Today i’m finishing the first draft of my book on ‘music in learning’. In this chapter, i’m drawing the ideas together: in many ways, it’s the most fun part to write. This is the first draft of that chapter:
This is a light hearted book. It’s not intended to be either an academic text or an instruction manual on how to enrich your professional practice with music. There is a hypothesis: that we communicate with many languages, languages of spoken and the written word, of poetry, of art, of song, of dance, and that there is value for us in understanding the relative strengths of these languages.
I am not a linguist and have not attempted to define what makes a ‘language’. I am not a musician, or at least, not a professional one, so i haven’t tried to lay down rules of songwriting or how music ‘works’. I am not a philosopher, so have not been able to run a conversation about music and the soul. I am not even a teacher, so bring only limited experience of how we can use music within formal learning.
But i am curious. I am an explorer, and i am willing to learn. For me, this journey has not been about presenting you with answers, it’s been about challenging myself to think. It’s not been about creating rules, it’s been about understanding that we are not constrained by rules, that we have permission to be creative, that we can be curious and we can learn.
I wanted to bring a breadth of voices together, people from different disciplines, united by their curiosity, united by the desire to communicate and to explore different ways to do so.
And i have learnt a lot.
The simple process of reflection has let me think about music in different ways. Deconstructing it to consider the role of lyrics, the role of instruments, the role of the voice, of technology, of art, these have challenged me to think hard about something that i thought i knew inside out.
I see a spectrum, a broad range of ways that we communicate, each governed by structure, but all capable of being part of the art. At the heart of communication is the desire to share meaning, the desire to establish commonality, to come together. Languages allow us to describe the abstract, to embellish the facts, to create layers of meaning around the material, the physical. Language lets us build constructs and then manipulate them. We can talk about ideas, things that, in themselves, have no physical presence. We can talk about love, when love has no mass, no volume, no quantifiable presence.
Meaning sits in the middle: stories, ideas, concepts, these are the building blocks of communication, but everything else is fluid. We can communicate these things in words, written or spoken, formal or informal, chanted or shouted, screamed and whispered. We can communicate them through art: abstract or concrete, illegal graffiti, framed in the Louvre, painted in oils, blood or mud, professional or amateur, permanent as sculpture or as transient as drawing in the sand. We can communicate those ideas in poems, in songs, in instrumental melodies or full blown operas. We can sing them in the shower or chant them at football matches. We can dance in the streets, on the bar, in public, in private, sensuously, comically, badly with two left feet or in a wheelchair with no feet at all. We can tow messages behind planes or project them onto the moon. We can engrave a story onto a pinhead or spell it out with bodies holding brightly coloured umbrellas that only have meaning if seen from above. Our stories can be trivial or can last forever.
To learn is to change: we learn by being exposed to new ideas, to new ways of looking at the world. We take that knowledge, we play with it, explore it, reflect on it and relate it to that which we already know to be true. It becomes part of what we know, part of who we are and, through that process, it changes us. This learning does not have to happen through formal channels: we learn from things that we are exposed to everyday, sometimes deliberately, often by coincidence.
Within organisational learning, we restrict ourselves to very few of these channels: we use the written word and spoken word. Sometimes we use images, but usually in very simple ways, often the worst ways of clip art and dreadful photos of people shaking hands. We rarely use music in anything more than glorified wallpaper. Dance is off limits. And yet these are such rich parts of how we communicate, they sit so centrally to how we understand the world. Ideas are not anchored in words, they can be conveyed through song, through movement.
There is lots to learn from music: there is the process of creating it, understanding how we come together and take specialist roles in the creative process. There is value in understanding how music can be about structure and art and in thinking about the relationship between creativity and technology. All of this even before we consider how it can be used to help us tell stories.
And when we do use it to tell stories? We understand those stories in different ways, they can set our hearts ablaze, rally us to action or call us to arms. They can be the voice of a generation or the lone voice of reason. Even when we can’t understand the words, we can understand the meaning, because music transcends the spoken word, transcends the chaos: it is literally born out of the noise.
So there are two obvious ways that we can use music in learning: we can learn from thinking about what music is, and we can learn from the stories it tells. These are not incidental to the learning process, the arts sit at the heart of how we communicate: we are not enhancing the learning experience by using visual and auditory elements, we are simply making it complete once more. We are not making learning better, we are simply stopping looking on it as being so poor.
How often do you think about communication? How do you tell stories and how do we use those stories in learning? For me, stories sit at the heart of how we learn and there is value, both for us and for the learner, in understanding how those stories are told and how they are received.
I have no formula for how we deploy music in learning, but i am certain that the simple process of reflecting on how we communicate through music spurs us to communicate more effectively in general. Moving away from a simple understanding or belief that communication is about just words is valuable in itself.