I’m editing my new book on ‘music in learning‘ and trying to draw out my thoughts into some practical models around the subject. Part of this involves trying to characterise how we use different the different languages of learning to convey meaning. Today, i just want to share some thoughts around music, to give an idea where i am heading with this. I feel that if i can create a common view across the different media, maybe it will help us to think about how we use these different languages in our learning design and communication.
I’ve identified eight facets of music that convey meaning or help us to create a narrative track: ‘tempo‘, ‘lyrics‘, ‘rhyme‘, ‘association‘, ‘instruments‘, ‘melody‘, ‘repetition‘ and ‘story‘.
We communicate in stories, using them to establish commonality and share information. Using stories is efficient as they tend to follow set patterns. They are easily told and easily shared. We can relate ‘my story’ to ‘your story’ and work out what we have in common: that’s why we start conversations talking about the weather or how the journey was. Simple, uncontentious, safe ways to establish common ground before we graduate to the substance.
So ‘story’ is a facet of pretty much all communication, as is ‘repetition‘. We often use repetition to reinforce key points, but it can also be used aesthetically, as is often the case with poetry or songs, to create pleasing rhythms and rhymes. This is true, to an extent, in the written word too, and repetition can be a feature of visual arts, but it’s particularly evident in performance arts. Understanding how we use stories and the power of repetition (both for reinforcement and aesthetic reasons) is a great foundation for all communication skills.
‘Association‘ is a facet of all communication: part of using language is our ability to create mental constructs and relate them to other mental constructs. We can imagine a chair, describe it to others and relate it to a table. Our ability to create and manipulate mental constructs, to create association between them, is a feature of our ability to create meaning, our ability to manipulate the world around us. It’s central to learning. We need to think about association when we are using analogy or metaphor, as well as when we are looking at ways to develop skills.
‘Tempo‘ and ‘rhyme‘ may be part of the metre of the spoken word, but are more evident in poetry and song: we are starting to move along a spectrum to things that can only be done, or can be best done, in particular media. Tempo is partly about speed of delivery, but it also conveys mood, energy, emotion. It’s a layer of meaning on top of the spoken (or sung) word.
‘Melody‘ takes us right down the line, it’s a feature of song more than anything. One could view the melody as the direct line to the soul: it’s a storytelling medium in it’s own right. Songs don’t need lyrics, but they need melody and melody creates meaning.
How do song lyrics differ from poetry? Is it just poetry set to music, and how do poetry or lyrics differ from the written or spoken word? Well, there is no clear cut answer, but one principle i like is that both poetry and lyrics rely on compressing stories. Whilst there are exceptions, generally both formats are shorter than books. They rely on references for meaning and ambiguity to fill in the gaps. Some musicians and poets view them as different, whilst for others they are interchangeable. From a learning perspective i’m particularly interested in brevity, in compression of messages. What can we learn from this facet of music to take into our organisational practice?
Learning is often too long, often lacks clarity or brevity: even the simple act of writing highly structured poems like haiku (which use a very short and rigid three line and fixed syllable structure) can make us think more carefully about our messages. Twitter is the same: it makes us think about how to express ourselves by enforcing a character limit. This discipline can be a good thing!
Finally, ‘instruments‘. Instrumentation is unique to music: whilst story, tempo, rhythm and rhyme can be applied to written or spoken word, instrumentation is unique and is what gives music it’s depth (although you can, of course, have music without instruments).
Both the choice of instruments and the way that they are played impacts on the story that we tell and the way it is received. Instruments give us such depth in communication, the ability to connect on so many levels, and yet we don’t use them at all within organisational learning and development.
My reasoning for exploring the different languages of learning is to see what we can take from each format, what facets can we explore and use to strengthen and reinforce our learning design and communications. Some of the discipline required for poetry or writing lyrics may help us to be more concise in our communication. Thinking about tempo, rhyme and rhythm can help us to make our communication more fluid, more beautiful even. Understanding the role of story, of association, this lets us make our communication more effective, helps us in our use of abstraction, metaphor and analogy to create mental constructs and to understand how we learn. There is value in understanding all these things.
There is no easy route to using music (or art, poetry or graffiti) in learning, but by understanding how these languages of learning are created, by understanding the facets that make each one unique, we can expand our repertoire, improve our communications skills and create better and more effective learning.