What Is Music?
Artists Play Key Roles In Affecting Consciousness - HEALING SOUND OF THE PEOPLE! (Ch. 1/pt. 1)
"Healing Sound of the People!" is a simultaneous book/album release project by myself, Dorian Wallace, in collaboration with Ropeadope. The project explores the intersections of music therapy, political music, and spontaneous improvisation. I will present this work in progress throughout 2023, with the narrative developing through an 8-episode web series, the music developing through a weekly Twitch stream, and the book developing through Substack. Enjoy!
Most names and minor details have been changed to keep the participants anonymous.
One of the fascinating aspects of my life is the various groups of people I get to talk to about music. I have taught Music for Dancers 1 and 2 at the Martha Graham Dance Company for many years. The course aims to teach professional-level dancers the fundamental elements and a foundational understanding of communication with musicians, whether creatively or functionally. One of the first issues we address in the course is the simple yet complex question, "What is music?"
As a music therapist at Rikers Island Correctional Facility, I use creative approaches to meet the people in custody's mental health and wellness needs. On the most basic level, music therapy sessions offer temporary relief of tension from the high-stress circumstance in which they find themselves. Often, music is used as a communication technology to help uncover underlying challenges within the psyche and cultivate more practical navigation skills for the continuing journey of existence. When I first meet the people in custody, I ask them a simple yet complex question: "What is music?"
From a particular vantage point, there may appear to be a massive difference between these two groups of people. One seemingly comes from an upper-middle-class background, with years of training to get to the level where they may attend the Martha Graham School, and often from a position of privilege regarding race, class, or both. The other group, often coming from near-parentless backgrounds, either through foster programs, family addiction struggles, or incarceration, is primarily from a position of oppression regarding race and class and has allegedly committed some illicit act to end up in a place like Rikers Island. From another vantage point, it becomes clear that this is a shallow understanding of either group of people. Part of the reason we exist in the social climate we do is that we construct broad generalizations, positive, negative, and indifferent, that shape the lived reality of regular folk.
The origin of music, like the origin of language, has been a source of speculation and debate for centuries. A definition of music seeks to provide an accurate and clear explanation of music's fundamental elements or inherent essence, and it entails defining what the term " music " means. Many humans have proposed definitions, but defining music is more complex than one might expect, and there is an ongoing dispute. When I speak with non-professional musician participants, such as dancers or incarcerated individuals mentioned above, I find that both seemingly unrelated groups share matching descriptions. To paraphrase,
"Music is something that emerges from within ourselves and unites with something outside of ourselves, in an authentic form of self-expression and communal expression."
How fascinating is it that both seemingly unconnected groups give a similar enough definition that I can summarize music in one sentence?
Now, I must communicate this clearly and unambiguously. The above example is an anecdote, not a data-driven conclusion. I must recognize that my positionality shapes my personal bias in many ways, whether I am experiencing privilege, oppression, passive, or some combination of the three. What matters is that we understand the distinction between impartial, objective reality and the subjective prejudices we project onto a being, entity, location, resource, position, or experience.
Though this work will include some data-driven examples, it is more about the essence of liberation movements and how we, as citizens, participate in our communal circumstances through the therapeutic use of music and emancipation. Our scientific approach to understanding is inherently Eurocentric. Though having a bias is not innately harmful, we must be aware of its existence and how it influences our engagement and be prepared to hear opposing perspectives and levels of observation, even if the communication of these perspectives comes across antagonistically.
I am not suggesting that we should tolerate intolerance, disrespect, misinformation, or disinformation. However, as liberation-minded clinicians, activists, artists, and anyone else interested in this approach to connection, we must hear and listen to people on their terms. We must actively participate in political education and psychoeducation activities, especially when a person's manner of expressing themselves and communicating with others is problematic and unsettling. We have a responsibility to help heal our communities in whatever way we can, and by being patient with the most challenging participants, we can facilitate and witness authentic growth. I will share many stories of how music is a technology that can significantly impact emotional, communal, and societal health.
To be continued…