Category Archives: Sociality of Music

School Music vs. Real Music

ImageWhen all the activities of the 2014 Super Bowl had concluded, many people agreed that the music around the NFL finale was much more interesting than the game itself. It included a wonderful breadth of style. The multitalented Queen Latifah sang America the Beautiful, operatic superstar Renée Fleming performed the National Anthem, and we were treated to a lively halftime pairing of Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Following Ms. Fleming’s breathtaking performance, I tuned back in to Twitter and saw some tweets about her singing the anthem. Most praised her rendition, but a number of music-oriented tweeters said things to the effect of: “For once we got to hear the anthem sung by a real singer.” Maybe this sentiment is just the letting off of steam by formally-trained musicians, frustrated by their preferred styles being left out of the big-time media spotlight too often. But I did note that instead of referring to the anthem’s operatic stylings as “my kind of music” or even “good music,” some people suggested that we finally got to hear some “real music.” Not surprisingly, I was disappointed that in complimenting Ms. Fleming’s performance, some felt the need to put down the previous offerings of other non-classical singers (consider checking out “My Vote Against Partisan Musicianship”).

Clearly many in the world of formal music education consider classical music (or maybe jazz) to be the most meaningful, exemplary, and real music there is. This perspective, however, is not shared by the vast majority of people in Western society. This includes the students that school music teachers are charged to educate. Research has confirmed that in the minds of many young people, there can be a significant disconnect between their conceptions of school music and what they consider to be real music (Boal-Palheiros & Hargreaves, 2001; Hargreaves & Marshall, 2003; Lamont et al., 2003). For music educators, this disconnect is more than just a nuisance, or a mark of immaturity that must be overcome. Learning of any kind is greatly influenced by students’ intrinsic motivation for the subject matter and their beliefs about its relevance to their lives.

Research suggests that many adolescents see music classes (like those in other subjects) as undertakings done to satisfy teachers and parents. School music is linked to the performance of non-preferred styles, using an analytical approach, and difficult or boring class sessions. Keep in mind, of course, that this broad perspective does not represent only the kids who have found a home in the school band, choir, or orchestra, but the comparative majority who elect not to take any music at the secondary level. In contrast, real music is associated with popular and familiar styles, using a subjective and emotional approach, and often a relaxed and fun setting with others. This conception of real music is much closer to that held by most people around the world. They turn to music for the emotional rewards it provides, and it is very often a part of deeply meaningful social interactions among people.

As alluded to above, this disconnect between school music and real music can cause many students to avoid music learning opportunities altogether once these class offerings become elective for them. And for the students who do continue in school music, many carry on musical “double lives” that prevent them from getting the most out of their childhood music experiences. I was a prime example of this myself as a kid. I played trumpet in the high school marching band, concert band, and jazz band, but outside of school, I was a heavy consumer of popular music (as a child of the 80s, I’m sure you can guess what fills my iTunes library yet today!). What’s more, like so many other music students, my musical divide was not just a matter of stylistic genre. My musicianship in school was limited to playing just one instrument, almost always from notation, and in preparation for a public performance. My out-of-school musicality was also quite limited, but in very different ways. It revolved around listening and singing to recordings, either alone or with friends, but never for an audience. I’m sure many others can relate with me on this, including a lot of our best young music students of today.

In no way am I suggesting that we’re doing it all wrong in formal music education, or that we should try to reproduce exactly in music classrooms the informal learning experiences that so naturally happen outside of school. I would, however, urge music educators not to dismiss students’ preferred styles of popular music as somehow less real or worthy of consideration. Pop, rock, hip-hop, country, rap, and others make up the native music of the students we serve. This is not a reason to ignore these styles—we require native English speaking students to take English classes throughout their schooling—but a reason to respect them. It’s also important to acknowledge people’s natural orientation to music, that is, the appeal it has through personal relevance, emotional investment, and social interaction. These things are not only part of natural musicality, they also can contribute to efficient learning (Cassidy & Paisley, 2013).

