Essays On Music Affecting Social Change

“Music is an important and extremely useful tool in the way we learn and to deny its power is a waste of a truly wonderful resource” (Kristian David Olson). Though some would look at music as a small footnote in the progression of humanity, it is in fact a much greater force; for some, it defines their very existence. The fact is, music is a driving force in society; it has been present since the dawn of man. The average person spends several hours a day listening to music, whether they see it as a main activity or just as something to take up space in the background. It is not surprising, then, that music has a great effect on how humans think and act, possibly even affecting intelligence. Several studies have been conducted on this theory; though some results are questionable, the consensus view seems to be that music has the capacity for both positive and negative effects.

As a background activity, listening to music has been shown to positively affect mood, productivity, and even intelligence. As stated on the Reverse Spins website: “simply listening to music in the background while doing an arduous task can make it seem much easier, or in some cases […] ease the strain of an activity” (Olson). Whether it is merely a distraction from the stress of a situation or genuinely lifts the mood of the listener, music has been shown in several studies to increase productivity in this manner. In both cases, the listener often finishes the activity in a shorter period of time and with less residual stress. If implemented into the classroom or workplace, this effect could improve test scores nationwide and increase productivity of the working class. Besides improving mood, listening to music has even been shown to encourage intellectual growth, particularly among children. It has been widely observed that “children, teens, and even babies potentially benefit from listening to music, as music can be a stimulant to intellectual and cognitive development” (“Psychology of Music”). It is a possibility that this intellectual growth may sprout from the extra motivation that music grants (as mentioned earlier), providing room for further exploration and growth. It is also possible that the mental activity of memorization and counting beats may spur brain development; however, these effects would be minimal in the average listener. Whatever the actual causes of this effect, it seems that a more productive and intelligent society may develop within a musical environment.

Though the effects of merely listening to music are somewhat significant, the effects of musical education are even greater. Many experts agree that “with music lessons, because there are so many different facets involved, such as memorizing, expressing emotion, and learning about musical interval and chords, the multidimensional nature of the experience may be motivating to the IQ effect” (“Effect of Music on Children’s Intelligence”). A child taking music lessons greatly improves their comprehension of proportional math, which is of great importance in higher level mathematics. Besides the more obvious mathematical effect, the child will explore the lyrical rhythm and content of the music; understanding the vocabulary and rhythm of the musical language may allow them to improve both their reading and writing skills. So, in effect, an education in music will aid the child in what are considered by many to be the two most important and fundamental areas of study. On this same note, concerning failing students, music education has been shown to pull children from even the greatest depths of academic failure. As Olson says, “music can be one of the most influential factors in getting at-risk students motivated” (Olson). With a step outside of the normal, standardized educational system, the failing student may be able to see music as inspiration to do well in other areas of life. Through music, the student may now be able to express thought and emotion, make bonds with other musicians, and feel the need for self improvement. With these types of changes, the student will seek improvement both consciously and unconsciously in the classroom and in other areas of life. Through the observations and in-depth studies presented, it seems that the implementation of music education into the school system could solve many of the problems that test preparation classes and overbearing focus on core areas of education can not.

Despite the advantages music may offer to students, there is a possibility that music may also have negative effects upon impressionable young minds. The Suite 101 website, exploring both the positive and negative effects music can have, had this to say: “Certain types of music or more specifically, [music with] violent lyrics, are believed to have a negative impact on adolescents” (“Effects of Music on Children and Adolescents”). With the experience of music being so close to the human psyche, the listener naturally experiences both emotional highs and lows. While most would feel nothing more than a relieving cathartic effect, in some cases troubled adolescents have been pushed over the edge while listening to music, or encouraged in their self-destructive habits. Many documented suicides have taken place while music played in the background, and there is some speculation that extended listening could lead to anti-social behavior. However, cases of this are few and far between; often it seems that the subject was previously troubled, before music could have been pinned as the primary cause. In other words, music is not really the cause of the problem, though it clearly affects the mind and actions of the troubled adolescent. Furthermore, sexual promiscuity and excessive profanity in modern music (hip hop is specifically mentioned) have also been said to affect the young psyche. Again quoting from the Suite 101 website: “Sexually explicit lyrics and mounds of profanity exuberate through certain hip hop songs [which] can have a negative effect on the thoughts and feelings of adolescents” (“Effects of Music on Children and Adolescents”). Though there is no well publicized study as to the truth of this theory, mere observation might be evidence enough. To the casual observer, it may seem clear that both music and society as a whole have become more promiscuous as time passes. The prominent theory is that the explicit nature of some modern music has desensitized today’s youth to immoral thoughts and actions. Though not studied extensively, there is clearly a correlation between the subject matter of music and the actions of the listener; therefore, this theory cannot be entirely dismissed.

