The Importance of Music in Everyonefs Life

Peter Rutenberg

Music Director, Los Angeles Chamber Singers

 

Music is part of our lives whether we realize it or not, whether we actively participate in it or not, whether we appreciate its power or not. This is, in fact, the real power of music ? that it can affect us whether we are aware of it or not. We need only think of the music heard on the soundtrack of most movies. We may be aware of the action and the dialogue, the scenery, costumes and special effects, yet music is supporting it all and guiding the emotional context. In the best films, music is an active team player, but in the worst of films, sometimes the music is the only thing holding the story together. So important is music to film that studio executives sometimes watch grough cutsh with a temporary music track, even before the actual score is written, to get a feel for how a particular scene will play over it.

Film is just one example. Television programs also have musical underscores. Many commercials use gjinglesh to help sell their products ? these are tunes we gjust canft get out of our heads.h Result: we remember the product! Radio provides music 24 hours a day, seven days week, in every style imaginable. We buy our favorite music in record stores. Finally, there is live music, be it school friends with a guitar during the lunch break, a nightclub with just a few tables, a religious service with a choir and instruments, or a large concert or giant arena where thousands are gathered to share in the experience of music making.

In prehistoric times, before our ancestors became masters of our world, life was mostly random and patternless, except for the seasons. Even they couldnft be counted on to produce rain, snow or sun at regular intervals. As fire was harnessed, as social order and language developed, as tools improved, the rhythms of life assumed a greater organization. Emotions developed as well ? from basic animal traits of pleasure and fear, contentment and anger ? into a much more complex system. Once the basic need to survive had been adequately addressed, humankind was suddenly freed in small measure to become introspective, and to contemplate its own existence.

Music was undoubtedly the accompaniment to all these discoveries. Imagine the first baby to hear its mother sing a lullaby. Imagine the first field workers to chant in rhythm as they planted or harvested. Imagine sitting around their campfires, celebrating the success of the dayfs hunt or lamenting the lack of rain. Before drums or flutes, before cave paintings, before basket weaving and clay pot painting, there was the human voice, capable even in earliest times of a vast range of expression. Somewhere, deep in our souls or collective unconsciousness, there is the sound of our own identity, of our connection to the universal power, which music amplifies to our great satisfaction. Whether we are aware of it or not.

So why should music play such an important and integral role in our lives? As it turns out, research over the last few decades has increasingly shown that music, and in particular the singing and playing of music, helps the brain develop much more fully and extensively, especially in our early years. Music makes us brighter, more intelligent, more logical, more rational, and more capable. It improves study habits and test scores. It builds a better sense of self and community. It aids in our general sense of well-being and improves our quality of life. At times, it brings us closer to the divine in all of us. A recent study even suggests that the act of singing improves the immune system. To answer a question with a question: Why shouldnft music play an important role in our lives?

Given what music can do for all of us, but especially for children, it is imperative that we work to offer opportunities for children to become exposed to music, and to begin to understand what makes it work and why. This is why Los Angeles Chamber Singers is so committed to educational outreach and so appreciative of the Shumei Arts Councilfs efforts to bring about Januaryfs What Makes a Chorus? Program. Other research by the San Francisco School District tells us that just one exposure to music, or to any of the other art forms, is all it takes to change a childfs life and keep him or her involved with the arts in some way. The window is open from birth through the age of 15, at its peak around eight, and the earlier the exposure the better. Additionally, early familiarity with many art forms increases tolerance for and pleasure in all art forms. Children and teens who only listen to rock music may grow dissatisfied with it when they reach their forties but will be too afraid or unfamiliar to try other genres. Those same children exposed to other forms in childhood may prefer rock during their twenties and thirties, but find the adjustment to classical or jazz easier and more familiar.

Some people have wondered why we take the approach Ifve come to call gdeconstruction.h Itfs actually in direct response to something I learned in an education course in college. The key term is gframe of reference,h or as Aaron Copland said, gWhat to listen for.h Nobody learns anything in this world without a frame of reference, that is, without some preparation for and understanding of the elements that comprise the topic of study. Take, for example, the sentence: gThe impending war with Iraq could either be the next Grenada or the next Viet Nam.h Most of us would recognize this to be a metaphoric reference to the length and severity of the conflict, with Grenada being a gpiece of cakeh and Viet Nam being a protracted disaster. We have a frame of reference that allows us to comprehend the full intent of that sentence.

Now, imagine that an immigrant child of 13 from a poor country had to stop his education in the third grade to help his parentsf farm, later moved to the United States, and finally returned to school. His English is poor and he has missed a large chunk of his education along the way. His social studies teacher asks him to read and explain that sentence to the rest of the class. He manages to say the words but canft begin to explain them. Yes, he hears gIraqh mentioned everyday in the news but doesnft know where it is on a map or anything about the first Gulf War. Hefs heard of Viet Nam and knows there was a war there a long time ago, but has no body of facts on which to draw, and, hefs never heard of Grenada. After other students answer the question, the first student awakens to an understanding that moments ago he lacked and this is due to his newfound frame of reference.

In music, each song or work exists in a context. Simple folk tunes are just that: easily accessible to anyone upon first hearing. The elements of basic RockfnfRoll are a standard chord progression, a catchy melody and lyrics, with some decorative additions. The Blues follow a standard chord progression, while the first line of text is repeated three times before the gpunch lineh is given. In classical music, the context, or frame of reference can be much more complex. For this reason, itfs important to break it down into smaller, more intelligible pieces. For example, a beautiful 17th century motet for double choir may be quite sonorous and entertaining on its own. But once itfs explained that: the first chorus is comprised of higher voices who represent the angels in heaven; the second chorus of lower voices represent the people on earth; theyfre having a conversation about a miracle; the miracle happens when both choruses sing together for the first time; and we can tell that because the rhythm changes from a quick chatter to very slow, long notes, while the harmony changes from simple chords with shared notes to complex harmonies with no shared notes. With this information, the listener can have a much deeper experience with the music while itfs being performed, and, equally importantly, remember something about it later ? all because of frame of reference.

In Mozartfs time, the aristocracy was well-educated in all facets of music, especially the formal structure, and knew the capabilities of each of the instruments. They could appreciate when music was played well because, in all likelihood, they had learned to play an instrument or two and had built up quite a library of scores. Before electricity, there was only live music, so many people automatically learned to play or sing to keep themselves entertained. When they went to hear a new symphony, they knew in advance that it would have four movements, that the first would be an allegro (fast tempo) in sonata form (AABBCAB, where A and B are contrasting themes and C represents a lengthy thematic development of those themes); the second would be a slow and graceful movement; the third would be the minuet and trio (a shorter, dance-like movement with a contrasting middle section and a reprise of the minuet); and a finale which was also marked allegro, in one of several forms, such as a rondo. They also knew about key structure and relationships, so that if the first movement were in C, the second might be in F, the third in C for the minuet and G for the trio, and the finale again in C. With this grand set of expectations or frame of reference, they would be able to see the composerfs latest creation in the context of all the other symphonies they had heard, and would recognize at every step what was usual, what was a departure, and how successful the composer had been at both. When you listen to music with this level of understanding, you canft help but be actively engaged in the process and its outcome. You canft help but marvel at the true genius of the master composers. And you canft help but grow as a human being.

There is only one way to accomplish this level of musical literacy and take advantage of all its inherent benefits: that is to keep music a part of every school curriculum. Itfs the path to well-being, harmony, and peace. Itfs the path all of us need to continue to follow.