The Arts: The Only Subjects that Educate the Soul (Day 3 of Homemade Music)

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Welcome to 31 Days of Homemade Music! Today we are exploring some of the reasons why everyone can benefit from being an active participant in music. To find more posts in this series, click here.

Violin(Photo Credit)

Once a mother lamented to me that her son had to take extra study time out of his day to bring up his grade in music class. She groaned that music was extracurricular, and was frustrated that he had to squander his already precious hours on it. I guarantee you that this woman is not the only mother who ever felt this way.

So why do I think its so important that the common person create at least a little homemade music for himself, even as an amateur?

I began to develop an an answer to this question when I sat in on a District Band concert as a student teacher. The superintendent of the school gave a brief speech towards the end of the performance, running through the usual thanks and acknowledgements. She said somewhere in the midst of her pomp that “music has been shown to greatly help students in their academic success,” and therefore, she believed it held great value.

While in many ways her statement was correct, what this woman didn’t know was that her statement was incomplete at its core. And boy, did she get schooled by the district band director. I will forever be grateful to this man for his reply.

He stood up and thanked the superintendent politely for her kind words and her welcome into the school. Then he said, very kindly, “With all due respect, ma’am, I beg to differ with a statement that you made. You stated that music helps students with academic success. I would like to say that it doesn’t only help student succeed academically- musical success is academic success.”

He went on to state the various benefits of music that don’t get developed in other ways- for example, having to read music (a language, really) in accurate time without lagging (to keep up the tempo of the song) while performing physical tasks of your particular instrument with great accuracy is something unique to music alone. He mentioned some other things about music’s benefits- it’s mathematical properties, it’s communal properties, and other advantages that don’t really happen in your typical class subjects. (We’ll talk more about some of these tomorrow.) But then he said something I’ll never forget:

“The arts are the only subject that educate the soul.”

“Let me ask you a question,” he continued. “When has a math teacher ever turned to you after an assignment and asked, ‘Now, how did that problem make you feel?’ In what other area do we teach children to process their emotions? What other subject can be such an outpouring of the soul than the arts?”

Now, of course, the soul means different things to different people, and the statement that the band director made could perhaps be considered vague. Perhaps we could say the soul is that non-material, essential part of us that is who we are at core. Some (myself included) would say that the soul is eternal, and therefore the most valuable part of your being. There are wide and varied philosophies on this matter- and then once we decide what the soul is, well, how do we educate it?

Existential questions aside, I think we can safely recognize that music does more than just sound out pitches and rhythms in time. It can elicit emotional and heartfelt responses that go beyond simply recognizing the frequency of the sound waves you hear, and those responses in turn can help as to develop, learn, and grow as a person. (Maybe that growth is the education part!) At the very least, we can certainly say that the arts can reach to our immaterial parts in ways that other disciplines cannot.

Think about it. Music can change your mood- it can soften those who are angry and uplift those who are in pain. It can help you express a feeling you’re having a hard time putting into words. It can help temper your passions or make your passions more communicative. Writing music can help develop your creativity, and listening to music attentively develops your critical thinking.  Music can build your sensitivities, your insight, and your intuition. It builds kinship and community between fellow members of an ensemble. The possibilities of “soul education” are endless.

It turns out the District band director’s statement is no new idea. People throughout the ages have revered the study and creation of the arts to be necessary to a complete education and complete person-hood.

For example, Plato says in Book III of The Republic (free for Kindle): “And therefore… musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful: and also because he who has received this true education of the inner being will most shrewdly perceive omissions or faults in art and nature, and with a true taste, while he praises and rejoices over and receives into his soul the good, and becomes noble and good, he will justify blame and hate the bad, now in the days of his youth, even before he will recognize and salute the friend with whom his education has made him long familiar.”

Later, in the same section, Plato asks, “For what should be the end of music if not the love of beauty?” (You can read more of the excerpt on music from The Republic here. Thank you, Theory of Music, for posting this!)

Plato was also quoted to have said, “Music is the movement of sound to reach the soul for the education of its virtue.” (Source)

Who else spoke of the wholesome effect of music on the soul? According to the Monticello website, Thomas Jefferson said to his daughter, “Do not neglect your music. It will be a companion which will sweeten many hours of life to you.”

Music Advocacy Groundswell has gathered a large selection of quotes that gives us some insight into how music can help to develop the whole person. Here are some of my favorites from their long list:

“Music has the power of producing a certain effect on the moral character of the soul, and if it has the power to do this, it is clear that the young must be directed to music and must be educated in it.”- Aristotle, Politics

“Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” -Berthold Auerbach

“If you would know if a people are well governed, and if its laws are good or bad, examine the music it practices.” Confucius, Analects

“I think I should have no other mortal wants, if I could always have plenty of music. It seems to infuse strength into my limbs and ideas into my brain. Life seems to go on without effort, when I am filled with music.” -George Eliot

“Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.” – Victor Hugo

“The life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of the nation, is close to the center of a nation’s purpose – and is a test to the quality of a nation’s civilization.” – John F. Kennedy

“The language of music is common to all generations and nations; it is understood by everybody, since it is understood with the heart.”- Gioacchino Rossini

“The man who disparages music as a luxury and non-essential is doing the nation an injury. Music now, more than ever before, is a national need.” – Woodrow Wilson

Alexandra York wrote a wonderfully persuasive article at Arts Reformation that outlines why art education needs to be “the fourth R” in academics. Art, York says, can help people to observe reality, make judgements, understand the human condition, express values, train the mind, and unite emotion and reason. I highly recommend you take 15 minutes to read through this if you have any question about the value of studying art.

You see, the arts in general give gifts to students (and I don’t just mean young people) that they simply cannot receive from merely learning how to sound out letters or add number to number. The arts teach us subtle discernment and perception. They aid in processing and expressing emotions with exactness and appropriate sentiment. The arts encourage careful consideration of morality, philosophy, and other important ideas worth thinking about. They can help to build character, and touch the deepest parts of the human heart.

I believe that God created us as creative beings, with a soul and heart that need to be cultivated in conjunction with the mind- not separately. Questions of life, faith, pain, joy, and all the depths and range of our most meaningful and perplexing thoughts can be spoken of and to in song, dance, literature, poetry, or visual art. The beauty of music, by its nature, draws our minds out of ourselves, and onward to broader thoughts. I believe that we are, as part of our humanness, meant to delve into the arts as full participants. Why? Because they have a unique ability to focus our attention on the more important questions of life.

Still not sold on the arts being integral to being human? That’s okay, studying music for yourself still has plenty of other benefits that are far more appropriate for you pragmatists. Come back tomorrow to read about the practical benefits of making music. For now, I will leave you with a favorite quote from York’s article:

“So we begin to see the vital importance of fine arts education, the invigorating and reinforcing spiral of experience inherent in learning the various art forms. From art form to art form and back and forth between real life and art, the senses, the intellect, and the emotions flow together, charging each other along the way with powerful images, sounds, and ideas. Students of art become students of life. Once they experience the arduous bliss of creating art, some will pursue it as a profession, of course. But the purpose of art study is not to make artists of our young people; it is to help them become complete human beings.”

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P.S. I do realize this is not a full discussion of all the philosophical questions involved in how music can affect the immaterial part of us. Neither is this post intended to say that music somehow replaces the necessity of soul-searching in other ways. It’s merely meant to jog some thoughts about how music as an art is important for us as humans, and how it can reach the core of our beings. Share your thoughts below!




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