Lessons without words: 10 things music teaches us about life

Music is a vital part of our lives but it is notoriously difficult to describe its effect on us in words. Can we try to describe some of the lessons we draw from our experience of music?

Here are 10 of the things we can learn through music:

1. We are defined by our relationship with others and we can achieve more by acting together: Music, like life, is intensely social. It assumes and requires an audience, even if that audience is a single performer listening to themselves. The production of music is so often social with different voices or instruments or melodic lines working together; combining and overlapping in ways which make sense. Contrasting accounts can fit together and produce something greater than the sum of the parts. Audience and performer share the experience and the boundaries are often blurred; as when the audience join in.

2. We don’t always need words to communicate: While language can be precise and specific, music shows that it is possible to be descriptive and reach people in ways that language cannot. It is effective but ineffable.

3. Everything is finite: everything has a beginning and an end and lasts for a finite length of time. We experience music in time; from the anticipation, hope and excitement of the opening sound to the dying of the last. Each self-contained piece of music is a reminder of transience and mortality.

4. Everything is changing: Music moves forward in time with us and takes us on a journey where the future is shaped by the past. The impact of what we are hearing now is shaped by what we have already heard. We will each be a different person when we hear the same music again and nothing happens exactly the same way again.

5. Things can represent other things: We love symbols and metaphors and we find ways to attribute human meanings to musical ideas; tunes, motifs so we decide ourselves what music means to us.

6. The same idea can be interpreted in many ways: A basic idea can be endlessly explored, embellished and modified. Our ideas evolve through playful, inventive and experimental processes. The cover version, the theme and variation or the development of a motif throughout a piece of music are models of evolution starting with certain constraints and rules from which to stretch and even break boundaries.

7. Other people can affect our emotions and change our mood: We identify and empathise with other human beings, we recognise our emotions in others and pick up on their feelings. Our response to music reminds us how susceptible we are to the emotional content of what is going on around us.

8. Repetition and familiarity are comforting: We get pleasure from recognising a theme or combination of sounds we’ve heard before. This helps reinforce our sense of identity while also allowing us to build the new using familiar elements from the past.

9. Difference and contrast are interesting: Shock tactics grab our attention and the appearance of the unfamiliar reminds us that we can ‘change our minds’ about something. Changes of rhythm, volume, sound quality and mood keep us interested and remind us of the possibility of change.

10. Dialogue helps us see things from a different perspective: When different instruments or voices seem to be in musical ‘conversation’ this reminds us of the process of dialogue and discussion where difference is expressed and explored, disagreement resolved and new understandings generated. Hearing different interpretations makes us aware of different perspectives.

These are important lessons and music in its mysterious non-verbal way can help us to learn them.

Copy of George Braque’s Man with Guitar by Gustavo Olmedo.go_art_man_with_guitar_copy_of_georges_braque_oil_painting_copy_by_gustavo_r_olmedo

About Eddie Playfair

I am a Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC) having previously been a college principal for 16 years and a teacher before that. I live in East London and I blog in a personal capacity about education and culture. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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