‘All God’s people got a place in the choir, some sing lower and some sing higher - some sing out loud on the telephone wire and some just clap their hands." These words from a song by folk-singers Makem and Clancy acknowledge that as created beings, we all ‘sing’ in our own unique way.
The human voice is our first musical ‘instrument.’ Singing is a natural activity. We may not have been on the stage or in the school concert, but we’ve all hummed along, listening in time with the radio, or on hearing ourselves in the bathroom acoustic, secretly believed that we’re as good as Beyonce. Or maybe, to find our own voice, we just need the support of the crowd when we’ve had a few drinks on a Saturday night, or we’re standing on the terrace at a football match chanting the latest mantra.
Poet, Seamus Heaney had a beautiful line, "Sing your song to where the music comes from." He meant that we all have our own special way of hearing music, internalizing it, feeling it and creating it.
We’ve all tried to sing at some time. Think back to primary school. Many of us have learnt the alphabet, singing it to the tune of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,’ or the ‘ten-times-tables’ to a variety of chants.
But what about the teaching of music itself? Has it any meaningful value? Or are we better off spending classroom music-time learning Science or English?
Plato held that education ended in wisdom but began in wonder! The founder of the Western world’s first institution of higher learning, the Academy in Athens wrote that music “gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.’ The questioning mind may ask why all these centuries later, we are cutting back on the teaching of music in primary schools in the UK.
Often, lack of space, instruments and qualified teachers are cited as reasons, but does the problem go much deeper to the emphasize the curriculum places upon creativity in general?
Lack of appreciation in the Arts is too often evident despite the Department of Education acknowledging its key role in children’s creativity, academic achievement, problem-solving abilities and leadership skills.
Aristotle believed that because music has a power of forming the character, it "should be introduced into the education of the young." His words reflect the reason behind the important place that music ought to be given in schools, albeit that music far transcends the classroom! In the forming of character, one learns about virtue and what it means to live a wholesome and creative life.
There is no doubting the unique power in music. We have long used it in all sorts of ways - to worship, to celebrate, to dance, to soothe and to remember. It has helped elect political leaders, sell products, communicate a feeling when words weren’t enough, quieten screaming babies in their prams, ease emotional troubles…..the list goes on. The power of music is real and available.
Music probably helped promote our serenity long before we recognized it as music. Mothers instinctively sing to calm their children when they are in fear or distress. Lullabies are found all over the world. it is certainly not an add-on to human life but an essential part of who we are as human beings.
Along with art, music offers great opportunities for creativity, discipline, perseverance and co-ordinated teamwork.
Along with art, music offers great opportunities for creativity, discipline, perseverance and co-ordinated teamwork. Learning to sing or play an instrument, participation in choir, orchestra or group music-making brings enjoyment and peace. It helps us to get to know ourselves better and get in touch with our emotions.
Tolstoy once said that "music is the shorthand of emotion," a line well understood by actor Johnny Depp who said as much when reflecting back to a rough time in his teenage life after locking himself away in his room with a guitar where he could sit there playing and pondering undisturbed in his own world, with his own thoughts.
It also deepens our knowledge of the natural world and of our connection to it, by making us more aware of the mathematical order that underlies all music.
The ‘silent films’ of old never remained silent for long once it became apparent how much our sense of awareness was heightened in accompanying a movie with an orchestral score. Music added to the tranquil, helped to build suspense, ease pain, encourage laughter and generally enhance all other life situations depicted through picture. “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent,” wrote Victor Hugo.
There can be no doubt that as a fine art, the purpose of music is to give us a contemplative recreation. But how do we articulate the real practical benefits of teaching music to children from an early age?
Paula Rafferty is Head of Music in Cloughoge Primary School In N Ireland. She teaches music to children from the moment they first come to school. She emphasizes the two elements of ‘listening’ and ‘making music’ as substantive to musical learning.
"The experience can be as simple as taking part in a rhythm-game with a classmate or as challenging as singing harmony with two or three different parts, but the outcome is identical - a feel-good factor, a sense of achievement, an improvement in emotional well-being and a heightened sensitivity to the needs of others,” Rafferty stated that to this end, "creative music programs, especially those that are about listening and making music, play a crucial role in the development of a child’s social skills and emotional awareness."
Beyond the character development and confidence building, studying music helps pupils understand and recognize patterns.
Scales and intervals, pitch and rhythm are all based on mathematical concepts and proportions. Greek physicist, Pythagoras experimented with musical intervals as ratios. The octave,(8th) perfect 4th and 5th are all ‘hearable’ and in a way we can automatically sense these soundings. Numerical ratios are at work in the relationships between notes separated by musical intervals as they are between distance and time.
Classroom activities can explore at different levels, many cross-curricular themes.
Along with the music and physics/mathematics link, there are others that offer a wealth of research and project opportunity:
Music and Language (examining poetry through verse and meter). Many poems have been the inspiration for great musical compositions and many more set to music for solo or choral performance. The whole phonetical element used to teach speech in the early years is very much tied to the syllabic structure of words, rhyme and rhythm, leading in time to sentence construction.
Music and History/Geography (a traditional folk-song offers a way into history and story). Every country across the world has its own repertoire of music, with a great diversity of style and nuance. Regions have their own distinctive musical traditions. Some instrumental music and songs are joyous, lively and full of energy reflecting celebration, coronation and victory. Others express sadness, loss, sorrow and the pain of war. The memory of a nation is echoed in its music and the folk ballads that they sing give us a great insight into what the people held as most precious.
Music and Religion (hymns, anthems and the bible). The history of music can be traced back to biblical times and beyond when people experimented with sounds created by blowing through pipes (flute) and pulling on strings of different lengths (harp/lyre). Biblical references to these early instruments are plentiful. The first signs of musical notation can be traced back to 2000 BC and the stave system used today has its origins in the 9th Century monastic chant. One can begin to see the many ways that music and its appreciation has a worthwhile value in classroom study.
While it is true to say that music is applied mathematics, the final object of musical study is not the notational script but the corresponding sounds, - the actual real life musical event it represents. To this end, the practical performance develops in children self-expression, stage presence, voice projection and confidence that cannot easily be taught in other disciplines.
It is difficult to measure the long-term impact of how music benefits those who formally study it while in school.
In the end, as a simple listener, there is a sense that music is about a homecoming to the heart of our very self.
Some professional musicians can relate how it has opened a career avenue for them in orchestras, bands and the film and theatre industry. Amateurs and music lovers will recount the impact it made on them in helping to shape character and use leisure time constructively.
In the end, as a simple listener, there is a sense that music is about a homecoming to the heart of our very self. There is no end to self-knowledge as one of the key aspects of our schooling. It all begins with learning how to equip ourselves to listen well and continuously to the sounds of the world around us. Beyond what we understand about ourselves, great music can reveal to us deep and lasting truths. Music is in our DNA, it is part of who we are, what we do and where we come from. It is much more than notes in a chord, words on a page or beats in a bar. It consoles and connects, it provokes and persuades. In a concert with thousands or in a world of our own, music is a moment in time that touches and expresses mystery.
Our listening never ends and becomes fine-tuned in our maturing as we move through life. When the English composer Elgar was asked to listen to a young and gifted singer at the request of her friends who sought his expert opinion - ‘She’s good’ he said, ‘but not great’. ‘She will be great when her heart is broken’.
Communication is never complete. Our emotions and struggles, pains and joys combine to make us the people that we are. We bring all this to our songs, so many of which tell a human story. When those words fail, music speaks and as Schubert wrote "all music begins and ends in silence."