Exploring the Power of Music

creating connections and community with music

Music can be found in every culture, past and present. We have a capacity for musicality which gives us the ability to perceive and make music. Music activates very widespread networks in the brain, much wider than are activated by language, and among the areas activated are reward or pleasure centres. Music is clearly pleasurable and also has social utility. Music is probably the best non-medical mood regulator there is. Music enhances social bonding when people listen to music together and does this even better when people participate actively in music together. Music gives us the ability to synchronize our movement with music and to synchronize with each other. One of the consequences of synchronous activity is enhanced cooperation so music makes good sense for people living in groups.

Dr. Sandra Trehub
Music Development Lab Director
University of Toronto

Why does every human culture, past and present, have music?
Dr. Sandra Trehub, Music Development Lab Director, University of Toronto
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Quirks and Quarks Question Road Show June 21, 2014
Podcast interview at minute 27.15

 Exploring the power of music as a community

We are discovering many new aspects of the power of music. In particular we are discovering that music rewires and enhances the brain and has cognitive, emotional, physical impacts. Unfortunately, it is possible that music and other arts have been somewhat trivialized in the 20th century industrial society before we got a closer scientific look at the brain in the way that modern neuroscience allows.  This possibility is underpinned by the recent discovery through neuro-science that the brain is plastic rather than hard-wired. That the wiring of the brain can be developed and enhanced at any stage in life is one of the most important discoveries of our time with many implications far beyond music. We are even finding that different melodies can impact the brain in observable ways; that “scary” music, such as is often found in the world of Western New Music, stimulates the Amygdala, perhaps even in traumatizing ways as has been my experience.

I have read a number of books on this topic of neuro-plasticity, but the caveat is that we may need more time and patience than is often shown in order to create the benefits of neuroplasticity in people. We also may need to adjust our teaching and learning in light of these discoveries. Indeed, there are further deep questions being addressed here about our humanity; who we are and what being human actually could mean; what our full potential could actually be. Perhaps the human capacity for hate, love, or empathy are influentially rewired in the brain through our experience of life, although that may now be somewhat self evident.

I feel a deep connection exists between music and empathy. This can be demonstrated when we look at the impact of people playing music together in close rhythmic timing. Its obvious that this experience has a real and very, very positive emotional impact on people, both those playing and those in the audience. It is this sense of empathy created through music that may create and build communities and may account for what we think of as music’s possible transformative powers. This basic enhancement of our core humanity found through the feeling of a musical collective empathy may be one significant positive result of musical experience. It is an important element of what we are starting to think of as the power of music that could have many cultural and social implications.

These discoveries are also of great importance to music education and even to our exploration of the power of music. These discoveries to some extent undermine the assumption that musical ability is something you may or may not be lucky enough to be  “born with”.  I can not tell how common this assumption is in adults but this belief is often missing as a feature of children’s approaches to music. Likely some are more predisposed than others to learn music.  However, the view that music is an inborn talent or ability found in a few special people and many other ideas around musical talent or genius can mask our attention to the social, cultural, and educational experiences that determine what is going to happen with people in their participation in music through their lives.

To some extent we may indeed  “create” musical ability in people through exposure to musical experiences and music learning and the various social connections made in that process. I believe that societies with strong social connections, such as we may often see in some parts of Latin America, are often more likely to have high levels of musical participation. Certainly Cuban society seemed to bear out this idea for me. What other connections we create at the same time through music need to be addressed too, as we are now observing some profound and very hard to account for social impacts of the type we respond to so deeply in the work of El Sistema, the orchestra of recycled instruments, and Olodum. Who knew that the murder rates in the Barios of Venezuela would go down as soon as children in their communities started to learn music on a large scale? It’s not something we could easily have known as the idea at first seems almost preposterous.

I think we may also need to address far more the musical needs of highly social people, including children, who do not like being alone for long periods of time; a requirement as is often demanded by many music teachers who may themselves maybe quite introverted, and perhaps slightly obsessive, people.  I have a Jewish Russian Cellist friend who remarked that the secret source of the many great Russian Jewish musical talents was the role played by Jewish grandmothers in the old extended families, the older woman who sat with the young child as they practiced, the person who quietly guided their development in music.

The power of music is a interest of great importance.  We now have the opportunity and ability to explore the power of music together as a community as fully as we are able in the company of some wonderful people. It is a cause, perhaps, for some cautious optimism about our future.

Paul Alexander
Composer, teacher, writer, and artist
World Music Continuum

Creative connections

Exploring the Power of Music
Creative Music Community
Creating Connections with Music
Creating Community with Music
Theatre for a New World
Orchestras of the New World
Music Community Network
Music Community Centre
Centre for Canadian Music