I believe that we in music education could benefit more from looking at how people learn music in the real world and incorporating aspects into our teaching activities. Constructivist theory in education tells us that people learn much through active involvement with their environments. Especially important for children are collaborative experiences with other kids and adults. This is because human beings instinctively observe what others do and attempt to reproduce it themselves. Young people desire opportunities to experiment with music (including freely making mistakes), to be creative and expressive with it, and to find personal meaning in it (Campbell et al, 2007). When these characteristics are present in school music activities, those learning opportunities are more likely to be viewed as “real music” experiences by students of all ages.


Boal-Palheiros, G. M., & Hargreaves, D. J. (2001). Listening to music at home and at school. British Journal of Music Education, 18(2), 103-118.

Campbell, P. S., Connell, C., & Beegle, A. (2007). Adolescents’ expressed meanings of music in and out of school. Journal of Research in Music Education, 55, 220-236.

Cassidy, G. G., & Paisley, A. M. (2013). Music-games: A case study of their impact. Research Studies in Music Education, 35(1), 119-138.

Hargreaves, D. J., & Marshall, N. (2003). Developing identities in music education. Music Education Research, 5(3), 263-274.

Lamont, A., Hargreaves, D. J., Marshall, N. A., & Tarrant, M. (2003). Young people’s music in and out of school. British Journal of Music Education, 20(3), 229-241.

Copyright 2014 Robert H. Woody

Source of image: MTSOfan on Flickr Creative Commons


Taking A Deep Musical Breath: Feeling What I Know

A few weeks ago, I had an amazing musical experience. As someone who studies music and music-making for a living, it was the kind of experience that has refreshed my outlook and ramped up my excitement. The name of my site here, “Being Musical Being Human,” reflects a deep value of mine, but I don’t actually feel it as much as I’d like. Well, a few weeks ago, I felt it, and it was quite profound.

Enough suspense…I attended my first Dave Matthews Band concert. It was intensely rewarding, and I’ve found myself thinking about it a lot since then. If you’ve been to one of their shows, then you know how compelling they can be. And if DMB isn’t your cup of tea, I’d still urge you to continue reading here. It’s taken me a few weeks to process the event for myself, and try to discover why it was so powerful. I believe that what I experienced can be of great value to musicians of all kinds.

First a little background. My good friend Mike is a huge fan of the Dave Matthews Band. A while back he told me that he was taking me to a DMB concert…July 2012 at the Alpine Valley amphitheater in East Troy, WI. The drive from Nebraska to Wisconsin wouldn’t be too bad, he assured me, and it would be totally worth it to see this great live band do an outdoor concert. I was somewhat familiar with DMB, but I wouldn’t say I really knew them. It was more like I knew of  them. I knew they were made up of good musicians and were known for live performing. So I figured it’d be good for me to go.

Before I left for the road trip with Mike, I resolved that I would not approach it like a music scholar. I would do my best to exit that part of my self. I was traveling away from home—and not for a conference this time!—and was confident that I wouldn’t run into anyone who’d greet me with a “Hey Dr. Woody.” So I decided to try to experience it like a regular person, if only for Mike’s sake…seriously, who’d want to hit a concert with me prattling on about cognitive translation of imagery-based music instruction, or some such thing?

It was a beautiful 75 degrees the night that Mike and I were joined by 30-some thousand of our closest friends on the concert grounds. I think the whole scene allowed me to take in the show like a normal person.  Well, kind of. I did a good job of behaving like the throngs of concertgoers who packed into the amphitheater. Honestly I had a blast. I cheered, clapped, danced and sang along. But as I’ve reflected on the show since then, I realize I was able to experience—really feel—some of the wonderful things about music that I often teach, research, and advocate to others. It’s difficult to pick exact adjectives to describe it, but the words personal, emotional, and soulful are in the ballpark. In a deeply meaningful way, it reinforced a number of things that define the heart of music as I understand it.

First, the musical breadth of the Dave Matthews Band is inspiring to me. Not many rock bands include a violinist, trumpeter, and saxophone player, to go along with their guitars, bass, and drums. All of the DMB musicians have impressive credentials spanning the styles of jazz, classical, and a broad range of vernacular music styles (e.g., funk, hiphop, country, bluegrass). That July evening, it meant a lot to me as a trumpeter, to hear Rashawn Ross’s extended Harmon-muted solo on the song “Loving Wings” early in the concert. When he quoted the jazz standard “St. Thomas”—one of my favorites in my younger days—I felt like he was playing to me personally! (You can hear it at the 4:24 point in this recording.) Also at the concert, a surprise special guest was guitarist Stanley Jordan. He is known for his innovative guitar techniques and the mixing and blurring of musical genres. In fact on his website, he speaks passionately about his “belief in the integrationist spirit of music.” As impressed as I am with musicians who specialize and become excellent in one style of music, I’m flat amazed at those who explore more of the entire world of music and grow from it.

