Music is a sharing experience. Our nation was conceived to the sound of fifes, and we have mourned the loss of our leaders to the sound of somber drum cadences. At a wedding, music consecrates the bond of holy matrimony. And at a playoff game, music cheers a team to victory. Music is there for one’s first dance. And it is there when one’s heart is broken. Music comforts the sick and elderly, and it carries our petitions heavenward to God. Yes, music is a profoundly sharing experience.
All societies have experienced the power of music as art. Music has existed as long as humans have, and it has been passed on to succeeding generations. Ironically, this very precious gift – this artform that brings people together through organized sound – is often perceived by society as being secondary to other domains of learning. In education, it is often perceived as being disconnected from the schools’ essential function – education in the “basics.”
Educators, philosophers, and artists of many generations have convincingly argued the value of music as a sharing experience. In his book How Musical Is Man?, anthropologist John Blacking suggests that the chief value of music is “to involve people in shared experiences within a framework of their cultural experiences.”1 Stated another way, “through music, patterns of culture and society emerge in the shape of humanly organized sound." 2
Of course, there are other points of view that convincingly affirm the value of music and music education. But, because participation in a performance-based music class (band, choir, or orchestra) may be the most profound group sharing experience in a child’s life, it should be supported and celebrated to the fullest. As John Dewey said, “Every intense experience of friendship and affection completes itself artistically.”3
To gain insight into the sharing nature of music, let us examine the process within artistic communication. But before inspecting that process, let us take a look at everyday communication – the kind that takes place in an English or math class.
In everyday communication, there must be a message – in this case, my beliefs about the sharing nature of music. Next, the message is encoded into words. After that, I use my voice to transmit the words. In the next part of the model, my words are received by the listener’s ears, and then decoded and reformulated in the listener’s mind. If my ideas are clear, and if the listener decodes them accordingly, and if nothing interferes with the process, then communication will have been complete. That is, I successfully shared my message with the listener. While this model clearly maps out everyday communication, it is ineffective in diagramming the process of artistic communication.
To understand what takes place during the process of artistic communication, let us visit a high school band rehearsal. As the conductor drops her baton, the musicians begin to re-create the work in front of them. Immediately, the musicians experience the expressiveness embodied within the work as created, organized, and notated by the composer. Then synchronously, being guided by an understanding of the genre at hand, the musicians use craftsmanship, sensitivity, and imagination to respond to what they hear, propelling the cycle forward. This very special reciprocal relationship between the musicians and the music is what unites the composer, conductor, performers, and audience in community of musical experience. Mary, a member of the popular folk trio Peter, Paul, and Mary, expressed it this way:
We sing to each other or listen to music together or make music together in the knowledge that the sharing of sound makes us all belong to each other, enables us to give all of ourselves in every way we can, with all the feeling we have inside. That’s communication.4
So then, what is the value of artistic communication? What can a school orchestra rehearsal provide that a biology class cannot? Here is a brief list:
When singing or playing together, musicians experience one of the most glorious manifestations of our cultural heritage – music. Assuredly, by recreating authentic musical works, musicians engage in a form of communication that transmits our cultural heritage onto succeeding generations. (With increased social distancing brought on by the infiltration of handheld devices, musical sharing is needed now more than ever!)
When singing or playing together, musicians engage their musical intelligence. And what is musical intelligence? According to Harvard Professor Howard Gardner, musical intelligence is one of at least seven different intelligences common to all people. (Note: the idea of multiple human intelligences is also found in the writings of Philip Phenix and Arthur Foshay.)
When singing or playing together, musicians bask in the joy and satisfaction unique to music making. For some students, music is the only avenue to success in formal education.
When singing or playing together, musicians engage in divergent, imaginative thinking. Essentially, they unlock the expressiveness that is embedded in music notation – one of humanity’s most powerful and profound symbol systems.
When signing or playing together, musicians experience the richness unique to musical sharing. Through their journey in sound, they grow one step closer to understanding the community of human experience. As a student musician so aptly stated: “In music class, we’re all sound bound!”
As we move with music, let us never forget that music is a profoundly sharing experience. While there are skeptics who may never see the value of a music education, this perception is not their fault. They only know what they have been taught.
This, then, should remain our mission: To see that ALL children, regardless of what walk of life they come from, have the opportunity to know, to feel, and to share music. Indeed, music IS a sharing experience.
In conclusion, let us return to patriot of arts education John Dewey who so aptly stated:
In the end works of art are the only media of complete and unhindered communication between man and man that may occur in a world full of gulfs and walls that limit community of experience.5
John Blacking, How Musical Is Man? (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1973) p.10.
Bennett Reimer and Jeffrey Wright, eds, On the Nature of Musical Experience (Niwot, CO: University of Colorado Press, 1992) p. 269.
John Dewey, Art as Experience (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1980), p. 270.
Nat Shapiro, ed, An Encyclopedia of Quotations About Music (New York: Da Capo Press, 1978) p. 239.