Dr. James Comer of Yale University has found six pathways along which children develop. These pathways are described as physical, cognitive, language, social, ethical, and psychological. While music education clearly has ties to all six pathways, I would like to focus in on two of them: cognitive and psychological.
The Cognitive Pathway and Music
The cognitive pathway addresses critical and creative thinking, and applying learning to accomplishing goals. It encompasses the highest levels of cognitive activity on Bloom’s classic taxonomy, those of analyzing, evaluating, and synthesizing. Critical thinking is the objective analysis of facts for the purpose of arriving at an unbiased and informed conclusion. Creative thinking generates an element of newness into an observed entity. Creative thinking may result in a new product or artistic work, an new insight or interpretation of a pre-existing object, or a new approach to or way of thinking about something.
Anyone who is preparing to perform a musical work engages in both critical and creative thinking. Critical thinking is involved in selecting, analyzing, rehearsing and refining, and determining when a performance is ready to present to an audience. When selecting music to perform, musicians consider there own knowledge of musical works, understanding of their own technical skill, and the context in which the work is to be performed. Each of these considerations requires critical thinking. The musician must evaluate his or her own knowledge, reflect and assess their own technical skill as compared to the technical skill that will be required to perform the work, ascertained through analysis, and the appropriateness to the anticipated audience and physical surroundings that is anticipated at the performance. All of this must be synthesized into a final judgment as to the merits of performing the particular musical work. Once a work is selected, further types of analyses need to made on the music including harmonic, thematic, structural, expressive intent, and so forth. Once the rehearsals begin, the musician is constantly evaluating what he or she has just done, and planning what improvements and corrections need to be implemented during the next attempt. This is a cyclical process that continues until the rehearsal process is completed. Though many times the end of the rehearsal process is marked by a deadline, ideally, it should be ended when the performer(s) have evaluated their work and determined that the performance is ready to present to an audience. Throughout the process, there is abundant critical thinking being brought to bear.
Preparing a musical performance is not all about critical thinking, though. There is also the interpretive aspect of preparation. I mentioned in passing analyzing a musical work for expressive intent. This is an area in which critical thinking is of limited value because there is an absence of facts on which analysis can be performed. A listener’s interpretation of music can be influenced by non-musical factors such as life experience
and associations, and prior knowledge about the composer. For example, Margulis, Levine, Simchy-Gross, and Kroger (2017) found that when listeners were given positive information about a composer they were more likely to hear their music as happy, whereas when they were given negative information about the composer, they were more likely to hear the music as sad. A person’s own emotional status, especially with younger children, can also be transferred to music they hear, independent of a composer’s intent. Consequently, analyzing expressive intent cannot be done with “cold hard facts,” but instead with clues the composer leaves in the form of expressive elements and terms. Elements such as dissonance, accelerando, and crescendo tend to build tension, whereas resolution of dissonance, ritardando, and decrescendo tend to release tension. Low pitch can sound gloomy or scary, while mid-range pitches can sound relaxed. Isolated high pitches or low pitches can sound comical, while a low minor sonority can sound fatal or tragic. These are culturally normed emotional references that composers use and to which listeners respond with their imaginations and creative thinking. Still, they are only clues, and it is the purpose of a performer’s interpretation to convey the desired intent. That interpretation is arrived at, and rehearsed prior to presentation with the use of creative thinking.
The Psychological Pathway and Music
The psychological pathway is about an individual’s self-image and self-esteem. It includes their concept of self worth and competence, and ability to appropriately manage emotions. Research into the relationship between self-image and musical experience has been inconclusive. Whereas success in musical activities does tend to raise self image of musical ability, it does not necessarily raise self image in general. Music has been shown to be an effective aid in altering or controlling emotions. People often use music to reinforce a pleasant emotion that are experiencing, or to change an undesirable emotion that want to change. One of the strongest foundations for advocating for music education is that music provides a healthy outlet for emotional expression. Just as students can use their language pathway to resolve conflict with words instead of violence, they can use their psychological pathway to control negative emotions by engaging with music.
According to researchers, there are several ways we listen to music in order to better manage our emotions:
- Entertainment – listening to music to maintain a positive mood or to evoke positive emotions.
- Revival – listening to music to relax or get energized.
- Diversion – listening to music to forget about something undesirable.
- Discharge – listening to music to release an emotion, such as anger.
- Strong Sensation – listening to music to stimulate our senses in new ways.
- Mental work – listening to music to get inspired or get new ideas.
- Solace – listening to music to experience comfort after an unfortunate event.
These are all examples of the different ways we may listen to music in order to regulate our emotions and channel them in positive ways. In research from Gothenburg University, listening to music was one of the most frequently reported main activities. Of the music-related experiences, up to 67% of individuals reported that listening to music had changed their emotions. Most of these emotions were reported to change in positive ways. These changes were most reliable when the music used was of the listener’s own choosing, compared to music that someone else (a music teacher, perhaps) chose for them. This last point highlights the importance not only of music in managing emotions, but in allowing students to select music not only to perform, but also to which to listen.
Music has a legitimate and important place in the physical development of children. Its emotionally charged and expressive nature, the manner in which it is performed and heard in communities, and the ways it engages the physical, cognitive, emotional, and psychological dimensions of humanity are proof positive that music is key to healthy human development.
Margulis, E. H., Levine, W. H., Simchy-Gross, R., & Kroger, C. (January 01, 2017). Expressive intent, ambiguity, and aesthetic experiences of music and poetry. Plos One, 12, 7.)