At the concert I was also reminded how many things go into the powerful experience of live music. I’m talking about everything from the visual aspects of performance and the musicians’ physical interactions onstage, to the open-air venue of the concert and the almost palpable adoration of the crowd. I call these kinds of things para-musical factors (rather than extra-musical) because I believe they are necessarily part of live music making and just as affecting as the musical sounds heard. As I’ve come to find out, live performance is what the Dave Matthews Band is all about. Having been together since the early 90s, the group has released a mere seven studio albums; only a handful of their songs have entered the top 20 of any Billboard US chart. In contrast, they’ve recorded nearly 50 live albums and have remained one of the most popular and prolific touring bands over the last two decades. Unlike many other musicians whose natural environment seems to be a practice room or recording studio, the DMB guys are in their element when playing live. Their collaboration is so much more than the combining of their individual parts. Their spontaneous communication with each other onstage is also enhanced by their interaction with the audience. Those in the crowd also become music-makers, constantly dancing, clapping, and singing along. This appeals to me incredibly. It’s one thing to appreciate great performance by musical experts, but when so-called “non-musicians” freely sing and make music together…well, that really fires me up!

The final moments of the concert for me were by far the most special to me. It was so evident that the musicians in the Dave Matthews Band really enjoy making music together. These guys were not obligated to play for nearly four hours that night, but they did. And in the final encore, they carried out a joy-filled cover of  “Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin” (an old Sly and the Family Stone song with an intentional mondegreen title). As you can see for yourself in the video below, they had a lot of fun doing it. My favorite part was when Dave was practically overcome by the need to dance. He shed his guitar—which Stanley Jordan grabbed for himself—in order to better twist and strut around the stage! And perhaps this is my biggest take-home lesson from the DMB concert that I felt so deeply: from the audience perspective, there is nothing better than taking in a live performance of musicians who unmistakably love what they’re doing.

Image sources: Fire dancer image from DMB album Stand Up. Rashawn Ross pic from The Saratogian (photo by Ed Burke).

From the Mouths of Music Majors: Loving and Learning

Every year in the Spring semester, I teach a class called “Music Learning and Development,” which is populated by sophomore music education majors (the course counts as their educational psychology training). One of the first topics of the class is motivation. Among other issues, we cover the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic sources of motivation, similar to this previous post. A couple weeks ago, as part of an application assignment, my students identified a musical activity of theirs that they do out of intrinsic motivation. I asked them to think carefully about why it’s so rewarding and describe their motives in a brief essay.

As you might expect, their responses were varied and insightful. I was not surprised by what I read, but I was impressed with how articulately and passionately they spoke of their musical loves. Their comments, some of which I share below with their permission (and names changed), fall in line with some general principles supported by recent research in music education, as well as much anecdotal evidence relayed to me by musicians and teachers over the years.

Musical tastes affect learning.

There’s no substitute for intrinsic motivation. No teacher-generated incentive (or threat) can match the attention and drive produced by intrinsic motivation. If students generally like what they are doing, it can yield a commitment that’ll sustain them through many challenges. And if they love many aspects of an activity, it can spark rapid and long term growth.

In my students’ comments about what intrinsically motivates them, I saw a trend toward performance opportunities that typically include more vernacular music. Mentioned by several students were show choir, marching band, pep band, musical theatre, and jazz groups. Others expressed their enjoyment of playing popular songs on guitar or piano. One student told of the fun he has playing in a polka band!

With many of the musical styles and activities represented above, I wonder if some of students’ attraction is due to the overt energy—even physicality—associated with them. Perhaps young people’s engagement and learning is boosted when the activity is…well, active! One student Katie said this about performing in show choir:

I really do not need to be in it for any reason other than the personal joy I get out of rehearsing and performing with this group. I love to dance, and I do not get to do so anywhere else. I also get to sing pop music, something that does not happen often in the School of Music.

