Reconnecting to the Heart of Music

Contrary to my friends’ opinion about my “cushy job as a music professor,” I seem to keep pretty busy. Busy enough that I sometimes feel like I’m just operating class to class, project to project, deadline to deadline. But every so often I’m able to take a step back and wonder, just what am I trying to do here?

Following the advice of any life-coach worth his or her salt, I end up prioritizing my values. I remember the things I consider most important and inwardly rally around them. This kind of process led me to start the blog you’re reading at the moment, and the name I gave it: Being Musical. Being Human.

It’s the big picture items that matter most. For me, the biggest is the natural connection between music and humanness. As a performing musician, I easily get preoccupied with right notes vs. wrong notes. And as a music parent, I worry about my kids getting enough practice time done. Too often I lose perspective by focusing on these little things, and forgetting what the whole purpose of music making is anyway.

I believe music is primarily about the sharing of expression between people. Consider music’s capacity to evoke emotions, stimulate people mentally and physically, and build personal relationships through communal music making. Years ago, anthropologist Alan Merriam offered up a list of 10 functions that music plays within human cultures around the world. They are:

  1. Emotional expression
  2. Aesthetic enjoyment
  3. Entertainment
  4. Communication
  5. Symbolic representation
  6. Physical response
  7. Enforcement of conformity to social norms
  8. Validation of social institutions and religious rituals
  9. Contribution to the continuity and stability of culture
  10. Contribution to the integration of society

I’m pretty sure that Merriam didn’t publish these as a Letterman-esque “Top Ten,” but I like seeing emotional expression at #1. In fact, I think the reason that music is so effective with the other 9 functions is that it enhances them with its emotional/expressive capacity. Take, for example, our American culture’s passion for professional sports, NFL football in particular. This would likely be a “social institution” according to Merriam (now college football is closer to a religious one! :)). Think about the many ways that music enhances our experience of NFL football: the stadium music, the enduring theme of Monday Night Football, and of course the Super Bowl halftime spectacles (U2 in 2002 was easily my favorite).

Just listening to music can be a very emotional experience, and performing it yourself can be even more so. For most people one leads to the other (even if it’s just singing along to a recording). Perhaps the most rewarding form of musical involvement is creating original music that is personally expressive. Maybe it’s with this kind of music making that the connection with humanness is strongest. In order to express yourself, you have to look inward. You have to know yourself, or at least know how you feel. Then you look outward, to others, as you consider how to express yourself to them. In this process, music provides a captivating medium for us to learn about ourselves and learn about others. And learn about how people connect. And learn about the world in which these connections occur.

Music is a lens for considering core issues of humanness: growth . . . the passing of time . . . bodily motion . . . power . . . motivation . . . identity . . . consonance . . . conflict . . . emotion . . . creativity. Some of the musical connections with these things are amazing. For example, a team of researchers found that the rate of slowing that musicians use in a ritardando is “strikingly similar” to the pattern of deceleration that runners naturally take in coming to a stop. That’s pretty cool.

My favorite trumpet player Chet Baker said “I don’t believe that jazz will ever really die. It’s a nice way to express yourself.” The simplicity of this statement is what’s so beautiful to me. Music will always remain because by its nature, it has the capacity to express our humanness. Music is critically important, yes, even in comparison to school staples like math and science. To say that music is not important is to say that human expression is not important. And that’s not a position that’s easily defended.

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2 responses to “Reconnecting to the Heart of Music

  1. Excellent post! (Though I think Merriam’s list isn’t complete).
    The problem here is the implication that the general status quo of formalized school music education should be defended. Administrators who cut school music programs don’t always flat out say that “music is not important.” Music is inherent to humanity; it will continue regardless of formal education. If human expression is the goal, that in no way makes it clear why we need to teach “right” notes in music classrooms.

    I agree completely with this idea of identifying specific purposes in music. And these purposes definitely justify music’s value, generally. That doesn’t necessarily mean that funding for traditional music ed is justified. Certainly not all music teachers are in touch with this sort of purpose-oriented approach, and simply funding existing music programs is not necessarily warranted by this defense of music’s value…

  2. Really loved this! (and just subscribed) I wrote a post on Emotion in Musicality, and my 2nd lesson to give ever a couple weeks ago.

    I think a LOT of music educators have found and are finding more about these things and it’s really fun to be part of and watch happen! It’s good to find more like you on the great plains of the interwebs! Keep in touch!

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