The below article is an edited extract from my recent thesis for Sunderland University, on the benefits of music on wellbeing. Over the next few ‘chapters’, I shall investigate the aesthetic, holistic, physical and education angles of music as an aid to improving wellbeing.
But first, an introduction into the value of music within itself, or rather, the value we humans place upon it. I hope you enjoy reading this and the instalments to follow. If you have any comments please do not hesitate to contact me.
The intrinsic value of music
‘For humans, music is a means of expressing and experiencing ‘love, excitement, joy, sadness and even spiritual fulfilment’ (Green, 1986, p. 69). John Cage (1952) famously stated that ‘everything is music’. By contrast, Claude Debussy remarked that ‘music is the space between the notes’ (quoted in Green, 1986, p. 70). This does, however, imply that some organisation of notes is required, if only to determine the length and perceived colours of these spaces, and the impact they may have upon hearing them.
Nicholas Cook (1998) elaborates further on the meaning of music, maintaining that music’s value is paramount due to its presence at the heart of everything we are and do as a species:
Rather than being something apart, music is in the very midst of things. In fact it’s less a ‘something’ than a way of knowing the world, a way of being ourselves. (Cook, 1998, p. vii)
Some believe the meanings we take away from music will always be unique to us; that everything we feel from music, good and bad, exists solely ‘in the audience’ (Cage, 1968, p. 97). This further demonstrates a need for contextualisation or interpretation on the part of the listener. However, I believe it carries the same underlying message as Cook (1998): music is not only important to us, but the listener will apply some means of interpretation to it, whether by concentrated thought or subconsciously. What the listener may discern from these sounds is effectively up to the listener alone.
Of course, what music we chose to consume is in part formed and shaped by our social conditions, with some allowances for personal taste (Shuker, 2008, p. 173). Martin (1995, pp. 75-76) even suggested that some forms of music can be shaped based on the traits and characteristics of the society from with it originates. This sentiment is, to some degree, rebuffed by Matthew Kieran (2013), who believed certain pieces had more relevance to an individual than another might:
To value Bach’s Cello Suites just because they cheer me up implies that they are replaceable by something that performs the same function as well or better, whether it be a feel-good movie or a night out. However, to find intrinsic value in a work is to appreciate the imaginative experience it properly affords, which may be beautiful, moving uplifting, pleasurable, insightful or profound. But it is the particular nature of the work that guides our active mental engagement and responses to it. Hence there is something about the experience of a particular work, if it is intrinsically valuable, that cannot be replaced by another. (Kieran, 2013, p. 289)
Citing Barber’s Adagio for Strings as another example, Kieran (2013) made further interesting observations on the nature of music’s value to the individual as art:
In terms of technical musical complexity the piece is relatively simple and yet in terms of expressivity it is a great piece of music…It is no coincidence that the Adagio for Strings has been used for state funerals and as the thematic music for Oliver Stone’s Platoon. The piece of music may not be about anything in the strict representational sense, yet its expressive development moves between melancholy, grief and reconciliation. (Kieran, 2013, p. 289)
Kieran’s (2013) argues that while other pieces of music may express similar sentiments to Barber’s Adagio, due to subtle differences, they can never do so in exactly the same way. This implies the listener is investing emotions onto the music, rather than the other way around. This poses some difficulties in using specific musical pieces as therapy. While drugs have an overall blanket effect on the body, whether our minds will them to or not, ‘good artworks are not dispensable in the way drugs are…in the case of art the experience is a result of our active mental engagement with the work’ (Kieran, 2013, p. 290).
Stecker (1997, 2010), on the other hand, holds the view that art is instrumental in value. We value music because of the experience it affords; the ends it realises. Kieran (2013, p. 290) differentiates between Stecker’s (1997, 2010) viewpoint that art is instrumental in value, and his own belief that art has an inherent value. He argues that money, for example, has no value in itself, and is purely of instrumental value to gain materials or realise certain situations. However, the relationship of money to the ends it can supply is entirely external. The only way by which the outcome is affected by money is as means of its attainment. Meanwhile music, to paraphrase Lynn H. Hough (1920), is more about the journey than the destination. So to find inherent value in music, it can’t merely ‘be the means to a valuable end, but also the means must partly constitute and thus be internal to the ends involved’ (Kieran, 2013, p. 290).
To that end, Rycenga (1994) described how music, and her own compositional process, gave her the confidence and freedom to be comfortable and active in her own sexuality, thus highlighting the human value of music on an emotional level:
All of these summoned a strongly physical response from me. If it had not been for the ways in which music acted upon me, music acted in me, music touched me, it is unlikely that I would have been able to act as decisively in a physical sense as I did. (Rycenga, 1994, p. 276)
To be free to be yourself, comfortable in who you are, implies an improved state of wellbeing compared to a repressed individual. This is especially true in coming to terms with your sexuality (Tasker & McCann, 1999, p. 34).
So what is the value of music in relation to our own wellbeing? Can music, the planned organisation of pitch and rhythm be beneficial as an aid to our overall physical condition or improved mental health? In attempting to find the value of music in human wellbeing, I will look across three main areas. In chapter one, I will examine music’s effect on feelings of pleasure, followed by an overview of how music therapy is being used to improve mental health.
The following instalments in this blog series will feature the next chapter in my thesis, focusing on the use of music to improve physical health. This will include studies evaluating its application as a means of pain relief. Finally, following Merriam & Kee’s (2014) view that better educational wellbeing leads to an improved adult life, the following chapters will look at the application of music therapy in schools. This will include a case study, undertaken by myself, examining the benefits of music-based interventions for literacy improvement in children with special education needs (SEN). Relying on current thinking by the best practitioners and writers in this relatively new field of study, the following instalments will attempt to determine the value of music in our lives, beyond the ephemeral, beyond existing objectively as art.
Cage, J. (1952) 4’33’’. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JTEFKFiXSx4 (Last Accessed: 12/05/2012).
Cook, N. (1998) Music: a very short introduction. Great Britain: Oxford University Press.
Green, B. (1986) The inner game of music. United States: Pan Books.
Kieran, M. (2013) ‘Value of art’, in Gaut, B. & McIver Lopes, D. (eds.) The routledge companion to aesthetics. 3rd Edition. USA & Canada: Routledge, pp. 289-298.
Martin, P. (1995) Sounds and society: themes in the sociology of music. Great Britain: Manchester University Press.
Merriam, S., & Kee, Y. (2014) ‘Promoting Community Wellbeing: The Case for Lifelong Learning for Older Adults’, Adult Education Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 2, pp. 128-144. Available from: 10.1177/0741713613513633.
Rycenga, J. (1994) ‘Lesbian compositional process: one lover-composer’s perspective’, in Brett, P., Wood, E. & Thomas, G.C. (eds.) Queering the pitch: the new gay and lesbian musicology. Great Britain: Routledge, pp. 275-296.
Shuker, R. (2008) Understanding popular music culture. Third edition. USA & Canada: Routledge.
Tasker, F., & McCann, D. (1999) ‘Affirming patterns of adolescent sexual identity: the challenge’, Journal of Family Therapy, Vol. 21, No. 1, pp. 30-54.