Does this mean we should abandon classical music and the repertoire of traditional school concert ensembles? Of course not. These are the perfect vehicles for accomplishing some critical outcomes of music education. But given the facilitating power of intrinsic motivation to learning, I would like school curricula to continue to broaden and be more inclusive of multiple musical styles, including those that are familiar to and preferred by students. Some very important learning objectives—improving aural skills, building technical facility, and increasing musical creativity, among many others—can be effectively attained using styles of music that students love.

Music is a means of knowing others and oneself.

Research is establishing that two broad benefits of music participation are social development and identity formation. Many of my students pointed to their preferred music activities as means of making friends and stimulating personal growth. Of his favorite musical group, Jared said: “When practicing or performing, I get to be myself. I don’t have to put on a ‘societal mask’ because I’m truly in my element. I am in it purely for the love of the art.” Similarly, Aurora said playing her own singer-songwriter material on the piano is “a way to express what I feel on the inside into something more tangible and musical…and help me remember why I love music and why I am working hard at school.”

Another student Melinda described it this way:

It is important for me to have a group I participate in only out of the pure passion I have to express myself. I also make tons of friends, all whom I consider my family. There is no possible way I could be in this group out of extrinsic motivation because we don’t compete, so there are no rewards or grades or gain other than the feeling you get when you are doing what you love, with the people you love.

The social rewards of a music group don’t just happen outside of rehearsals and performance. It would seem that significant bonding can occur during the music making itself. In Hector’s comment below, you can see that improvisation not only serves a self-expressive purpose, it allows connection to others.

One very important musical activity for me is free improvisation with friends. It allows me to get away from any written music, and focus solely on the people around me. Free improvisation doesn’t mean going crazy on your instrument with no rules. If one person plays an idea, then you’re bound to the dynamics, tempo, and roughly the same style of rhythm and articulation. It’s similar to someone asking you to paint a rainbow, but they only give you white and black paint. You have certain limits, but you’re free to do whatever you need to do in order to reach what you feel is necessary, musically.

To optimally learn, students must feel empowered.

Hector’s comment above also illustrates how motivating it is to feel autonomy or a sense of control in music. Many of the groups cited by my students have an increased element of student leadership. Marching bands, for instance, often utilize students as rank leaders or section leaders. I suspect that young musicians are more willing to do hard work when they feel it is their work. Rene noted the adversities of outdoor rehearsals in Nebraska’s sweltering summer heat and bitter winter cold, but concluded, “I miss every second of it in the off season and I crave to go back and work on more drills.”

In order for students to feel empowered or invested in an activity, teachers need not relinquish their leadership role. But they may benefit from extending to students more decision-making opportunity. However it is accomplished, student musicians thrive when they feel their contributions are valued and significant. Kellen admitted that playing a melody instrument provides a “huge feeling of satisfaction and importance.” He went on to explain it greater detail:

It is kind of selfish reasoning, but I just feel important to the group as I play the melody so often, and with an instrument that can be heard by most the audience. I feel like the success of the performance has a great deal to do with me, and I enjoy that responsibility.

While these student don’t typically use the term “intrinsic motivation” when they speak of their music making, they definitely understand the concept. They have experienced it, and for most of them, it’s what led them to choose their major. I hope that these sophomores will continue to connect with their musical loves as they get deeper into the music education degree, and throughout their teaching careers that follow. They may face more and more musical expectations (i.e., extrinsic factors) going forward. Ideally they won’t allow those things to dominate their time such that they stop engaging in self-selected music activities. Here’s one final student quote, from Wilson, that says it well:

This group has provided me with an enjoyment that I think all music students should have. Playing in this group is not about making money or even advancing yourself musically, it’s about making music for the group.

* * *

Image source: Photo taken by Liz Love of

A Case Study in Musical Motivation

In the summer of 1947, two parents living in a small Southern town had to choose a birthday present for their 11 year old son. He was a pretty typical boy so the gift ideas were, well, pretty typical. The parents had their options narrowed down to a bicycle or a guitar. It surely wasn’t the only factor in their decision, but there was a considerable price difference between the two. The more expensive bike was passed over and the boy received his first guitar on his birthday.

