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  • Josh Jacobson

Music and Social Change

I recently attended a seminar on “The Role of Art in Social Change” at my college class’s 50th reunion. The description read, “What role can the arts play in informing and inspiring action, reaching hearts and minds, and building a shared commitment to enacting difficult change?” It was interesting to hear the panelists relate how they had used music in their careers as social activists. And keep in mind, ours was the class of 1969, so social change played an oversized role in our thinking.


But it made me think. Does music have to justify its existence?


We’ve heard a lot about how music can make people better. A few decades ago the “Mozart Effect” inspired expectant mothers to play Wolfgang’s music to make their fetuses smarter. Lately neuroscientists have teamed up with musicians to study how the brain processes music. A study of choral singers showed that Immunoglobulin A, a protein used by the immune system to fight disease, increases by 150% during rehearsals and by 240% during concerts. And scientists have recorded the release of dopamine in anyone who performs or even listens to music. Chorus America has commissioned studies that (not surprisingly) reveal that young students who join a chorus improve their grades in all school subjects, and adults who sing in chorus are by and large more philanthropic and better citizens.


I understand the need to make the case. In times of financial hardship and in the rush to priorotize STEM, many schools are eliminating music from their programs and governments are cutting back on arts funding.


Perhaps some songs have had an effect on social change. Think of the power of “We Shall Overcome” or “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Patriotic songs can be stirring. But to what extent does music effect social change, and to what extent does it reflect social change?


In 1983, Political Scientist Benedict Anderson coined the term "unisonality" in reference to music's ability to bring together a large group of people. Through the act of singing the same words and the same melody (more or less) at the same time, individuals, who are in many ways quite different from one another, merge into one voice. It’s a powerful force that makes us feel we are a community when we all sing in together, whether it's a community chorus rehearsal, or a ballpark audience singing the national anthem, or a congregation intoning a hymn in a synagogue or church.


People choose their music based on many factors: popularity of the performer, ratings on a hit parade chart, desire to be identified with a particular group, choreography (as seen in a video), glamorous costumes, sex appeal. Inherent musical value is only one factor.

Some school teachers choose their repertoire based on fulfilling curricular demands, perhaps in an effort to be “multicultural.” Liturgical choir directors may find their choices restricted by religious constraints.


For me, if music is to be powerful, it must be because of the quality of the music itself.

We can be tremendously moved by the music of Mozart’s Requiem even if we don’t know the back story of Count Walsegg’s secret commission, even if we don’t understand the Latin lyrics.


We can feel the power of Beethoven’sNinth Symphony even if we don’t understand the German lyrics of the Ode to Joy, even if we haven’t read the program notes placing it in the context of the French revolution and Napoleonic wars.


I understand that music has extra-musical uses. I direct the Zamir Chorale of Boston, a chorus that uses music as a banner of ethnic pride. But (for the most part) I choose only music that can stand on its own two feet, even without the crutch of its extra-musical message.


For many years I was conducting Zamir in performances of a composition with a strong Zionist nationalist text. It was tremendously effective and moving. But I couldn’t tell if the music would speak to an audience that was not stirred by the associations engendered by the lyrics. Finally, I played it for a non-Jewish colleague, who told me that she was moved to tears, and asked if she could program the piece for her high school chorus.


Yes, music can effect social change and, more likely, can be affected by social change. Yes, there are many proven health and social benefits of performing, and even listening to, music. And yes, there are many extra-musical factors that may influence our attraction to or appreciation of a particular style or composition. But in the end, for me, it’s all about the music itself.

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