Using the resources provided and careful observation, it is clear that music is a powerful force in human society. Listening to certain music has been shown to improve mood, increase productivity, and even encourage intellectual growth, while music education can have an even greater effect. On the negative side, there are also correlations between promiscuous or violent music and destructive behavior; though some of these correlations can be attributed to a previously troubled youth, others are not so easy to dismiss. However wonderful or terrible it may be, music is a cornerstone of human culture; it is a learning tool, a method of communication, and, for some, a way of life. As such, it should be treated with respect.

Works Cited
Kelley, Tasha. “Effects of Music on Children and Adolescents.” Suite 101. 4 Feb 2011.
“Music Psychology” Win Mental Health. 4 Feb 2011.
Olson, Kristen David. “The Effects of Music on the Mind.” Reverse Spins. 4 Feb 2011.
“The Effect of Music on Children’s Intelligence.” Raise Smart Kid. 4 Feb 2011.

By William G. Roy

What’s that I hear now ringing in my ear
I’ve heard that sound before
What’s that I hear now ringing in my ear
I hear it more and more
It’s the sound of freedom calling
Ringing up to the sky
It’s the sound of the old ways falling
You can hear it if you try
You can hear it if you try

–Phil Ochs

Social movements are not just influenced by culture. Social movements have culture and they do culture. I want to think a bit about how they do culture. By doing culture, I mean the actions and relationships through which they engage in music, art, drama, poetry, literature, dance, etc. (Thus I am focusing more on the sociology of culture than cultural sociology). My book on the use of American folk music by activists in the 1930s and 40s People’s Songs Movement and in 1950s and 60s Civil Rights Movement distinguishes between the use of music as a medium of persuasion and music to cement movement solidarity (Roy 2010). It shows how the Civil Rights Movement used music more effectively than the People’s Songs movement because music became part of the collective action itself—the sit-ins, freedom rides, picketing, mass meetings, even passing time in jail. Activists in the Old Left such as Pete Seeger imagined singing unions and a singing movement, creating a vision, collecting songs, and training a younger generation. But the use of music as a medium of persuasion prevailed, treating music as an instrument of propaganda (cf. Lieberman 1995). For many historical and contextual reasons, the Civil Rights Movement was different: its institutional base was the Black church, where people frequently sang together; many leaders were trained at the Highlander School in Tennessee, where Pete Seeger and Ziphia Horton tutored song leaders in singable songs such as “We Shall Overcome”; many of the forms of collective action involved people congregated with time to fill. Thus many of the songs were light about persuading, educating, or radicalizing. Some were politically vague (“We Shall Overcome”) or even bereft of obvious political meaning (“Michael Rode the Boat Ashore”).

Most sociologists who write on the topic implicitly share the Old Left theory of the role of music in social movements—defining as political those songs that have political content and evaluating the significance of music in terms of its persuasive value. The most common approach to analyzing political music is to unpack political meaning in the lyrics, implicitly taking the role of a solitary listener. The most authoritative account of music and social movements by Ron Eyerman and Andrew Jamison (1998) situate music in a cognitive theory of social movements. While most sociology about music and social movements focuses on content, some such as Rosenthal and Flacks (2012) take a more inclusive approach addressing both political content and the functions that music plays for social movements. Roscigno and Danaher (2004) similarly show out country music became the basis of a movement culture for southern textile workers.

Clearly music and other arts[1] are important to social movements both for their content and persuasive power and for their power to bring people together (or create boundaries between them). The issue I want to raise here is the underlying model of how social movements work in each of the two approaches. Let’s call the first one, the evangelical model of movement building: people are seen as potential recruits who join a movement when they are converted to the movement’s beliefs. The goal of recruitment and movement building is to change belief systems and music (along with other arts) is valued for its persuasive power. Thus music is analyzed in terms of its message and how effectively the message is communicated. Potential recruits are seen as information processing, emotion producing, decision-making actors whose internal mental state must reach some threshold of belief before joining the movement. The term evangelical describes what the movements do—seek new recruits—and what the recruits do—accept or reject the invitation to become “born again.” Whether or not the potential recruits accept the invitation is seen to depend on characteristics of the recruits such as demographic characteristics, identities, or life experiences, and characteristics of the messages. What is crucial to the evangelical approach is that the recruit’s change in belief is temporally and analytically prior to participation.

An alternative approach to music and social movements might be called relational. By relational, I mean the qualities that span individual or collective actors. This is the underlying logic of network analysis. For example, dyads have qualities that cannot be reduced to single actors—equality or inequality, agreement or disagreement, linked or unlinked, dominant or subordinate, reciprocal or unreciprocal, cooperative or conflictive. There is no amount of information about any single actor in a dyad that can tell you about relational characteristics apart from knowledge about the other actor. For example, a poor person can be a part of an equal dyad or an unequal dyad, as can a rich person. Triads and larger networks also have relational qualities that are irreducible to smaller units—coalitions, centrality, density, etc. A relational approach to social movements would focus on the relationships among members, between members and non-members, and between the movement and targets.

The agenda for a relational approach to music and social movements would ask questions such as:

  • How music creates bridges or boundaries between groups. A musical bridge creates a feeling of “usness” between musical participants. (See Roy and Dowd 2010 for a fuller discussion of musical bridges and boundaries). Schutz  (1951) in “Making Music Together” describes how the micro-social experience of music experientially entrains people together, connecting musical participants in a common experience. Music is also central to social identities of race, gender, class, sexuality, and political commitment. While sometimes the bonds are reinforced by lyrical content, the music itself can be deeply linked to identity apart from the lyrical content.
  • How music is part of the ritual life of movements. Social movements have rituals not only to solidify the social relations within the organization but also to constitute relations with targets. This is the repertoire of collective actions—for the modern social movement that means demonstrations, picketing, blocking public movement, occupying space, presenting petitions, etc. Some of these can involve music or other arts and we would expect different arts to involve different sorts of social relationships and meanings. The most common setting of live music today is the performance, which has a clear division of labor between performers and listeners (though listeners are rarely entirely passive). Performance involves a very different kind of social relationships than group singing common in the Civil Rights Movement, with little division of labor between performer and listener. More characteristic in contemporary collective action is the chant, which is a variant on group singing, but I would venture is experientially thinner. This approach is in line with Tia Denora’s exhortation to “shift from culture‑as‑meaning and culture‑as‑text (to be decoded) to culture as a structuring medium of action and, in particular, to music as providing a set of ‘cues’ for different cultural frames as they may be invoked within structures” (2003: 122-123).
  • A reexamination of the role of aesthetics in social movements, and politics in general. Sociology has tended to treat aesthetics as subjective and personal and thus beyond dispassionate analysis or instrumental and derivative, as per Bourdieu. But sociologists venture that it is possible to dispassionately examine aesthetics as an irreducible quality in its own right. Firth (“Towards an aesthetic of popular music” in Leppert and McClary 1989) wants to explore the relationship between how we make value judgments about music and how that affects the listening experience. Presumably this would happen very differently in social movements than in other contexts. One question of particular importance is why so many people accept the argument that political potency of music inherently conflicts with aesthetic quality. Why can’t political music be just as aesthetically pleasing as religious music?
  • Reverse the usual relationship between cultural content and the content of social relations in social movements. We often assume that we know what the relations of actors within movements, between movements and potential recruits, or between movements and targets is all about and then see how music fits in. But we can turn this around and use music to reveal new insights about social relations. What is it about divisive social identities that allow music to bridge them? Most participants in the Civil Rights Movement had grown up in segregated societies; many had never had a friend of the opposite race. Music was one of the activities that helped bridge the chasm, demonstrating that solidarity could be constructed and that trust could be possible, but also that both were fragile and, as it turned out, fleeting.

Of course, in an informal essay like this, the caveats are manifold. The distinction between the evangelical and relational understanding of how social movements operate is more a heuristic than a theory. There is no deep incompatibility either in theory or the rich literature on social movements. Like much social movement literature, I’ve used the American Civil Rights Movement as indicative of social movements in general, a tendency that still distorts much social movement sociology. The agenda for a relational approach to music and social movements just barely scratches the surface and misses fundamental questions from the sociology of social movements and sociology of music. But the goal here is not to resolve anything, but only to advance the discussion, so that more of the sounds of freedom can ring in our ears.

[1] Much of this discussion here on music would also describe other arts, though there may be some differences. For the rest of the text, I will refer only to music and the interested reader can decide the extent to which it might apply to other arts.

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