This is the second in a three part series on educating the whole person and music education. Yesterday, I gave an overview of parts of the whole person, and in general how music engages several of those parts. Today I will discuss in detail the relationship between music and the physical and psychological pathways identified by Comer.
Research in the area of music cognition has shown that the human brain processes music to a large extent as movement. Music engages the location in the brain where physical movement is activated whether or not the person is actually moving. This movement may or may not be synchronized with the tactus, or with a beat at all. As a child is able to be conscious of an internalized beat, s/he can move to form and/or expression while continuing to track the beat. This makes expression of phrases, dynamics, and emotions without losing temporal connection to the music possible. When children are young, both kinds of movement–to the beat and for form and expression–are important so that eventually the two can be integrated into one experience with music. Because movement is so important to perceiving music, the physical pathway is always active when music making occurs, whether through performing, listening, or composing.
The psychological pathway includes self-awareness and emotional management. Researchers have found that children, particularly adolescents, use music to modify feelings. This ties music to the psychological pathway in that it is a technique for managing emotions. Music can alter emotions by cheering a person or motivating them from a relatively sedative state, can calm a person by slowing the heart rate and the initiation of movement, or confirm an emotion being felt in a kind of empathy with the music to which the person is listening. The latter use of music is a form of emotional self-awareness, which is also part of the psychological pathway.
For the most part, students move to and manage emotions with familiar music on their own. Music educators do not so much need to introduce or teach students how to do this, as they need to introduce a diversity of musical genres to students. When students are familiar with more musical genres, they have a greater choice of music to which to respond with movement and or emotion. As less familiar genres are introduced, they may be unsure of how to know what emotions is being expressed, or of how to move to the music, particularly where art music styles are concerned. Art music has a much more subtle beat than the popular music they are likely to listen to frequently, and the expressive vocabulary of art music composers is also likely to be unfamiliar to many students, or at least something to which they have not given conscious thought. Music teachers can “walk” students through an expressive piece of music, and having the students list all expressed emotions they hear in the music, and then isolate excerpts to discuss which emotion is expressed in each.
For movement, beats at different metrical levels can be performed. For example, beats at the one-measure, half-measure, tactus, and divided tactus levels can all be performed. Students can discover a freedom in not being locked into the metrical level the drummer blatantly performs, and make the transition from moving to beat to moving to form and expression as beats at higher levels, such as the two-measure or phrase level, are discovered and expressed through movement. The goal is to take the natural abilities of moving and feeling and develop and expand them using a growing repertoire and vocabulary. Response to music activities are also valuable. Students can write about music they have heard by describing kinds of motion or objects in motion that they imagined while listening. Students can also write about what emotions the music elicited in them, or can invent a story which transfers perceived emotions to characters in the narrative. While not all students express emotions through story invention, some do, and it is a valid option for students’ interpretive responses. In a recent class I taught, I asked how many often make up stories as they listen to music, and about one-quarter of the students did. For them, this method of reporting emotions they perceived in music was enjoyable and effective, but other students preferred to identify the emotions directly, or compare them to personal experiences. As usual, allowing students a choice in how they respond and demonstrate understanding is the best approach. Tomorrow, I will conclude this three-part series on educating the whole person and music.