A 2016 piece in The Atlantic echoed numerous other recent articles noting that increasing focus on academic standards and testing in schools has led to a declining focus on character building and empathy. While parents and teachers are becoming more aware and concerned about this problem, music offers many solutions.
Here are seven ways music education can promote social harmony:
1. Developing compassionate citizens.
Renowned music educator Dr. Shinichi Suzuki, who originated the Suzuki method, understood that learning to play a musical instrument could be a significant part of learning to develop into a caring human being and a good citizen. In fact, many music teachers view the Suzuki method as being in a class by itself for this very reason.
Experienced teachers also note that the same skills acquired when children study music lead to the development of positive character traits such as tolerance, respect, and a sense of perspective. Working together to study and perform a piece of music fosters a sense of common purpose and encourages collaboration with other people who come from a variety of backgrounds and possess a range of viewpoints.
2. Getting people in touch with their emotions.
In their book Music Matters: A Philosophy of Music Education, published by Oxford University Press, David Elliott and Marissa Silvermann discuss the emotional component in music. This is a perennial topic in any discussion of music, going back to the days of the ancient Greeks. Both Plato and Aristotle commented on the ability of music to evoke either positive or negative emotions in listeners.
Neurologists and psychologists focused on the power of music agree. In fact, sophisticated new research studies show how musical notes and chords can produce corresponding emotional states in listeners.
3. Counteracting bullying.
In fact, a 2015 article in Psychology Today magazine even suggests some music is a possible antidote to extreme antisocial behaviors such as bullying and bigotry. The article points out that learning to play a musical instrument beyond the level of bare technical proficiency draws on a host of emotional skills and sensitivities.
In order to produce the most pleasing sequences of sounds and reach the hearts of audience members, a player needs a certain level of emotional maturity and expressiveness. A range of talented musicians have opined that music can deepen and broaden an individual’s perspective. As a result, he or she can grow beyond early prejudices and begin to view other people with greater comprehension and appreciation.
For example, the late jazz musician Paul Horn was once quoted as saying that music is an extremely useful way to bring people together in greater peace and mutual understanding, easing the burden of communicating across personalities and cultures. Numerous other musicians have specifically noted music’s power to overcome even the strongest racial and cultural prejudices.
4. Reducing violence.
A group made up of musicians, producers, and others based at the University of California, Los Angeles created a collective performance space for the expression of a wide variety of world music instruments and genres. They called their collective Westwood Village Entertainment Group. It has worked to facilitate a welcoming environment for a diverse group of musicians, performers, and audiences.
The idea emerged out of one young ethnomusicologist’s experiences growing up in a crime-filled neighborhood in New Jersey. The young man found escape through learning to play African drums. Now, because of WVEG, he and his fellow musicians hope to foster a sense of community and welcome.
5. Reminding listeners of relevant events or eras.
The canon of popular music is filled with deeply moving, inspirational pieces that seek to heal the rifts and prejudicial attitudes that arise between people. Examples include Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” as well as Curtis Mayfield’s “We Got to Have Peace” and the classic hymn of the Civil Rights era, “We Shall Overcome.”
6. Reducing bias and promoting empathy.
One study, published in Psychology of Music, centered on a social experiment with elementary school children in Portugal. Their community is composed of lighter-skinned people descended from families with long histories in the European country as well as darker-skinned people whose heritage lies in the African island nation of Cape Verde.
Over a period of several months, the researchers introduced one group of young students to songs from Cape Verde in addition to their regular lessons in European Portuguese music. A control group did not receive exposure to the Cape Verdean songs.
Before the study, all of the children surveyed displayed a moderate amount of bias against darker-skinned individuals. By the conclusion of the study, however, the children who had been exposed to the music of Cape Verde demonstrated significantly lower levels of such prejudice. The control group showed no change in their negative attitudes.
The researchers in this study theorized that, for the children involved, learning to like the music of Cape Verde translated over into learning to like the other children whose families came from Cape Verde.
This aligns with a principle identified in psychological research. The idea is that a feeling of similarity or having common interests with another person tends to increase empathy for that person. The researchers further theorized that songs may be particularly valuable tools for fostering feelings of commonality and similarity, and thus of empathy.
7. Strengthening interpersonal relationships.
A 2015 article in Music Educators Journal makes a similar point. Its authors posit that the collaborative experience of making music with others involves activities such as synchronization, group problem-solving, imitation, and call-and-response.
All these activities tend to have a positive influence on interpersonal relationships and on individuals’ abilities to work successfully in groups, and thus, on the development of empathy. According to experts, the themes of music are the themes of human life itself. Therefore, learning to make music makes us more human.