerts. We think often of the heroic efforts of the SFJAZZ leadership and staff to keep the dream alive and preserve this precious resource for the years ahead.

We hope you will all join us in providing much-needed financial and moral support for SFJAZZ, and for the many musicians and artists who are struggling during these challenging times. With all of our help now, one of the brightest lights at the end of the pandemic’s long tunnel will be coming from the stages at SFJAZZ.

With appreciation,

Michelle "Lani" Shiota and Bob Levenson
SFJAZZ Leaders Circle Members


Member since 2015

Dr. Michelle “Lani” Shiota often finds herself in a state of wonder while listening to a performance at the SFJAZZ Center. “I have the experience of the music itself stretching my mind – tracking all the parts and how they go together.” She adds, “I’m kind of a junkie for that.”

These moments of awe are a major part of what Lani enjoys about going to concerts at SFJAZZ, and she would know – she’s an emotion scientist with her own lab at Arizona State University and her special interest is in awe. In fact, she’s been a key player in advancing scientific knowledge of this little-understood emotion over the last ten years, including by giving talks on the subject. At the Shiota Psychophysiology Laboratory for Affective Testing, the associate professor and her graduate students conduct empirical research on human emotions, often focusing on this mysterious emotion.

We all know how to describe feelings of love, or sadness, or surprise, but we might pause to define “awe.”

“Awe is an emotional response that we have when we encounter something that is vast,” explains Lani. “It’s important, and yet it is not easily accounted for by the knowledge that we already have stored inside. There’s something about the stimulus that challenges our internalized knowledge of the world.”

So, what types of things trigger awe? Lani says the most commonly mentioned include looking at a sunset, or up at the night sky.

“In this particular moment,” explains Lani, “your visual attention, which is typically focused on pretty small things – working through the day, very labor-focused on getting things done – is now suddenly expanded to this much larger space. Whatever we’re seeing, our minds don’t really know what to do with it yet. The logical, conscious part of our mind might be able to tell a scientific story about what’s happening in the sky, but our more ancient minds are thinking, ‘What’s out there and how is it so big?’” she laughs.

There's a tremendous advantage for well-being to be gained by getting outside of ourselves for a while, and awe can help us do that.

Dr. Michelle "Lani" Shiota

Other scenarios that cause us to experience the emotion might be panoramic views like those at the Grand Canyon, as well as fireworks displays, artistic spectacles like Cirque du Soleil, and yes, music. “Fifteen to 20 percent of people bring up live concerts and art for awe experience,” she confirms.

Lani and Bob at the SFJAZZ Gala 2020.

But Lani is quick to say that the emotions we experience while listening to music should not be reduced to awe only. “Music moves us emotionally in lots of ways. It obviously goes way beyond awe, but having said that,” she continues, “music [can be an] awe stimulus.”

She says that awe can be evoked at concerts or when listening to music when either you “experience what you’re hearing as ‘big’ metaphorically, or it’s challenging your understanding of what music and sound can even be, even if it’s very simple.”

According to Lani, there is a lot that we don’t know about what awe does for us, but what we do know suggests that it is unlike many other positive emotions. It is literally physically calming to the body.

“I suspect people would be more fulfilled if they experienced more awe. There’s a tremendous advantage for well-being to be gained by getting outside of ourselves for a while, and awe can help us do that. That sense of: ‘There’s something more out there than me.’ We could use that more in a world that points us back to ourselves so incessantly.”

Lani, a Leaders Circle Member, fell in love with SFJAZZ when she started dating her husband, Bob Levenson, also a psychologist whom she met at Berkeley. He’d been an SFJAZZ member “forever,” as she says, and they soon began going to shows together.

Both Lani and her husband are also musicians, play in a band together (she, a vocalist and he, a saxophone player), and have a deep appreciation for the artistic integrity presented at SFJAZZ. “We were at the Center for the Joe Lovano Tenor Sax Summit and the creativity of bringing those three players together – giving the artists the leeway to craft a set of concerts that are going to be unique and extraordinary – is something that I really value. I’ve heard each of them play separately but it’s a very different experience from hearing them riff off of each other. It was a chance to compare the sounds of their instruments, the sound of their styles, the sound of their souls.”

What would she say to someone considering joining her and her husband as Leaders Circle Members?

“We really value and cherish the quality of the artistic experience that they’re putting together,” she says. “SFJAZZ is doing something really unique here – and we want to support it strongly. That, and I don’t think this is the motivation but it’s certainly a bonus, to have that early access to tickets so we don’t miss anything.

“SFJAZZ is reaching outside the box of traditional jazz programming to create these really unique experiences. They give the artists a chance to try something new, or something different – and float it. And those have tended to be the most powerful events that we’ve seen.”


This article is part the SFJAZZ Leaders Circle stories. The Leaders Circle is SFJAZZ’s premier philanthropic group of individuals who believe in the transformative power of the arts.

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