Tuesday, 31 October 2006

8: The Power of Music

8: The Power of Music

Susan Hallam

Institute of Education, University of London

In 2000, I was commissioned by the Performing Right Society in the UK to undertake a review of research entitled 'The Value of Music'. The purpose of the review was to provide hard evidence of the effects of music to be used as a resource for musicians working in a range of areas who needed to justify funding for a variety of musical activities. The necessity for such a resource had become apparent as the place of music in the school curriculum, the provision of instrumental music lessons, funding for community music and the arts in general had come under threat from policy makers. On completion of the review it became apparent that the proposed title was inadequate to reflect the immense impact of music in our lives and the final document was entitled 'The Power of Music'. It is available on the World Wide Web at www.thepowerofmusic.co.uk. This advocacy statement is based, in part, on the findings of that review but also on my own experiences as a professional performing musician, a music educator, and a researcher into learning and performance in music. Outlined below are some of the key areas where music benefits humankind beyond its value in providing pleasure, stimulation and solace.

Individual skill development - Making music utilises a great many skills and elicits a wide range of responses, more perhaps than any other human activity. Participating in making music requires the development of aural, intellectual, physical, emotional, communication and musical skills in addition to high levels of commitment, motivation and organisation. The immediate time frame within which music is performed also elicits very high levels of concentration.

Responses to music - The responses of human beings to music go beyond 'sound'. Music can be experienced physiologically (e.g. changes in heart rate); through movement; through mood and emotion; and cognitively (through knowledge and memories, which may be personal, or related to the music itself, e.g. its style or period). The fact that music is processed multiply and has physical, emotional and cognitive effects may be the key to its power.

The functions of music in society - Music has an important role to play in the functioning of society and has had for many thousands of years. No human culture appears to be without music. Singing, in particular, seems to be universal. Music is invariably expressed in relation to religion, celebrations and dance. It forms a part of all major occasions and celebrations, including weddings, funerals, pageants, rites of passage and festivals. It is also involved in the human preoccupation with seeking altered states of consciousness as part of ritual, individual day dreaming, prayer, meditation or drug use.

Communication - In most cultures, music serves to assist in the process of increasing communication and enabling people to function together more effectively. It provides a means of expressing a wide variety of human feelings, love, sadness and a sense of belonging which people sometimes find difficult to verbalise. Making music and sharing its meanings within a culture or particular environment leads to cohesion and the strengthening of social unity. It can be a powerful means of maintaining the continuity and stability of societies through folk music and songs which give accounts of myths and legends and record important events.

The anti-establishment role of music – Music can allow the expression of an identity which is counter to societal norms. In some cases, it can be a powerful tool for change. It can play an important role in unifying and exemplifying solidarity in those who are challenging societal norms and practices.

Music in our everyday lives - Throughout the 20th century, the development of the electronic media revolutionised access to and use of music. We can turn on the radio, play a CD or tape, or listen to music on video or TV with very little effort. Prior to these developments, music was only accessible for most people if they made it themselves or attended particular religious or social events. Now, people 'consume' music at an enormous rate. It has become an integral part of our everyday lives in a way which would have been unthinkable 100 years ago.

Music in art - In addition to the value of music as an art form in its own right, music has always played an important role in the theatre, TV, films and video. Many great cinematic moments appear meaningless without the accompanying music.

The music industry - Music is a substantial economic generator of income in most developed countries employing many thousands of people. To sustain this requires a supply of musicians, not only to perform, but to undertake those many tasks behind the scenes which nevertheless require high levels of musical expertise.

Music and medicine – Music has been used to support health education, reduce anxiety and pain in medicine and dentistry, increase relaxation, improve recovery rates, stimulate the immune system, support rehabilitation after brain damage, help children with progressive neuromuscular disorders, improve co-ordination and difficulties in movement, reduce the negative effects of Alzheimer's disease, tend the complex physical and spiritual needs of the dying, and help people work through grief and depression.

The effects of music on early development - Music can support the development of gross and fine motor activities, language skills, some aspects of somato-sensory co-ordination, some cognitive behaviours, and encourage sucking and promote weight gain in babies, particularly those born prematurely or underweight. Musical interactions between mother and baby help develop bonds of communication and facilitate speech development.

Personal and social development - There are demonstrable positive effects of involvement with music on childrens' personal and social development, particularly for low ability, disaffected pupils and those of low economic status. There is also some evidence that involvement in music can increase social inclusion.

Music for all - Increasingly musical opportunities are being created to enhance the quality of the lives of those who have aural impairments, learning difficulties, and autism. Music has also been used to support the learning of children with emotional and behavioural difficulties.

Music, commerce, advertising and work - Music has always played a major part in our work activities being used to co-ordinate movement, alleviate boredom, develop team spirit and speed up the pace of work. Nowadays, the commercial and industrial uses of music constitute major industries. Music is a major component of consumer marketing. It is effective in enhancing the appeal of products and in promoting memory for them. It has also been used to manipulate consumers shopping, eating and drinking habits. The type of music we listen to may also be able to predict consumer behaviour. Ratings of the depressive content of the most popular songs in the USA have also predicted gross national product with a one to two year time lead.


Most people hear music for substantial proportions of time each day. It plays a major part in our everyday lives and has major benefits in relation to our well-being and development. It is unthinkable, therefore, that it should not be studied by young people within compulsory education systems. In addition, the demand for music continues to increase. To support this, young people need to be provided with opportunities to acquire the necessary skills to work in the music industry.

Further reading: The full report is available on the web at www.thepowerofmusic.co.uk or free in hard copy from The Performing Right Society, 29/33 Berners St, London W1T 3AB

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