The Powerful Role of Music in Society

July 10, 2008 at 6:11 am | Posted in Benefits of Music, Music Theory, Music Therapy | 1 Comment

Music and society have always been intimately related. Music reflects and creates social conditions – including the factors that either facilitate or impede social change. The development of recording techniques in the latter half of the 20th century has revolutionized the extent to which most people have access to music. All kinds of music are available to most people, 24 hours a day, at the touch of a switch. The down side of this easy availability of music in the Western world is that there is a tendency for it to be taken for granted.

This article has been written as the result of a world wide literature review of authoritative articles which address the Power of Music (as defined by this study). The website for this report seems to be out-of-service; but the sponsoring organization can be found at the Performing Rights Society for New Music.

This report is also available in hard copy format from the main author:
David Francis, The Performing Right Society, 29 – 33 Berners Street, London, W1T 3AB

Music is a very powerful medium and in some societies there have been attempts to control its use. It is powerful at the level of the social group because it facilitates communication which goes beyond words, enables meanings to be shared, and promotes the development and maintenance of individual, group, cultural and national identities. It is powerful at the individual level because it can induce multiple responses – physiological, movement, mood, emotional, cognitive and behavioral. Few other stimuli have effects on such a wide range of human functions. The brain’s multiple processing of music can make it difficult to predict the particular effects of any piece of music on any individual.

The power of music to act therapeutically has long been recognized. Therapy can involve listening to or actively making music. Increasingly it may involve both. Music can be effective in conjunction with other interventions in promoting relaxation, alleviating anxiety and pain in medicine and dentistry, and promoting well-being through the production of particular endorphins. Its therapeutic uses have been explored extensively with particular groups of patients, the elderly, those with brain damage, and those with persistent pain. It has also been used to promote appropriate behavior in vulnerable groups and enhance the quality of life of those who cannot be helped medically.

Music can play an important part in human development in the early years stimulating foetuses and infants in such a way as to promote their wellbeing. Early interactions between mother and child have an essentially musical quality which assists in the development of communication skills. Listening to music or being involved in making it does not seem to directly affect intelligence, although active involvement in music making may enhance self-esteem and promote the development of a range of social and transferable skills. Listening to quiet, relaxing background music can improve performance on a range of academic tasks, while exciting music may interfere. Memorisation can be particularly affected. Adults are able to mediate the effects of interference through the adoption of coping strategies.

The increased availability of music seems to be encouraging people to use music to manipulate their own moods, reduce stress, alleviate boredom while undertaking tedious or repetitive tasks, and create environments appropriate for particular kinds of social occasion. In short, music is being used by individuals to enhance the quality of their lives.

In parallel with this, there is a large industry concerned with the effects of music on workers and consumers. Music can influence our purchasing behavior in subtle ways in a range of environments. It can assist our ability to remember product names and enhance the product through association with liked music. When consumers are actively involved in making a decision about buying a product, music is likely to play a more peripheral role. The evidence outlined above indicates the extent to which music pervades our everyday lives and influences our behavior. This demand for music is likely to continue to increase. To support our appetite for music, the music industries in the developed world constitute a major element of the economies of many countries. They are in danger of losing their skilled work force in the future because of the extent to which music is taken for granted.

Much of the research into the effects of music on intellectual and personal development, concentration, anxiety, pain reduction, and behavior in a range of settings has tended to ignore the possible effects of cognition at the individual level. This is an important omission. Such research as there is suggests that our thinking about music has a powerful impact on our responses to it. If we wish to understand how music affects our lives we have to take account of the experiences of the individual. The evidence suggests that many people have already discovered that music is good for them. Now we need to develop an understanding of exactly why and in what circumstances.

This will require a multi-disciplinary approach to take account of the many factors which may be important. These may include, the society or culture to which the individual belongs, sub-group membership, individual characteristics including gender, age, prior experiences of music, current mood, whether the music is self or other selected and the extent to which music is considered important in the individual’s life. To explore these issues a wide range of methodologies will need to be adopted which are capable of exploring the individual’s subjective experiences of music while also taking account of those responses of which they are unaware.

There is also a need for more systematic investigation of the ways that music can impact on groups of people in social settings. To date, research has tended to focus on commercial and work environments. The way that music may affect behavior in public places has been neglected. Such research, for instance, might explore whether particular types of music might stimulate orderly exits from large public functions, reduce the incidence of disorder in particular settings, increase tolerance when people have to queue for relatively long periods of time or engender feelings of well being and safety in public places.

The Power of Music – Susan Hallam

  • All kinds of music are now available to most people, 24 hours a day, at the touch of a switch.
  • Music is a very powerful medium. In some societies this is recognized and attempts are made to control music by those in power.
  • Music is powerful at the level of the social group because it facilitates communication which goes beyond words, induces shared emotional reactions and supports the development of group identity
  • Music is powerful at the individual level because it can induce multiple responses – physiological, movement, mood, emotional, cognitive and behavioral.
  • The brain’s multiple processing of music makes it difficult to predict the particular effect of any piece of music on any individual.
  • Music has powerful therapeutic effects which can be achieved through listening or active music making.
  • Music can promote relaxation, alleviate anxiety and pain, promote appropriate behavior in vulnerable groups and enhance the quality of life of those who are beyond medical help.
  • Music can play an important part in enhancing human development in the early years.
  • Active involvement in music making in children may increase self-esteem and promote the development of a range of social and transferable skills.
  • People can use music in their lives to manipulate their moods, alleviate the boredom of tedious tasks, and create environments appropriate for particular social events.
  • The easy availability of music in everyday life is encouraging individuals to use music to optimise their sense of well-being.
  • Music can influence our behavior in ways which are beyond our conscious awareness. Knowledge of these effects can be used to manipulate our work and purchasing behavior.
  • The easy availability of music means that it tends to be taken for granted. This can lead to neglect in considering how the infrastructure supporting music and musicians is resourced, maintained and developed.

