Friendships Powerful Tool: Music Education

Mazie Preite

Throughout the past few centuries, many philosophies about what human societies should value most and strive to achieve have come and gone. These philosophies have differed greatly but, ultimately, they all played an important role of leading us to where we are today. Although there have been a lot of improvements to our general philosophies, there are also a few ways that the ideas of the past are arguably wiser. One example of this is our societal attitude towards friendship.

In societies of the past, friendship was more widely considered a vital and powerful aspect of human existence as well as a community as a whole. Although some may feel that that understanding of friendship is still prevalent today, simply by taking a look at the amount of consideration the topic receives in philosophies and institutions of past times and comparing that to today it becomes obvious that this is not the case. Many old philosophers that are still famous today viewed the topic as so important that it was worthy of discussion, and in some cases even whole chapters and books, in their works. To them, it seemed obvious that “A sense of community allows a society to remain one undivided polis and not two hostile and warring cities of rich and poor (Aristotle); it supports the formation of a general will despite individualistic and antagonistic differences (Rousseau); and it can unite, elevate, and make powerful a humiliated class in the general fight against systematic exploitation (Marxists)” and therefore friendship and community were worth spending time and energy to encourage and foster (Schwarzenbach, Fraternity, Solidarity, and Civic Friendship, 3).

Sadly, this is not the case today; over roughly the past century or so, friendship has become a neglected topic and talking point, even in the many conversations that it is so relevant to. With the loss of important public figures that are talking about and advocating for the consideration of friendship, it has come to be viewed much less as an important tool to support social cohesion and societal productivity and much more as a free, and therefore not a very valuable, human side effect.

In order to understand how this change took place, and to better understand how we must move forward, it is important to consider what shifted in our mindset to replace friendship as an important cultural value. Because the United States have been one of the most influential countries in bringing about this change as well as one of most affected by it, that is where we will focus but it is also important to acknowledge the impact that American ideals have on other nations. The U.S. is not the only country dealing with and discussing this issue and there is a lot of valuable knowledge to be gained by considering other countries and cultures in regards to this topic. Particularly for the United States, the idea of individualism took over the concepts of friendship and unity that were so stressed for centuries, and still continue to be stressed by other groups. For example, a large amount of stigma is associated with needing support from others in the U.S., whether it be moving back in with your parents as an adult, crying past a certain age, or going to therapy. All of these things show the need for another person or group in order to succeed. The concept of the ‘American Dream’ is based around the idea that a single person can achieve success regardless of the groups they may or may not belong to. Americans are valued based on how self-reliant and successful they are, not how generous and helpful they are to others or how willing they are to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their group. This idea of individualism is imbedded in all aspects of American culture, whether it is socially, economically, or politically.

It is only recently now that the consequences of having societies based on such values are beginning to be recognized and talked about. Reported rates of loneliness in America as well as European countries are increasing as well as depression and suicide. With these increases have also come more recent increases in campaigns and resources dedicated to decreasing these rates. Hopefully the recent appointment of the first Prime Minister for Loneliness in the United Kingdom is just the beginning of governments acknowledging the need for changes in regards to the declining mental health of its people. Overall, it seems like a search for ways to regain some of the ideals of friendship is on the rise and this is where I propose another solution worth considering: music education.

Although nine in ten adults already believe that students benefit from receiving music education, there are certain benefits to learning a musical instrument, or participating in a music classroom environment that are not considered as much as others (“Public Schools are Improving Their Grades, but Private Schools Remain at the Head of the Class”). For examples, there have been hundreds of studies done on the positive effects a music education can have on the rest of the child’s academic performance and test scores and the findings of these studies have been highly publicized but there are also many positive social effects that a music education can have on a child that are often forgotten about. This could largely be due to the lack of importance we place on group cohesion compared to individual achievements like test scores, gpa, and college acceptances in our individualist society.

In addition to these academic benefits of receiving a music education, “urban teachers also believe more strongly that music education can build 21st century skills, such as communication, critical thinking, problem-solving and innovation skills” as well as reducing the number of discipline problems that occur (NAMM Foundation and Grunwald Associates LLC). The number of studies being held that are interested in these other side effects that assist the student are increasing in hopes that the greater the understanding of just how much of a positive impact music and music education has on our lives, the greater efforts will be to provide music education to all. A study by Columbia University showing that “students in the arts are found to be more cooperative with teachers and peers, more self-confident and better able to express their ideas” is just one of these many studies producing exciting results in support of music education (Burton, J., Horowitz, R., Abeles).

So, overall there seems to be a noticeable increase in the interest surrounding the benefits of music to humans but the general acceptance that music is beneficial to us does not seem to be enough for us to push for more music education. This is in part due to lack of knowledge about the many diverse benefits but also because we are divided on what to do with this knowledge going forward. It seems that by receiving small pieces of information about the benefits of music (“Play your baby Mozart!” “Musicians have higher SAT scores” etc.), we have gotten overwhelmed and decided to ignore the facts rather than begin acting upon them.

