School is a social environment. Learning takes place in classes where groups of children are gathered, usually 20-25 at a time. When everything is going smoothly, students are listening to a teacher and to each other, are asking and answering questions, responding to prompts, understanding what is being said or done, and keeping their attention focused on the one speaking or doing at any given time. All of this depends on everyone in the room interacting not only intellectually, but socially as well. Listening, responding, and learning from each other takes social skill, and functioning relationships between classmates and between the class and the teacher. Dr. James Comer referred to this part of a child’s development, the part where they learn to effectively utilize social skills, as the social pathway. Children need an ability to develop and maintain healthy relationships and to appropriately handle challenging relationships. A large part of this comes from being skilled at empathy. Children make healthier behavioral choices when they realize the affect those choices have on others, and how they are causing others to feel with their actions.
Related to the social pathway is the psychological pathway. Here, the focus is on a child’s self-awareness and self-esteem, including feelings of worth and competence, and on appropriately managing emotions. Teachers should try to help children develop a strong, positive sense of self, and build the child’s ability to manage their emotions well.
Now think of music making and music education. One of the foundational benefits of music education is to provide children with a healthy outlet for personal expression. Music can help people express the full range of emotions, and do it in a way where even the most negative or angry emotions are expressed not only in a healthy way, but in an enjoyable way. We enjoy and are stimulated and excited by rowdy music, be it the cannon shots in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, or the stormy, turbulent and sometimes schizophrenic ravings of a Mahler symphony. We let go on a Friday afternoon to heavy metal, head banging riffs, and are soothed by a gently ballad or beautiful melody. People not only interpret music, but at times it seems that music interprets people, or at least we are helped in interpreting ourselves by listening to music that draws out a tangible image of how we are feeling or want to feel. Interpreting music brings students face to face with the reality that others feel emotions and what they are feeling is expressed in this music. They can learn to understand what another is feeling by interpreting an artistic work. Students can also express how they feel about what the composer is feeling by responding to the music and performing it with their own expressive intent, the feelings and emotions they have for the music, added to the expressive intent of the composer.
The way in which music is performed is also important to consider. Music is nearly always performed in groups. Bands, orchestras, choirs, or soloists with accompaniment, it all works because people are playing and singing music that all fits together according to a creators design and expressive intent. There is the expression from creator to performer, and from performer to audience and performer to performer, in an array of social constructs in which the artistic expressiveness is spread around and cultivated into a very personal and never quite the same experience. Children who are making music are drawn into working, functional, rewarding social units in which normal disfunctions are suspended, and from which children can learn a better social way when the music stops. Because understanding the music and understanding oneself are melded together, children not only understand themselves better through the actions of music making, they understand each other better also. Voice teacher Susan Anders Brizick recently wrote that, “Musical study involves understanding the music, the composer, and the teacher. This translates over into better understanding other peoples’ feelings and reactions in their everyday life.”
It should be evident now that music making, and the teaching of it, is highly effective in helping students develop their social and psychological pathways. The inner world of music and of music making is a model for social and psychological health. Even the notes themselves, the way they combine to form harmony, rhythm, and counterpoint, is a model of how people combine sometimes in agreement, sometimes in combinations that work together, and sometimes in disagreement and tension, but ultimately to achieve something positive and worthwhile, working through conflict, just as the notes of a good counterpoint or the contentiousness of the relationship between the piano solo and the orchestral part in a nineteenth century concerto come around to a masterful combining to form great art.