There is no doubt, in my mind, that music has affected my mind. Although this logic is somewhat circular, I am certain that it’s right.
There are many scholarly papers on both the neurology and the psychology of the effect of music on the mind. There are measurably and quantifiable effects on the growing minds of children, and these are positive, long lasting and life changing. I am not qualified to comment on these, other than to celebrate the fact that they confirm what I’ve observed myself: music is good for the minds of children and of adults. I’m a music teacher by trade, and have spent many years observing the behaviour and development of young musicians, and I can make a few observations based on my personal and professional experiences.
There is, rightly, a growing awareness of the stresses and pressures of life on all of us nowadays, and the mental health and wellbeing of young people is a cause for concern. As well as being the collective responsibility of society, this is absolutely within music educators’ remit: we have an influence, and we have a responsibility to use that influence to help children and young people in all areas of life through music. If the wellbeing of our pupils is enhanced by good quality music education, then we need to make the very best use of this tool.
Is music ‘fun’? My colleagues sometimes uses that word to promote learning opportunities, and I always wonder about it. I love making music. Occasionally, I have ‘fun’ making music. Sometimes, my intellectual faculties are stimulated by music: music is ‘interesting’. Sometimes I’m intrigued and fascinated by music: music can be ‘puzzling’. Often, I’m moved, even to tears, by music: music can be ‘upsetting’. I sometimes find myself on the edge of the seat, gripped by the narrative of a piece of music: music can be ‘terrifying’. And, just occasionally, I can be soothed, and even lulled to sleep, by familiar and calm sounds: music can be ‘soporific’. I doubt that my team would ever promote a musical experience as ‘interesting, puzzling, upsetting, terrifying, soporific’. But music has these effects on my mind, and many other effects too.
These effects are all potentially beneficial. It seems counter-intuitive to talk about the positive benefits of sad music, but that is a product of the instant gratification demanded by contemporary society. The ancient concept of catharsis – releasing powerful emotions through art – remains as true now as it was for the ancient Greek tragedians.
We learn about ourselves through the experience of music. Emotional intelligence, and emotional literacy, goes far beyond what we can put into words. It goes much deeper. We learn about others by listening to their music. This may be the music of people who live far away and whom we will never physically meet: the attraction of world music opens so many new windows. We enter the minds of those who are long dead: the music of Bach still moves us nearly 300 years after his death, as does that of Hendrix and Miles Davis. This is a form of non-verbal empathy. Empathetically, we can see (and hear) through the emotional perspective of those with whom we do not share a common language.
As well as this communication through shared experience, there is a deeply private and individual aspect to a musical experience. We all perceive music through our own ears, and process it through our own minds. We expand our knowledge, our perception and our wisdom through the music we hear.
‘The function of music is to release us from the tyranny of conscious thought’.
This remark was made by the conductor Thomas Beecham. A colleague replied
‘But what about those who respond to music through maths?’
What indeed? Many people respond, first and foremost, to the patterns music makes. Others respond, initially, to the emotional impact. Still others to the narrative drive, or the surface timbres, or some other aspect. Does this matter? No. We all go on a journey in sound from our own starting place, and our own starting point is unique to us.
Does this help our neurological development as children? Undoubtedly.
Can I explain to you how this happens? No I can’t. (I have sciences to O level only, I’m afraid).
Does this help young people to respond more intelligently, maturely and empathetically than they would if starved of musical experiences? Emphatically, yes.
Our response to music may be to smile. Or it may be to cry. Or to dance. Or to sit and reflect. Whatever it is, it is deeply personal, and profoundly enriching to the human spirit. As educationalists, we have a duty of care to our pupils. As adults, we have a shared duty of care to all children. Part of this duty is to do all we can to ensure that music is part of every young life, and informs every growing mind. At a time when the future of music education in schools in England is a hot topic, this duty must encourage us all to advocate for our subject with all the persuasive force at our disposal.