It is unfortunate that people are continuing to be overwhelmed by and then ignore the data because in all actuality all you would need to know is quite simple. In general, those who study music do better in school, have higher levels of cognitive functioning, reason better, are more empathetic, are more confident, interact better with others, and feel more secure with their own identity. Even with this list that is leaving out many more specific benefits, that should be enough for you to consider implementing music more greatly into your or your children’s lives. Once that has been established, then you can consider other important questions such as: how and when exactly should I implement music into our lives?

If you decide you might want to incorporate music into your life more, the next step is to familiarize yourself with the many ways to do that. It is important to understand that, while there are more beneficial ways to do this, not everyone has the ability to do the same things and there is value to any activity involving music or art and creativity in general. There are many studies that have found that simply listening to music releases endorphins and oxytocin into our bodies. These are commonly referred to as “happy chemicals” for our body and they are also releases during physical activity, any sensory overload, strong emotions, or social bonding. Listening to music with others has also been shown to increase group cohesion and strengthen social bonds. Although it is exciting to know why listening to our favorite song really can brighten your day, “In order to fully reap the cognitive benefits of a music class, kids can’t just sit there and let the sound of music wash over them [but rather] they have to be actively engaged in the music and participate in the class” (Dr. Nina Kraus). This is one of the reasons so much of the advocacy around the benefits of music is applied to the fight for music education programs in public and private schools.

The second reason why creating good music programs in all schools is arguably the most important initiative based on the benefits of music is because the potential positive effects that a music education can have on an individual decreases as they age. This is because the more developed the student’s body and brain is, the less susceptible to great changes it will be. While there are still studies that show that musical training benefits us all to some degree at any age, iff the musical education occurs in childhood, it “fundamentally alters the nervous system such that neural changes persist in adulthood after auditory training has ceased” (Skoe, E. & N. Kraus). With new and innovative technology being created constantly now, it is becoming easier and easier to see the actual physical effects of listening to, learning, and performing music through many different machines including but not limited to things like brain scanners. In addition to these biological and physical based effects, many of the benefits observed from music education nicely compliment the struggles that children are going through and the new issues they are facing during adolescents so it is a great tool to provide them with. Studies have also shown that “adolescents with a higher pubertal development are especially likely to lose friendships with peers who do not engage in [similar] externalizing behavior, thus losing an important source of adaptive social control” which highlight the urgency of providing music education to children while they are still young and developing so that they can benefit from the social development that comes with a music education and have a greater chance of possessing the abilities to continue friendships past adolescents and be a better friend in general (Franken, Prinstein, …).

Even before researchers got involved, music teachers and parents of music students have long noticed differences in their students after they start their music education and have theorized about the power of music. If you consider the specific efforts and experiences involved in learning and performing music, it is not too hard to understand how it can improve a student. Lessons with a teacher introduces the child to an environment in which they receive support as well as constructive criticism that is in their best interest and they practice learning how to accomplish goals and improve from criticism daily. In addition to this, using your critiques to improve yourself can help to build self-confidence in the student. Typically, music education also includes many elements of group work, whether that be in a music theory class, choir, or a jazz combo. As a result of this, music students are forced to also consider the benefits of having bonds and creating friendships with others (a full orchestra is, in many ways, more powerful than a single clarinet) as well as forced to have to work with them and provide and take criticism from peers not just teachers. As we know from Alexander Nehamas, “In life, it is through little incidents that friendship is established, even if it sometimes finds expression during life’s most urgent moments” not solely in those urgent and dramatic moments and music partnerships are an ideal way to make friendships daily, (On Friendship, 89). Although all of these skills are beneficial for anyone to learn or further develop, they are most effective as well as most necessary for children to receive because there is a far greater chance that a child has not adequately developed these skills yet than an adult.

Music education is exciting not only because it promotes friendship bonds between students but because the specific types of friendships it allows students to exercise making.

A study published in 2016 recognized that children “tend to conform to their own group and prefer others who do so” from a young age and used musical preference to try and investigate the effects of shared knowledge between children because the reasons that this happens are so far unclear (Soley and Spelke). As they continued their study and found that “children both prefer others who know songs they themselves know, and avoid others who know songs they do not know” despite whether or not they liked the unfamiliar song, it seemed clear that musical knowledge and preference is a relevant tool to analyse group knowledge effects and patterns. There findings certainly suggest that children are very sensitive and selective attitude towards shared cultural knowledge from a young age, whether they are aware of it or not. This is probably in part due to social cues they have learned from their parents and those around them but could also be due to predetermined biological opinions on who is safe and why (there is a substantial amount of research supporting that we are born biased towards our own race, gender, etc. but some researchers argue that those biases do not show up until a few months into our lives). Even if we have yet to learn enough about why, it certainly seems that having or not having shared knowledge with someone has a powerful influence over a child’s social preferences and their chances of befriending them “both because it underpins effective communication and because it is conveyed by others through social interactions and therefore can serve as a marker of social group identity.”

