Monday, October 14, 2013

Music Promotes the Social Good

As Shakespeare wrote: “If music be the food of love, play on.”

Apparently, music does not just feed love. It feeds the mind, calms the spirit, promotes social order, produces good character and spurs high achievement.

Not bad for a single art form.

In a recent article (h/t Dennis) Joanne Lipman observed:

Strikingly, many high achievers told me music opened up the pathways to creative thinking. And their experiences suggest that music training sharpens other qualities: Collaboration. The ability to listen. A way of thinking that weaves together disparate ideas. The power to focus on the present and the future simultaneously.

According to Lipman music makes people smarter and more creative. It awakens neuronal pathways that would otherwise have remained dormant. It promotes clear thinking.

Best yet, it teaches people how to listen.

Not merely to listen passively but to give themselves and their attention over to the music, to get out of themselves and allow themselves to be carried away by it.

Ask yourself this: how often do you listen to someone else with the same level of attentiveness? How often do you try, not only to understand someone else’s ideas, but to give them the benefit of the doubt? Or else, do you listen to someone else’s ideas in order to find fault with them, to rebut them or to defeat them in argument?

If you accept that listening does not limit itself to finding out what is wrong with someone else’s point of view, might it not be, as  Lipman suggests, that music can contribute to our ability to engage in productive conversation?

This is not the only way that music contributes to character development.

Playing a musical instrument requires discipline and perseverance. It requires you to follow the rules. If you play an instrument in a band or orchestra you will be obliged to collaborate with others, to follow direction and to take advice.

Aren’t these skills valuable, even essential to the functioning of a good society?

Playing music well also requires moderation and temperance. Despite what many think, it’s not about unbridled self-expression.

Music helps to produce good character and thus social harmony. The same can be said of poetry and some fiction. Rhythmic utterance calms and organizes the human spirit.

Confucius said:

My children, why do you not study the Book of Poetry? The Odes serve to stimulate the mind, They may be used for purposes of self-contemplation. They teach the art of companionship. They show how to moderate feelings of resentment.

Music, like good poetry, teaches you how to think. It does not tell you what to think. Music is the opposite of propaganda.

By itself, music does not communicate specific messages. It does not present an opinion. 

Similarly, great literature dramatizes dilemmas; it does not tell you what to think about them.

I would go so far as to say that great journalism communicates information, but does not tell you what to think about the issues. Once journalists start telling you must think they are promoting dissonance.

In one way or another, these ideas derive from Confucius. The Chinese sage believed that education in music contributed to social harmony and to personal character. And it helps improve relationships.

If music tunes the mind, it also must tune the voice. When you are conversing with another human being you will naturally attune your voice to his. If not, if you maintain the same intonations and the same timbre no matter who you are talking with, you are undermining conversational harmony. No one likes a Johnny-one-note.

If one party to a conversation is loud and boisterous, if his pitch is off, others will eventually exclude him from the conversation.

When people converse they seek to harmonize. So too should society be harmonious.

When people work together, when they discuss issues without raising their voices or talking over each other or screaming at each other, they will be functioning within a society that runs like a good orchestra or band.

So said Confucius.

When the Sage emphasized the importance of ceremony and ritual he was thinking of groups of people functioning as one. Such groups are organized, they accord to each member a role, they expect that everyone will follow the rules.

Confucius understood that all music is not created equal.

In his words:

If one should desire to know whether a kingdom is well governed, if its morals are good or bad, the quality of its music will furnish the answer.

Since we are no longer allowed to judge people by the content of their character we are, effectively, no longer allowed to judge between good and bad music. Anyone who denounces bad music, for its cacophonies, its vulgarity or its assault on the senses will often be labeled a Philistine, and maybe even a bigot.

If Confucius is correct, listening to bad music creates a troubled soul. It causes people to be at war against themselves. It teaches them that society and built on conflict, not on harmony. Too often, they will live their lives accordingly.

No comments: