As I write this, in the summer of 2014, it feels almost impossible to keep track of all the different places on earth in which hatred, cycles of violence, and poverty are causing so much suffering. Sometimes, the injustices of the world feel so big, I feel pushed to the limit wanting to do something. In today’s world, it’s hard for me not to feel guilty for spending the bulk of my day scratching a nylon wire with horse hair, either creating sounds or helping other people create sounds that vanish in the air almost immediately after we make them.
Sometimes I have to ask myself – is the music I spend most of my time playing, teaching, promoting, and thinking about making a difference in a world that overwhelms me with its beauty and its brokenness?
I have observed many beautiful concerts, services, and rallies where Jews, Muslims, and Christians sing “Shalom, Salaam” together, and yet Israel and Palestine are still places of tremendous suffering, war, and fear.
Woody Guthrie famously wrote that his guitar was a machine that could “kill fascists,” and yet, as Chuck Klosterman wryly points out, the number of dictators assassinated by guitar is in fact zero. Plenty of history’s worst regimes survived the creation of songs expressing unhappiness with the status quo.
In high school, I was taking several hours of music lessons a week, and I had to work really hard to get a mediocre score on my math SAT.
Honestly, when forced to come up with an external, pragmatic reason why stories and songs and creativity should exist, any thinking human has to struggle for an answer. And yet, even a casual look at every human society reveals that music has great deal of power. Music brings people together, to enjoy life, moves our souls and our hearts, forms our identities, and expresses our loves. It is a force that is community changing and community defining, and often has unseen effects that propel more direct action beyond what we think is possible.
When people in groups brainwashed into hating each other sing together, they may not change the discriminatory or violent practices of their government, but slowly, they can help people in those groups recognize their mutual humanity.
Music may not single-handily stop injustice, but in the 1960s, a group of protesters in the segregated south sang gospel songs together, and through that they got the strength and the momentum to move together even at the risk of their very lives. Over time, they silenced and transformed a society that kept them away from stores and schools because of race.
A lot of the research supposedly showing that music inherently makes children “smarter” has been misunderstood, exaggerated, or debunked by other studies. Yet, my own experience shows me that music benefits children beyond what can be measured. One of my students is elementary-school aged, and wanted to learn Frozen’s “Let it Go.” At first, it was a huge struggle, and we could only play it together, slowly, note by note, with many notes out of tune. However, after weeks of hard work, I finally heard her play it alone and confidently. Through seeing her discipline and hard work pay off in a rewarding and fun way, she is gradually learning that nothing she wants to do is impossible if she puts her mind to it.
Kirk Ward, a church musician and songwriter whose great blog post served as inspiration for this one, points out that music mostly fails if judged according to the standards of relief (meeting practical, felt needs, like feeding someone who is hungry), because it is more the work of development (of transforming society so that food is distributed more fairly). Stories and songs teach us to imagine a different world, and can give us the power and the strength to work towards creating it.