The boy as a teenager


A musical instrument seemed the perfect gift for a boy who had shown great fondness for music all of his childhood, mainly by singing every chance he got. He did much of his singing in and around church, but he also found opportunities at family gatherings, at school, and while playing in the backyard with friends. He was probably the kind of kid who sang about every spoonful of cereal at breakfast. But people enjoyed his singing and he constantly fielded song requests from teachers and friends. He eventually entered a talent show at the local fairgrounds, where he won second prize. So when his parents presented him with his first guitar, it made sense. It would help him further develop his singing.

After getting his guitar, the boy received some tutoring from a couple of his uncles who played. Armed with a few chords and recordings of his favorite music, he labored to reproduce the sounds loved. His singing likely benefited from this practice but not enough to keep pace with the increase in musical expectations that come when a singing child becomes a singing teenager. His eighth-grade music teacher saw no special potential in him and did not invite him to perform in the school’s top vocal group. He began to identify the musical settings in which his skills were best suited. He jumped at certain performance opportunities–he especially enjoyed making music for and with his friends–and avoided others with equal enthusiasm.

His love for music was never shaken and his involvement in it never stopped. In high school he participated in sports and other school clubs, but there were also many times when he sacrificed leisure activities in order to work on his music. Because his family struggled financially, he also had to take part-time jobs. As a teen he worked at a downtown theater, then later at a metal products factory. Upon graduating from high school he took a full-time job driving a delivery truck for a tool factory. But music was still his passion.

On many of his deliveries, our singing guitar-playing truck driver passed a small recording studio. It offered a make-your-own-recording service to anybody willing to pay the studio costs. The young man’s first recorded song impressed the studio’s office manager, who then shared a copy with the record producer who owned the studio. The producer was only moderately interested and waited nearly a year before approaching the aspiring singer. Now under the tutelage of the producer, the young musician still struggled. The producer eventually matched him up with some more experienced musicians in hopes of developing his skills. What followed were many more months of hard work.

But by now, young Elvis Presley was fully committed to a career in music.

It deserves mentioned that once Elvis did get his “big break” and performed for the first time at the Grand Ole Opry radio program in Nashville, he was no instant success. In fact the head of the Opry talent office, after hearing Elvis’s performance, told him that he should go back to driving a truck!

Although certain parts of Elvis’s biography are very unusual–especially after achieving stardom–some aspects of his development are common to many musicians: an unceasing love of music, the support of others, the maximizing of available resources, and perseverance through adversity. As described above, it was a combination of environmental factors and experiences that allowed a young boy from Tupelo, Mississippi, by way of Memphis, to become “The King.” But identifying a common storyline just scratches the surface in understanding musical motivation. Where did Elvis’s deep connection to music come from? How did he sustain it through distraction and hardship? Why didn’t his musical failures cause him to give up? These kinds of questions, which I won’t try to answer here, capture the curiosity of many performing artists, educators, and psychologists. Count me among them! And it seems the more I learn about motivation, the more I realize how complex and fascinating it is.

Blurring the Lines

I consider myself to be a real appreciator of clarity. Among my big messages to musicians, I emphasize how important it is to clearly define goals and strategies to attain them. For many of us, it’s almost second nature to break down tasks into smaller pieces, stages, and responsibilities. This is common in the formal approach to teaching and learning, including in music education. We often think of a future performance as a goal, and then outline what needs to happen for that performance to be a success. The teacher will provide instruction on how to perform effectively. Each musician will practice individually. If it’s a group venture, then the ensemble will rehearse behind closed doors in order to coordinate their music making. All this leads up to the performance…when the results of our efforts and improved musicianship are presented to an audience.

Pat MethenyThis approach works. A coming public performance is an effective motivator to many musicians–in some cases, the only thing that’ll get them to practice! And obviously for any large-scale production, advanced planning, organization, and division of labor is a must. But is it possible that other musical benefits may come with less clarity in some ways? I propose that there can be some real advantages to blurring the lines between practicing, teaching, and performing.

