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The Language of Music Advocacy

In a recent class I was teaching on music entrepreneurship, during an idea/feedback section of the class, I became mystified at many students’ inability to express in words the importance of music. Their ideas were wonderful: full of social impact, caring and dedication, but their ability to communicate effectively about the “why” of them was severely limited.

I concede that this is no easy task. Those to whom we speak come from varied backgrounds, and while one set of well-constructed remarks may touch one segment of the group, it may also leave another blank. And some of the magic of effective communication is reading one’s audience and tailoring the core message to it.

However, in thinking about how to teach the language of advocacy I came across a piece of work I did around 10 years ago on the intrinsic value of music. I had been asked to share the podium at an American Symphony Orchestra League conference with Mike Huckabee, the then just-retired governor of Arkansas. Mike was asked to speak about his advocacy for music education in Arkansas during his governorship. I was asked to speak generally about the value of music.

In preparation for this task I conducted a type of meta-analysis, amassing material form as many sources as I could find. What I found sifted the “arguments” for the value of music into roughly 6 domains. I decided that these domains were portals, or doorways through which one could choose to enter into the value of music.  As preparation for my upcoming task of teaching music advocacy, I thought I should revisit these portals and see how they might set the table.

The first of these portals is the celebrations and rituals portal. Most people need to be reminded that weddings, funerals, national holidays, sporting events, etc. rely on music for emotional impact.

The second of these portals is the cultural history and legacy portal, that music provides a window to one’s own culture, and to those of others, and as such evokes personal understanding, empathy and has the potential to build social bonds.

The third portal is related to the two above, but differs in my opinion. It is the voice of the community portal. Here music has the power to express the sense, vision or response of a community (state, nation) to an event or movement, and as such moves the community to a more in-depth understanding and leads to stronger social bonds.

The fourth portal I call the innovation and creativity portal that in perceiving new or new-to-the-listener organized sounds, one’s sense of creativity is stimulated, one’s openness to innovation, one’s imagination is enhanced. This portal speaks to Richard Florida’s thinking, but also acknowledges the ability of music to evoke physic-psychological action.

The fifth portal is the complete education one, that music provides an essential element in the complete education of an individual, not in the “knowing about music” sense, but in the whole brain concept, that it nurtures those parts of our brains that process emotion, feeling and abstraction, and in doing so, leads to better mental functioning. One could call this the “Howard Gardner” portal, in that it acknowledges the brain’s multi-functionality and the need to use it and develop it fully.

The last doorway is the individual portal. Here the individual is nurtured, inspired, and given freedom to contemplate, to be personally and privately allowed to process the complex and rich emotional and intellectual content of this unparalleled art form.

Now – onto the task of how to teach this!


  1. Elaine Martone says:

    Dear James,
    This is a wonderful way of quantifying why music is important to human beings. Thank you!
    In my view, there is one more huge aspect about music (and all of the arts) that is paramount: music provides human beings access to something beyond themselves, to the eternal. And the language of music is unlike any other language, and so “speaks” to us in an entirely other way. Do you think that is covered in the above portals?
    Elaine Martone, formerly Telarc Records, now Executive Director, Spring for Music Festival

  2. Wait, there’s eight portals, the final one being our brain’s neurological predisposition to interpreting music far more basically that any other arts practice. This comes from “our” (Canadian) Dan Levitin and “your” VS Ramachandran. I’m sure there’s many others. Music is the genetic rhythm of our lives.
    Mike Levin –

  3. Terrific stuff, Jim!
    How about making this more specific and real? Asking students to prepare a 3 minute presentation for a specific funding initiative that they care about and prepare to present this to their local representative? Students could do these in class and analyze each other’s mini-speeches for content and presentation?

  4. Ed McKeon says:

    Thanks for this, it’s a really helpful summary of the arguments that are usually wheeled out. I’m just not sure they’re all particularly convincing.
    For example, what ‘music’ are we talking about, and how is this distinguished from, say, sound art? Is it the same for a glee club close harmony group as it is for a doom metal band, for Carmina Burana as for La Monte Young’s Dream House? It’s a bit like trying to define why water is good for us, without reference to pollution and fluoridation.
    Ritual & ceremony? National anthems are the prime example, and there’s nothing intrinsically different from one anthem to another, whether ‘Deutschland uber alles’ or ‘God Save The Queen’.
    Cultural history and legacy? These are invented afterwards, like Scottish kilts (a 19th century ‘tradition’). You don’t have to scratch hard on the surface of most cultural traditions to find that as well as binding a group’s identity together, it’s also a means of excluding those who don’t belong to the group.
    Voice of a community? The first mass choirs were created by Francois-Joseph Gossec at the height of the French Revolution precisely to control music for ‘the people’, to prohibit “music which mollifies the French soul by its effeminate sounds”.
    I think there are grounds of an argument for music around innovation and creativity, but the cognitivist emphasis on emotion is over-wrought. Everyone acknowledges that emotions can be manipulated, and from our own experience we know them to be unreliable. And for whole-brain functioning, does it matter what we’re listening to? The manner of listening is surely as important.
    Don’t get me wrong, I can’t conceive of a world without music. I just think our understanding of it have to be more nuanced.

  5. Niall Crowley says:

    I think I’d like to know what your inarticulate students have to say because I found that those six ‘portals’ didn’t really do it for me. You seem to be interested in measuring the social use value of music – how it acts as a social glue, how it helps create good citizens with good all round brain functions, as if we are talking about essential vitamins or something similar. This seems to echo the uninspiring ‘instrumentalist’ approach to the arts adopted by politicians, ‘arts professionals’ and educators over the last couple of decades. If we’re ever going to have the art and music we deserve, as well as inspire our young people, we need to move away from the instrumentalist orthodoxy and get them listening and appreciating great music (and art) for its own sake. The problem, in the UK at least, is that we are afraid to say what we think is good and what is not, and we indulge and accommodate the views and opinions young people who still have much to learn. For instance I have a good friend who is a very good percussionist specialising in Afro-Caribean music and he is frequently employed by our city orchestra as a music advocate to work in inner-city schools with large black and working class kids. While he’s a great percussionist and an extremely likeable individual, it’s the attitude of the orchestra that concerns me – they clearly don’t think it’s appropriate or possible to win ordinary kids over to the best, most beautiful and sophisticated music humans have made, but they HAVE gone along with the idea that music is somehow useful in creating social bonds and so on, so they attempt to connect with kids through music they believe the kids can ‘identify’ with, that is ‘socially relevant’ to them. For me, this is the worst, most uninspiring and patronising approach we could possibly take and I fear that your six portals resemble too closely this approach to music teaching.

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