By learning and understanding the powerful effects that shared cultural knowledge can have on a child’s friendship making choices, we gain yet another argument in support for music education. Teaching children about music not only benefits their cognitive abilities but it also creates shared cultural knowledge about music with every musician in the world. Musicians are one of the largest and most diverse populations in the world, especially so if being compared only to all other art forms. Therefore, music education creates a connection from this shared knowledge between a child and millions of people they would otherwise consider as an ‘other’ or very different from them. A music education allows them to make a connection with these people different from them, whether it be their music teacher, a fellow music student who looks or speaks different from them, or even just a musician they see on the screen from a different country, that they would otherwise have a much harder time connecting with. In short, a music education is an exercise in being forced to consider the full humanity and similarities between yourself and an ‘other’ that can help the student continue to do this in all aspects of their lives with anyone they meet.

Hopefully, at this point the benefits to receiving a music education as a child seem unavoidable and exciting. It is with this understanding that the fight for an adequate music education curriculum in all school systems is launched. Although the positive effects of learning music extend to all, especially all children, even within the population of adolescents there are groups that would benefit more greatly than others. The most important of these groups are lower-income communities, and therefore most often communities of color that have been historically disenfranchised and as a result receive, on average, worse educations, less opportunities, and higher risks of getting involved in street violence. Possibly because their greater need for it, “African-American and Hispanic parents generally believe more strongly in a wide array of potential benefits from music education, are more likely to have seen these positive impacts on their own child and more strongly support expanding music education programs [but sadly,] these parents also are more likely to report that there are no music programs in their schools (21 percent of African-American parents and 22 percent of Hispanic parents report this, compared to 15 percent of Caucasian parents) (NAMM Foundation and Grunwald Associates LLC).

Many people have noticed these trends and, as a result, many organization are being formed that aim to provide quality music educations for children in low income households that they would likely not receive otherwise. Music schools as well as things like instructional music applications and books hope to provide easier access to the music education that can have such a large impact on that student’s life. Through volunteering for multiple programs like these that provide low income students with music educations, I have been able to see first hand, and have heard an endless amount of stories about the positive effects learning music has on these children. Not only is it exciting to watch children become more and more musically proficient on their instrument but it is also fascinating to see how, as their skills improve, so does their grades in school as well as their confidence and ability to interact and foster friendships with their mentors and peers. Although people are beginning to wake up to some of the benefits of learning music, the social and friendship-oriented benefits have been sadly neglected for far too long and it is time we use the powerful benefits of a music education as a tool for promoting social harmony in a society that so badly needs it.

Works Cited

Burton, J., Horowitz, R., Abeles, H. Champions of Change, Arts Education Partnership, 1999. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED435581

Dr. Nina Kraus, director of Northwestern’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory. How Children Benefit from Music Education in Schools. https://www.nammfoundation.org/articles/2014-06-09/how-children-benefit-music-education-schools

Franken, Aart, et al. “Early Adolescent Friendship Selection Based on Externalizing Behavior: the Moderating Role of Pubertal Development. The SNARE Study.” Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, Springer US, 2016, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26897629.

NAMM Foundation and Grunwald Associates LLC, 2015. Striking a Chord: The Public’s Hopes and Beliefs for K–12 Music Education in the United States: 2015. https://www.nammfoundation.org/educator-resources/striking-chord-publics-hopes-and-beliefs-k-12-education-united-states-2015

Nehamas, Alexander. On Friendship. New York; Basic. 2016.

“Public Schools are Improving Their Grades, but Private Schools Remain at the Head of the Class,” Harris Poll, September 29, 2015. https://theharrispoll.com/americans-ratings-of-public-schools-are-on-the-rise-just-under-two-in-ten-believe-u-s-public-schools-provide-an-excellent-or-very-good-education-nationally-at-both-the-primary-19-for-grad/

Schwarzenbach, Sibyl A.“Fraternity, solidarity, and civic friendship,” AMITY: The Journal of Friendship Studies. 2015.

Skoe, E. & N. Kraus.  2012. A little goes a long way: How the Adult Brain Is Shaped by Musical Training in Childhood.  The Journal of Neuroscience, 32(34):11507–11510. http://www.jneurosci.org/content/32/34/11507

Soley, Gaye, and Elizabeth S Spelke. “Shared Cultural Knowledge: Effects of Music on Young Children’s Social Preferences.” Cognition, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Mar. 2016, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5516266/.