What might this blurring looking like? Let’s first consider what defines practice (and I’m including in this group practice, a.k.a. rehearsal). Practice is when musicians are in learning mode. They feel a freedom to work on skills they want to improve. They receive instruction from teachers and interact with other musicians. They’re focused on music making, and why it’s important to them. In contrast, performance can be seen as a finished product, and one that is presented for the evaluation of an audience. The spirit of growth and exploration can be suspended. Sometimes the specialness of performance comes with a certain pressure–at best a “one shining moment” experience, but at worst a “do or die” mentality.

I’m convinced that performance can remain a meaningful and culminating experience for young musicians without losing the learning orientation associated with practice. I recently came across an interview with guitarist Pat Metheny, in which he recounts growing up in then-rural Lee’s Summit, Missouri. His music learning really took off when he started playing gigs in the Kansas City area. “That changed my life and gave me an incredible head start,” he says, describing how he learned so much while performing, especially by observing a particular piano player he gigged with often. “Watching him play was probably the best instruction I could get.” Metheny goes on to share how these early performances were key in his development. They were a virtual testing ground for the musicianship that later made him great.

When I read Metheny’s description of these gigs, it struck me: they sound like practice, teaching, and performance…all rolled into one! I wonder what’s really in play here. What allowed these experiences to be so multi-functional for him? And most importantly, how can we apply these things to traditional music teaching to reap the benefits? Here are some considerations that I think are important:

  1. Performance as presentation vs. sharing – A presentational performance style is defined by a considerable psychological separation between musicians and audience members. Music students may benefit from a more relaxed setting, or even a participatory style with greater interaction between performers and audience. Many music teachers have had great success using “informances,” in which they and their students explain the processes behind their music as they share it. They can even involve the audience members in making music along with them (blurring the line between performer and audience).
  2. The occasion as special vs. customary – Having been a part of some great concerts and musical productions, I’ve felt the buzz of a big performance. But it may not be ideal if the specialness mainly comes from performance being rare and “fancy” (i.e., so different from practice). When young people see performance as a frequent and regular part of being musicians, then they may be able to get more out of the experiences. They may then have the necessary mental wherewithal during performance to observe and learn from co-performers, and to push their own skill development.
  3. The goal as being error-free vs. expressive – This can be tricky, especially when the performance is of composed music learned from notation. The development of technique is critical, since a certain facility on a musical instrument is required in order to be expressive on it. But too often, young musicians come to believe that the main goal of performance is simply to “not mess up.” To convince our students otherwise, we must first believe it ourselves! Perhaps there’s an alternative to the common approach of waiting until all pitches and rhythms are learned before adding in expressive elements. Can these things be addressed concurrently while working on a piece? Is it even possible to give expressive aspects higher priority than technical ones?

Above I’ve mainly addressed blurring the line between practice and performance. I’m sure there are other lines that could be blurred as well, to the additional benefit of developing musicians. What about the line between practice and teaching? There are music cultures in the world–Balinese gamelan, for one–in which individual practice is unheard of (instead, music learners develop exclusively in group settings under the supervision of experienced musicians). What about challenging specialized roles of musicians, and encouraging students to simultaneously develop as performers and composers? And what about delineations between styles of music, like classical, jazz, and popular music? I welcome your comments below, perhaps to share ways that you blur the lines in your performing and teaching.

Collaboration is Key for Award-Winning Student Jazz Combos

I came across a great little article about the music making processes of some young jazz musicians. In the June 2011 issue of DownBeat, Hilary Brown writes about three student groups who won in the jazz group/combo category of DownBeat‘s prestigious annual awards.

As I read the article below, a few things really jumped out at me. I was particularly struck by the importance of relationships. The students collaborate with each other to learn by student-directed exploration. And they also gain much from the expertise of teachers and mentors. Also, I love the idea that musicality is being driven by cooperation, rather than competition. Let’s face it, all of these kids are likely incredibly talented musicians. Suppressing egos in order to serve the music and the betterment of the group…well, that’s not easy for some people. But it’s credited for the great success these kids are having.

Special thanks to Hilary Brown for getting me the PDF so quickly after my request, and to DownBeat for permitting me to post it here!

By the way, the main reason I was looking through that issue of DownBeat was to check out the award-winners from my own campus, the University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Really proud of these students in our jazz program!

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.