Aren Cohen, MBA, MAPP '07 is a learning specialist working with academically, motivationally and emotionally challenged students in the leading private schools in New York City. As shown in her website and blog, Strengths for Students, Aren uses the tenets of positive psychology to teach her students to use their strengths of character to change educational challenges into educational triumphs. Full bio. Aren's articles are here.
When I was studying Positive Psychology, one of the first assignments was to devise a personal positive intervention. For me, this was simple. I took out my iPod, put on my favorite playlist, and went for a long walk in the park. I was happy.
It was around that time that my father said something to me that has endured, “The songs are your friends.” Indeed, things may come and go, but often music is a constant, reminding us of specific times in our lives. Music, unlike other modes of communication, often speaks to us with a great emotional resonance. Why?
Your Brain on Music
Perhaps one of the best books written on the subject of psychology and music is This Is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin. I read the book about three years ago, and while many of the fun trivial facts stayed with me, many of the details did not. I remember being particularly struck by the notion that to become an expert musician one has to practice 10,000 hours. My husband, who decided to learn the piano, guitar, and percussion within the last eight years, has been working hard to meet that goal. However, when one considers that 10,000 is the equivalent of practicing twenty hours a week for ten years (per instrument!) he still has a ways to go. Nonetheless, it is fun listening as he improves daily.
Music and Movement
Levitin’s book is not light reading. It covers many details about the structure both of music and of cognitive neuroscience. Nonetheless, it is eye opening. He talks a lot about the cerebellum, an area of the brain connected with movement, as being essential for encoding music cognitively and emotionally. Since movement is so tied with music, it is not surprising that generally speaking we all like music with a great “groove” or rhythm.
As a result, I was surprised recently when I went to an Earth, Wind and Fire concert. First, I was fascinated by the demographics of the audience. As someone under the age of 40, I was one of the younger people there. While I was ready to bounce out of my seat and start dancing the moment the concert began, I was shocked that for most of the first half, few people in the audience were dancing. Why weren’t these people grooving to Boogie Wonderland??Music as an Escape?
As an academic coach, I work with many junior high school students. Not too long ago, one of my 8th grade students, Elizabeth, introduced me to a song by the band JTX called Love In America. The song has a great groove, but what I like best is the lyric, “We’ll do it like Madonna in ’85.”
This became particularly prescient a few weeks later. I had been looking through Elizabeth’s notebooks and noticed that rather than taking notes about the Industrial Revolution, she had written the lyrics to Katy Perry’s Firework in the margins of her pages. I was amused. About two days before, I had had to locate my 8th grade Spanish textbook to brush up for one of my lessons. There in the margins were the lyrics to Madonna’s Like a Virgin. I realized as much as I wanted to reprimand Elizabeth for not paying attention in class, at the same age I had done the exact same thing.
Music of Our Teen Years
Recently, a lovely article called “Forever Young: In Some Ways, Yes,” was published in the New York Times celebrating Bob Dylan and all the musicians who are turning 70 in the years 2010-2012. Along with Dylan are greats like John Lennon, Joan Baez, Paul Simon, George Clinton, Paul McCartney, Aretha Franklin, and Carole King. Also included in this illustrious group would have been Jimi Hendrix and Jerry Garcia.
Why is this notable? Well, just like Elizabeth enjoying Katy Perry or my defacing my textbook with Madonna, these musical greats were listening to the groundbreaking music of Elvis Presley in 1955-1956. There can be no doubt that this influenced their musical tastes and expressions. Equally, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, and Bruce Springsteen were all 14 when the Beatles arrived on the American scene in 1964. In all likelihood American musical history would not have been the same had these significant musical events not correlated with the early adolescence of later prominent musicians.
Levitin is not only quoted in the New York Times article, but also discusses this specific topic in his book. Apparently, teen years are “the turning point for musical preferences.” Levitin suggests that the reason for this is that adolescence is a time of self-discovery rich with highly emotional experience. For the specific reason that emotions are at the forefront, not only our cerebellum, but also our amygdala and neurotransmitters tag the songs of our adolescence as particularly important, marking them with potent nostalgic tags for later life. Now I understand why, every time I hear The Police’s Roxanne, the first memory that pops into my head is my summer camp boyfriend trying to convince me not to go work on my art project by altering the lyrics to the song and singing, “Arrrrrren, you don’t have to weave that scarf tonight.” Inevitably, it leads to a smile.
Returning to the Earth, Wind & Fire concert for a moment, I think both the performers and I were very relieved when the audience finally stood up and started “getting down.” Finally these people had tapped into their inner 1970’s teens and were dancing with memories of Shining Star. Earth Wind & Fire, a band formed in 1970, predates my adolescence. In fact, when Philip Bailey, the lead singer, commented that now they would sing some of their “baby-making songs,” I realized that there was a chance I was one of the babies made by one of their songs. (Even more interesting is that according to research in Levitin’s book, if my mother had listened to Earth Wind & Fire while I was in utero, that maybe part of what accounts for my affinity for their music.)
Is Music Positive Psychology?
It is a question I have been pondering since I was first a student of positive psychology. While there are thousands of songs that make me smile, laugh, or dance, equally there are others, like Pomp and Circumstance at a graduation, that bring tears to my eyes. Yet just because a song may trigger emotions besides happiness, does that make it any less “positive psychology?’ I think not. Anything that makes us feel deeply has an important and significant use in helping us understand ourselves. Equally, going back to the notion that “Songs are our friends,” the sadness a song evokes is often counterbalanced with a sense of solace, as its familiarity allows it to soothe as it is stirs.
Finally, music is not a solitary thing. Musical tastes not only become a mark of personal identity, but they also help create social bonding and cohesion. Hence most 14 year-olds tend to like the same music, and there is something comforting when one goes to church and hears the same hymns. Elaine O’Brien investigated some of the power and potential of the collective nature of music in her article American Roots Music: Building Positive Communities Through Music Appreciation.
The title of this article is taken from an Earth, Wind & Fire song, but perhaps others recognize it as a song from Sesame Street. In my opinion, if anyone knows positive psychology, it is the Muppets. However, while singing may cheer us up, my sense is that a real understanding of how to harness the power of music in the service of positive psychology is still in its most nascent stage. While many of my articles on Positive Psychology News Daily reference specific songs, it is because I often find music is a great way for me to access my creative juices so I can figure out what I want to say. Music is indeed both primal and powerful, thus the potential it has to serve positive psychology is awesome.
So, on that note, I close with the assertion that I firmly agree with both Shakespeare and Earth, Wind & Fire, who respectively remind us that “If music be the food of love, play on,” and music has the potential to help us, “Stay young at heart.”
Hajdu, D. (2011, May 24). Forever young? In some ways, yes.. The New York Times, p. A29.
Levitin, D. J. (2007). This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. New York: Plume Books
O’Brien, E. (2011, March 31). American roots music: building positive communities through music appreciation. Positive Psychology News.
Happy Headphones courtesy of Anita Hart
Earth, Wind & Fire at the Beacon courtesy of Andre Gustavus – used with permission
Margin Notes courtesy of Aren Cohen Gustavus – used with permission
Carole King courtesy of Andre Gustavus – used with permission
Spiral Galaxy courtesy of Patrick Hoesly
Kermit The Frog courtesy of kevygee