Art is Not Just Art

Continuing my musings about building societal value in music, I come to an interesting point: Music, art in general, is not just music and art. It's also a service. Now, I personally hope that we can come to an age where music is learned just because music is awesome and fun. But the reality right now is, we have politicians who are deciding whether it is worth the budget space to fund music programs in schools across the country, and those politicians need "reasons" for music to be included. Especially in a culture which highly prizes its standardized testing, and is constantly giving weight to that which is testable and 'objective,' the arts tend to get shafted. How do you test music or art? How do you test its impact on the life of a person? You can't. Not really, because those values are totally subjective, holistic, and multifaceted. There is no multiple choice answer to the question "How has music made your life better?"

A. It lets me socialize with my peer group.

B. It helps me form my own identity distinct from other people.

C. It helps me learn how to regulate my emotions.

D. It lets me communicate with my grandmother who has Alzheimer's.

The list goes on, but "all the above" doesn't cut it because music is everything for everyone, and everyone has different issues, and you can't just say "This is the right answer. Oh, music helped you form a social life? Wrong, the correct answer was 'Music helped you regulate your emotions.'"

However! There are, of course, numerous benefits to music, both listening and performing. Granted, many of these benefits are merely correlations, as we find in the Dana Arts and Cognition Consortium. Things like art relating to increase in sustained attention, geometrical representation, long term memory, etc. They are careful to note these are not yet causally related, but that's why they exist. To help draw research attention to these correlations for further study.

Music Therapy

Music in the realm of medicine has been increasingly validated by science. I admit, when I first heard of "music therapy," I was pretty skeptical. It sounds awfully similar to a lot of snake oils we've had in the past. But then I started reading. Alleviating Alzheimer's has already been noted. But there are numerous other benefits as well. Everything from helping depression and bipolar, to speech and even movement therapy.

Oh man. Speech and movement therapy. Let me tell you about that. Paraphrasing from Oliver Sacks' book "Musicophilia": A patient, Samuel S., developed severe aphasia following a stroke. Regular speech therapy produced no results even after two years. Then, a music therapist heard him singing "Old Man River," though only managing one or two words of the lyrics. The therapist worked with him to recover the rest of the song, and soon other songs followed. After two months, Samuel was able to make short answers to questions.

Also from Oliver Sacks' "Musicophilia," regarding movement therapy: An old lady required surgery for her hip, which required a long period of immobilization, both before the surgery and after. However, even after recovery, the leg remained apparently paralyzed, with no obvious cause. Upon questioning, Sacks found that the patient's leg responded to movement while listening to Irish jigs. Wondering if, perhaps, dance music could help, they went through jig after jig, march after march, for weeks. At the end of it all, she had totally regained the movement in her leg.

The Usual Disclaimers

It should be noted, Oliver Sacks' book is filled with the extraordinary. It may be we cannot expect such phenomenal results from every person who needs therapy of one kind or another. However, research continues to show the benefits of music for people recovering from stroke, or suffering from Parkinson's or Alzheimer's.

The ultimate point is, music is not just music. Art is not just art. These activities have benefits beyond just the pleasure of doing them (which is, in itself, quite a motivation for including these activities in your life). One day, we will understand that we do art just for the sake of doing art. Until then, we should strive to remind everyone we can that there are powerful justifications for the inclusion of the arts in any educational program, and beyond.

Recommendations of the Day

I think I should recommend something in line with today's article. To that end, I highly suggest, almost demand, that you put Beethoven's Heiliger Dankgesang into your life. It is longish, about 15-20 minutes or so, but you will not regret it. The piece itself is a "Song of Thanksgiving," and is dedicated as such: "A Convalescent's Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity." This was written after a long period of illness, and is phenomenal in every respect.

Heiliger Dankgesang, Beethoven String Quartet op*. 135, 3rd movement**

*Opus. Meaning "Work."

** Longer compositions are often divided into units which are simply called "movements." A typical symphony, say by Mozart, has four movements. It might be helpful to think of them as chapters in a book.