Music Is Becoming More Relevant Than Ever

I’m fairly certain we can agree that music conveys, expresses or evokes feelings and emotions. We’ve all experienced mood and emotional change while listening to music, and the relaxing or exciting effect music has not only on our emotions, but our bodies too as our heart rate increases, and we physically respond to music to which we are listening. The centrality of expression in music is highlighted in the National Core Arts Standards. Many occurrences of the phrase “expressive intent” can be found throughout the standards. This codified what we already knew: that emotional response and expression is key to what we do and enjoy as musicians. The standards further made the point that musicians are not only professionals, but students who do things musicians do as well, among them exchanging expressive intents with other performers and creators of musical works.

The centrality of emotions provides the potential for music educaiton to become more important than ever. This is because there is a growing interest in and discussion of emotional intelligence. Educators continue to realize that students cannot be successfully educated if they are deficient in practicing empathy for others’ emotions and feelings, and reflection and manageing their own. Miller (2019) in writing about the skills of empathy, social understanding, and positive influence stated that, “unfortunately these skills have generally been viewed as second priority in terms of learning and development.” In other words, educators have typically overlooked developing emotional skills in favor of developing academic skills, often to prepare students for high-stakes testing.

Miller continued, “For anyone who wants to stay relevant in their field as automated systems proliferate, now is a good time to invest in developing your emotional intelligence.” Tasks that once were accomplished with others, providing a context for human contact, are now increasingly done with machines and computers, removing from daily life opportunities to develop and hone emotional and social skills. While typical school classrooms continue to be a highly social environments, even there, students are more likely to be directed to remediate or practice lessons on computers than in the past, when they would have done so with a teacher, aide, or other student. Part of this has developed naturally from the introduction and growth of technology in classrooms, and part has grown from increased clerical demands on teachers which make the delegating of some learning to computers at least perceived as necessary.

Classrooms, as I have stated, are still highly social environments. Student desks are often arranged in clusters facilitating small group work and collaboration among students. But teachers increasingly struggle with keeping students on task and manageing off-task behavior in these settings, because social and emotional skills have not prepared students to interact to the degree and quality that collaboration models demand. While music teachers struggle with these same issues, our content is a natural spawning ground for emotional intelligence training. Yet we have not embraced this potential as we could. Perhaps now is the time to seize upon this opportunity.

Researchers have found a possible link between emotional intelligence and the ability to understand expressive intent in music. The researchers wrote, “Emotional intelligence and emotion recognition in the music task were significantly correlated (r = .54), which suggests that identification of emotion in music performance draws on some of the same sensibilities that make up everyday emotional intelligence.” With this finding, music educators have an opportunity to develop everyday emotional intelligence, including the skill to relate to and work with others, in their students by developing their skills in identifiying expressive intent of classical music to which they listen.

In another study (Rabinowitch, Cross, & Burnard, 2012), researchers found that one year of musical training doing musical group interaction significantly improved empathy skills compared to control group children who did not participate in the musical group interaction. In the music classroom, interactive activities are common place, particularly at the elementary school level. Consider how many of these you include in your lessons: welcome song, circle singing games, rhythm and melodic echoing, dialogues of improvised rhythm or tonal patterns, small group improvising, making decisions together on selecting and how to use musical ideas, rehearsing, refining, and presenting a performance.

The way in which the human brain is activated during musical activity may well be transferrable to other situations where empathy is needed. Neuroscientists have discovered the mirror neuron system. Laird (2015) explained that, “Some researchers argue that the mirror neuron system in the human brain helps us understand the actions and intentions of other people–leading to empathy” (Iacoboni, 2013). “Music, like language, involves a connection between the perception and production of organized sound–the structure of which has the ability to communicate meaning and emotion” (Molnar-Szakacs, Istvan, & Overy, Katie, 2006). The mirror neuron system may be responsible for these aspects of musical experience.”

In pushing the development of emotional intelligence to the background of music education, music educators not only miss an opportunity to move what they do into the forefront of general education, they also prolong the amount of time needed to prepare musical performances. In a well-meant effort to teach good musician habits, an over emphasis on home practice and personal work ethic as slighted the value of learning with others. Skills developed during individual practice do not transfer well to the group rehearsal if executing those skills is inhibited by distracting activity by others, or by poorly practiced collaborative skills such as are needed in any ensemble situation.

On the other hand, a group of students who are well tuned in to what each other is doing, and on not only displaying personal achievement but on using that achievement, or more accurately donating it, to the performance objective of the group will learn, accomplish more, and perform at a higher level, saving rehearsal time pushing through poor collaborative skills, which are born of low emotional intelligence. While developing emotional intelligence may at first be seen as an unwelcome burden taking precious time away from rehearsal time, it proves to be quite the opposite, and the dividends in relevancey to the general educational program is well worth the effort.

Resnicow, J. E., Salovey, P., & Repp, B. H. (September 01, 2004). Is Recognition of Emotion in Music Performance an Aspect of Emotional Intelligence?Music Perception: an Interdisciplinary Journal, 22, 1, 145-158.

Rabinowitch, T.-C., Cross, I., & Burnard, P. (July 01, 2013). Long-term musical group interaction has a positive influence on empathy in children. Psychology of Music, 41, 4, 484-498.

Iacoboni, M. (January 01, 2009). Imitation, Empathy, and Mirror Neurons. Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 1, 653-670.

Molnar-Szakacs, Istvan, & Overy, Katie. (2006). Music and mirror neurons: from motion to ‘e’motion. Oxford University Press.

Laird, L. (January 01, 2015). Empathy in the Classroom: Can Music Bring Us More in Tune with One Another?. Music Educators Journal, 101, 4, 56-61.


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