Over the past several years much has been written and discussed about the power music has to affect our physical and mental processes. Most of the discussion has centered around the education system – but in the days following Sept. 11 musicians rediscovered, once again, the ability that their talents and skills have to heal and to comfort.
Many members at the time expressed great eagerness to be part of the recovery efforts – but, at the same time, uncertainty that they would be able to make that contribution meaningful. As has been true during past crises, however, they found themselves welcomed wholeheartedly as a vital part of the rebuilding. They found that they brought to the relief efforts qualities that are otherwise inexpressible and unquantifiable, but essential – indeed, fundamental – to the human spirit.
For most of the last 40 years it has been fashionable in education circles to diminish the role of the arts and to emphasize subjects more easily measured by standardized testing methods. This emphasis has had a devastating impact on arts programs. Since it has been difficult to quantify the results of participation in theatre, band, orchestra, chorus or classes in painting and drawing, education dollars have flowed away from these disciplines to other areas.
But recently we have developed the ability to measure the effect of these activities, even if only as a secondary influence. The results, especially as to music, have been startling – although they are probably not surprising to many of us who work in this field.
An article by Tim Wendel entitled “Healing Harmonies,” which appeared in a recent issue of USA Weekend (the Saturday/Sunday edition of USA Today), seems to take the influence of music one step further. He deals first with the ability of music listening to affect us: “surprisingly, acknowledgment of music’s profound capacity to move us comes not only from politician and preacher, but also from the unexpected recesses of today’s high-tech research laboratories. As the nation’s new rhapsody in red, white, and blue plays ever more ardently, scientists are developing research that shows physiological links between melody and the mind, a connection far greater than we ever imagined.
“‘We’re discovering music is really a complex human behavior,’ explains Fred Moreno of the New York Academy of Sciences, which published the new Biological Foundations of Music, a collection of scientific papers demonstrating, it says, ‘the dynamism and richness of this emerging discipline’ of music and neuroscience.
“New studies indicate that listening to and playing music actually can alter how our brains, and thus our bodies, function. Scientists use the sound of music to do everything from battling cancer and mining the memories of Alzheimer’s patients to relieving severe pain and boosting kids’ test scores. Doctors believe music therapy in hospitals and nursing homes not only makes people feel better; but also makes them heal faster.
“‘Music is processed in more regions of the brain than we ever imagined,’ says Josef Rauschecker, a Georgetown University researcher who studies the auditory processes of the brain. ‘Music is a great example of how different parts of the brain can act together.'” It’s worth studying, he says, because music can have a profound, even physical, effect on the brain. In studies, musicians trained at a young age show a greater area of brain activity when listening to music than do non-musicians.
“Music has been called just ‘auditory cheesecake,’ having little to do with important matters such as how our brains grow and function,” says Michael Thaut, director of the Center for Biomedical Research at Colorado State University. “Nothing could be farther from the truth. Music is hardwired into the brain. We’re only now realizing how important it is to us.”
Wendel goes on to recount the experiences of Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart in working with Alzheimer’s patients by involving them as drummers and conducting impromptu performances. Finally, he says: ‘In the mid-1990s, news of the so-called Mozart Effect, in which a small group of college students did better on certain tests after listening to Mozart sonatas, had mothers playing classical music to their babies in the womb. Since then, researchers have learned more about the music-as-brain-food theory, confirming its potential but disputing the benefits of simply tuning in to the classics.’
“‘The early studies were about passive music-listening,’ says Joe Lamond, executive director of the American Music Conference, a non-profit organization that promotes music education. ‘The newer studies have focused on music making – learning to play an instrument, playing in a band. That’s where we’ve seen measurable impact on math, science, reading scores.’
“A joint study by the University of Wisconsin and the University of California, Irvine, found that 3- and 4-year-olds who were taught to play the piano scored 34 percent higher on the abstract reasoning skills used in science and math than did children who got computer instruction.”
Wendel ends his article with a quote from singer Denyce Graves: “Whether or not people choose to recognize the power of music, it remains a spiritual experience, a healing experience; it can save us.”
We are an important element of the human experience and history tells us this has always been so. The musicians’ union, for almost its entire existence, has been working to assure the continuance of these art forms – whether in arts education, in musical theatre, or in everyday life. We will continue to do so because music makes a difference in all our lives.