So much is said today about “music playing” as a gateway to improving academic skills and expanding emotional intelligence. The scientific and empirical research validates these findings. But what about music listening: how does it fit into the equation and affect children’s lives? And when you think about it, just about every kid listens to music.
My “Contemplation Music Writing Project” which began in the 70s shows how listening to music takes students beyond the educational benefits connected to music playing. The studies, in regard to music listening, support the results I found empirically about the effects/affects of music, contemplating, writing, and discussing their inner experiences.
One area the research misses is how music listening increases children’s awareness of the present moment, and that is significant for teachers working in today’s classrooms. By listening to their favorite or “preferred music,” my students released emotions and thoughts hindering them from concentrating on learning, particularly in the afternoons between 1 and 3 p.m. when energy levels and attention spans declined rapidly. The combined musical and contemplative experience revived spirits so they could continue to think clearly and learn at an optimal level.
“The Music Technique” stemmed from my own experiences with music listening: After a difficult day in the classroom, I played music while relaxing on a sofa mainly to drown out the psychological chaos stirring in my head. But a funny thing happened on the road to sanity. All the pictures mentally recorded from that day came back and flooded my mind with feelings and thoughts I’d rather forget. Once I realized that I needed to stop fighting my self and let things be, I calmed down and felt moments of inner peace. This change took time to develop, to re-view carefully or contemplate the mind-pictures from the day’s events, to release any negativity by getting into it, and getting it out, and to move on to the present-moment with greater lucidity, openness, and self-awareness.
From these experiences came an original, creative, and challenging “self-help activity,” an “internal education,” that included music, contemplating experiences while listening to music, and following up by writing, describing, and talking about whatever happened inside.
I wanted the contemplation music writing sessions to calm my students (grades 4 – 6) after lunch when they came back to the room in a ridiculously hyper state. Playing a little Billy Joel from The Stranger album worked, although it wasn’t their favorite music. But even more important: they could handle the afternoon’s long math lessons after freeing pent-up feelings still rocking within. In my 35-year old curriculum, used with Latino and African-American children, music became a vehicle that led them on peaceful journeys of self-discovery, self-motivation, and self-education.
The activity can be condensed to two 30-minute weekly lessons in the Common Core era, and would include: 10 minutes for music playing/listening/contemplating, 10 minutes for writing, and 10 minutes for class discussion.
I played all kinds of music, from Top 10, rock and roll, dance, classical, hip-hop, jazz, meditative, and Native American flute, to student-created tapes, to improve mindfulness, inner and outer concentration, visualization, self-reflection, problem solving, decision-making, conflict resolution, and creative thinking skills. The empirical results from the various classes over a 25-year period showed increased awareness, self-awareness, self-knowledge, self-understanding, sensitivity, compassion, empathy, tolerance, and inner peace, and calmer classrooms.
After teaching the project to elementary (from 2nd grade) to middle school children, I realized that:
(1) Music listening has healing powers.
(2) Favorite or “preferred music” touches students deeply in mind and imagination.
(3) Music listening connects kids to depths and “inner-sights” they aren’t aware of.
(4) Instead of using music to distract, music listening can be used to ground students in the present moment, the now, and to empower them to be active participants academically and psychologically in their daily lives.
(5) Listening to song lyrics affects young people emotionally and mentally and helps to vent feelings as well as distracting thoughts and creates more “inner space” for inner peace.
(6) Listening to different kinds of music on a consistent basis produces positive changes in adolescent behavior, attitude, and motivation, including the creation of a mindful and motivating classroom environment.
(7) Music listening coupled with contemplation developed emotional intelligence along with writing, reading, and creative and critical thinking skills. At the same time, it formed lifelong friendships between a former teacher and his students by re-connecting on Facebook.
The regular use of my project would forge a strong impact on students’ lives, whether they are from the inner city, suburban, or rural areas. Letters from past students, now in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, support this statement. In comparison to the number of “music players” or musicians, the audience of “music listeners” is infinite.
My approach to music as an internal and external motivator can be implemented in public, charter, private, alternative schools, and in correctional institutions.
Music runs deeper than researchers, educators, and mental health practitioners can imagine. Why? When the sounds, rhythms, beats, notes, and words fade to the background, what is left are the feelings, thoughts, ideas, experiences, and mental images (reflections, memories, dreams, fantasies, and reveries) triggered while listening to the music.
The benefits of contemplation music writing, the foundation project, were far reaching because it led to many practical applications such as: “The Inner Cities Poetry Arts Project,” “Reflection Writing,” “Present-Moment Contemplation Writing,” and other creative writing exercises. It proved that a combined musical and contemplative experience done regularly throughout the school year could have a psychological, educational, and illuminating impact on children’s minds, imaginations, and everyday lives.