Music in our everyday lives

Never before in the history of humanity have so many different kinds of music been so easily available to so many people. The development of the electronic media in the latter part of the 20th Century revolutionized access to and use of music in our everyday lives. We can turn on the radio, play a CD or tape, or listen to music on video or TV with very little effort. This has not always been the case. Prior to these developments, music was only accessible for most people if they made it themselves or attended particular religious or social events. The effects of these changes have been dramatic. It is now possible for us to use music to manipulate personal moods, arousal and feelings, and create environments which may manipulate the ways that other people feel and behave. Individuals can and do use music as an aid to relaxation, to overcome powerful emotions, to generate the right mood for going to a party, to stimulate concentration, in short, to promote their well being. It has become a tool to be used to enhance our self presentation and promote our development.

The down side to the easy availability of music is that there is a tendency for it to be taken for granted. At the same time as music is becoming a more integral part of every day life, the place of music in formal education world wide is consistently being questioned. Music already plays an important role in promoting human well being. As the positive benefits of music are increasingly demonstrated in health, psychology and other fields demand will increase. If this is to be met society will need appropriately educated musicians.

The extent to which people listen to music

Probably, the most significant development in music in the last century was the development of the technology which enabled the recording of sound. This has made music easily accessible to everyone. As a result of this music has become a major industry world wide.

In the USA and the UK music is amongst the top economic generators of income. There are currently 13,159 radio stations in the USA. The average American is exposed to more than 1600 commercial messages in each 24 hour period through one type of media or another. Most of these advertisements are accompanied by music. In the UK, in 1998, the British Phonographic Industry annual trade figures indicated that sales of music reached an all time high of £1,118 million. Album sales exceeded 210 million units. In 1997, total domestic spending on music in the UK was valued at £3.7 billion. Gross overseas earnings were valued at £1,332 million compared with payments of £813m. Net earnings were estimated at £519m. The domestic music industry also had a value of £3.2 billion with the equivalent of 130,00 full time jobs.In 1999, the UK was ranked 3rd with only the USA and Japan higher in relation to world music sales. Music is of major importance to the UK’s economic health.

In 1993, 98.5% of teenagers in the USA claimed to listen to music. In the region of 70% of students report listening to music while studying. This degree of exposure and the evidence indicating the importance of music in adolescents’ lives suggests that its influence may be very powerful. But it is not only adolescents who listen to and enjoy music, a recent US survey of musical tastes indicated that 75% of mature citizens listened to music for at least one hour everyday. Their preferred music was classical, show tunes and country music. In the UK, recent figures suggest that in the order of 11.3 million people listen regularly to BBC Radio 1, 10 million to BBC Radio 2, 6.2 million to Classic FM and 1.9 million to Radio 3. In addition there are over 300 commercial stations and almost 40 BBC local stations which spend a considerable amount of air time playing music.

People not only listen to music, they actively take part in making it. In 1993, in the USA, 62 million people said that they sang or played a musical instrument. In the UK millions of people sing or play instruments for the love of it. In 1999, 49% of children took instrumental music lessons. The decision to learn an instrument was generally theirs, although teachers were influential in the process, more so than parents. Approximately half of the children who played had a friend or family member who also played an instrument. Estimates of adults playing an instrument have varied between 24-30%. The instruments most likely to be played by children are the recorder, electronic keyboard or piano. Piano is the main instrument for adults. The main reason children gave for learning a particular instrument was liking the sound, although friendships were important in some cases.

These figures suggest that music has become an integral part of our everyday lives in a way which would have been unthinkable 100 years ago. Further, we not only listen to music, we make it. This is reflected in the setting up of a development agency for participatory music making in the community called Sound Sense. This acts as a source of information and provides opportunities for the exchange of ideas in relation to all aspects of community music.

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  1. […] Music is embedded into society, resulting in not only the way in which people dress and behave, but also in their general attitude and politics. But music is also a reflection of society, revealing some of the values that it possesses. Each decade has its own texture and flavor, which is expressed and generated through music. Whether it’s the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, who brought “The Twitch” dance move to the stage; the Beatles, who helped fuel a political peace movement; or Madonna singing about virgins and breaking down some of the walls of sexuality, musicians — with their styles, lyrics and political stances — have helped carve out a tangible representation of what each decade has meant. In this essay, I will focus on the second half of the 20th century and set out examples of the way in which music reflects culture and vice versa. This will help me come to the conclusion that music is now the fueling agent to the way the United States behaves and appears. It should be noted before proceeding that while songs and genres affect varying numbers of people, it is pop music that generally plays a role in defining a society. “The basic principle behind it is that one need only repeat something until it is recognized in order to make it accepted. This applies to the standardization of the material as well as to its plugging,” (Adorno, 2002). So while heavy metal, for example, can affect a small subsection of society, it is popular music that has its defining stake on culture. […]

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