Making Meaning with Music

Making Meaning with Music This month’s Head of School blog is guest written by Ben Krauss, the choral director at Morristown Beard School. In addition to leading the School's various singing groups, he also serves as the music director for the Upper School and Middle School musicals each year. Prior to working at MBS, Ben was an active conductor, pianist, and arranger in the New York City metropolitan area and served on the music team for two Broadway musicals – The Addams Family and The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Have you ever sat in a theater or concert, listening to musicians ready their instruments before a performance and experienced a heightened awareness of all your senses as the violin strings began to vibrate? There’s a profound power associated with music, no matter how you partake. But it’s not just a creative or sentimental expression; music is structural, mathematical and architectural. It’s based on relationships between one note and the next. While it may feel intuitive, your brain is actually doing a lot of computing to make sense of it. 

Music has deep historical and cultural roots, given all known societies around the world have adopted some form of music. Early humans were playing bone flutes, percussive instruments and jaw harps more than 30,000 years ago. Humans seem innately drawn to music; while different cultures may find different meaning from musical sounds, every culture has some sort of relationship with the art form.

Research shows that music activates many parts of the brain at once, which supports learning across disciplines. For example, musical concepts show students how to count, recognize patterns, and think in fractions. Studies show that auditory skills from playing music have benefits for students in language and reading development. Beyond offering a creative outlet, practicing music helps younger students with fine motor skills and coordination.

There is no greater educational experience we can give our students than to allow them to become artists in our classes

Traditionally, most of a school curriculum deals with words or numbers (essentially verbal or quantitative learning). However, music classes ask us to think in sound, something we rarely get a chance to do. We do cognitive activities in music classes that we don’t do in other classes. In the MBS choral program, students, ranging from new 6th graders to high school seniors practice the skill of sight singing – seeing a piece of music written on the board and being able to sing from it. While the act may seem relatively simple to them, it requires a great number of skills we develop in class, all of which relate to using their minds differently than we do throughout the rest of the school day. Skills in music class include using the brain to think in sound, read music, develop ears to listen to music actively and make sense of what’s going on in the music itself.

Perhaps you identify as being left-brained (typically associated with being organized and logical). There is certainly a mathematical aspect to music, with rhythms being about relationships between durations of sound and silence, or the numerical relationships between harmonies as a piece of music progresses. On the other hand, the right-brain, which focuses more on creative expression, is quite obviously stimulated by music. Music can heighten our emotions, increase the tension in a film’s action scene, or move us to tears as we hear a soaring melody.

In fact, researchers at Johns Hopkins have had dozens of jazz performers and rappers improvise music while lying down inside an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) machine to observe which areas of their brains light up.  Their brains turn off areas linked to self-censoring and inhibition, and turn on those that let self-expression flow. Further research shows how music impacts brain function and human behavior, including reducing stress, pain and symptoms of depression as well as improving cognitive and motor skills, spatial-temporal learning and neurogenesis, which is the brian’s ability to produce neurons. 

In addition to these academic benefits to music, there’s also a social-emotional component. People feel more empathetic toward people with whom they’re making music. They say that among a group of singers, heart rates will synchronize. Moreover, singers bond and report themselves as happier people than non-singers. When making music together, people are deeply connected. Think about your experience of communal singing. Whether at a school or a religious service, singing is often used to build community. 

This connection between singers gets at the heart of why we study music. It isn’t for the academic success that often accompanies music students, and it isn’t even for the sense of empathy that musicians feel when playing with one another. We create music because we are human beings, and a life without music, theater, dance, and visual arts is less full than a life surrounded by these art forms. There is intrinsic value in the arts, and experiencing them strengthens our humanity. We have a great deal of experiential learning opportunities at MBS. For me, there is no greater educational experience we can give our students than to allow them to become artists in our classes, not just students observing and analyzing, but musicians, actors, dancers, who are creating works of art themselves as they rehearse and perform.

So next time you’re in a car or making dinner, put on a playlist. As your child looks at our curriculum guide, consider a performing arts class. They will not only build lifelong skills but will also deepen their humanity. Making music opens learning pathways but also helps us connect to ourselves, which is a reward in itself.


Wynton Marsalis:
Why Every Child Should Have Music Education

Eric Whitacre:
Choir - The Core of Who We Are

Alan Harvey:
Your Brain on Music

235 Studies on the Benefits of Music Education