Daniel Levitin, author of This is Your Brain on Music, declares that music is woven into the fabric of society, and that any time humans come together for any reason, music is there. “Understanding why we like music and what draws us to it,” he writes, “is therefore a window on the essence of human nature…” In other words, music and humankind are inseparable.
Music is old. Like, really old. Some even argue that music predates language. It certainly predates literacy: people were creating music before they created writing, a different system allowing people to express ideas. Thought of this way, as a vehicle for expressing ideas and emotions, it’s easy to see how music could have such a profound impact on almost every facet of human society.
Let’s take a brief look at the many different disciplines, arenas and facets of human society that music affects:
Education: We’ve discussed music’s relationship to learning in-depth in “Music & Math,” “When Words Fail: Music Education for Special Needs Children,” “Your Child’s Brain on Music” and “Your Brain on Music.” While there is no proof of direct causation between music and intellect, there is no question that music helps you learn, strengthening your executive functioning, memory, pattern-recognition, fine motor skills, concentration and discipline–all important cognitive or physical skills that are required for learning non-music-related topics as well. Government has recognized the importance of music in education and human development, too, passing the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015. The Act was passed in part due to the advocacy of the National Association for Music Education, and stipulates that music should be a part of every child’s education, regardless of personal circumstance.
Besides the incredible links between the effects of music on the brain and how these support learning other subjects, music provides important other benefits such as stress-reduction and entertainment and it facilitates communication and bonding–all quality-of-life enhancers, and therefore instrumental in making students more open to learning.
Stress Reduction: There is a reason that music is played during many yoga classes and massage sessions; that you like to sit down with a glass of wine or a mug of tea and enjoy Bach’s Cello Suites after a long workday; that many people feel they need to walk around the city with their headphones in, listening to their favorite songs. Music calms you! In his research, Levitin found that “listening to and playing music increase the body’s production of the antibody immunoglobulin A and natural killer cells–the cells that attack invading viruses and boost the immune system’s effectiveness.” They also showed that music reduces cortisol levels–the stress hormone. This is why music is now being put to use in operating rooms, hospice care facilities, nursing homes, and many other facilities in order to calm psychological stress and even physiological symptoms.
Entertainment: Of course, for many of you, this might have been the first thing you thought of when it comes to uses of music. In an interview in ThoughtEconomics, the musician Moby articulates the enigma of music as an art form: “One of the really fascinating things about music is that technically…it doesn’t exist. A painting, a sculpture or a photograph can physically exist, while music is just air hitting the eardrum in a slightly different way than it would randomly…Somehow that air…when moved and when made to hit the eardrum in tiny subtle ways–can make people dance, cry, have sex, move across country, go to war and more.” And “that air” is not only enjoyed as entertainment by itself, it is a crucial component of other forms of entertainment: you’d be hard-pressed to find a single movie that doesn’t contain any music; there is of course musical theater, but also non-musicals that still incorporate music; even dry-as-can-be radio shows on platforms such as NPR incorporate music to signal transitions or indicate the tone of a certain segment; the list goes on. It is clear: music is entertaining and it also enhances other entertainment.
Communication: In an interview included in Won’t You Be My Neighbor, the documentary on Mr. Rogers, Fred Rogers says, “Music was my first language…I could literally laugh or cry or be very angry through the end of my fingers.” Music can communicate emotions and ideas that literally cannot be communicated via language. An article in English Magazine uses birdsong to demonstrate this concept: birds, who cannot “talk”–at least in the way humans talk with words and tongues and teeth–use specific notes and rhythms to communicate different things such as mating or courtship calls. And some cultures still use music to communicate across vast distances. A more immediate example might be how music is being used to help children with Asperger’s, who may have very limited language abilities, express themselves. Beyond what a piece of music itself can communicate to a listener, there is also the communication that happens when people create or listen to music together: positive peer interaction and open and giving attitudes are required for creating music with others, and even for listening with others–at a concert or a small gathering at home; these sensibilities all communicate a desire to share a human experience and to connect.
Whether in the hospital, public school, concert hall, Broadway, or the privacy of your own home, music is essential to the human experience.