The Importance of Musical education

By Pierrette Beuter ,

from the French magazine Cahiers Saint Raphael, December 2000, No. 61


Music is a great gift of God to men which, like all His gifts, can be well or badly used. It reaches deep into the soul and moulds it, for good or ill. Nearly all men have some music or other in them, and any educator neglects at his peril the power of music. (Bishop Richard Williamson - Traditional Roman Hymnal - Introduction.)

Music For Good Or Evil

Music can have a beneficial effect on the listener, but it can equally well be harmful. The evils perpetrated by rock-music have been analysed at length; we can be quite certain that so-called "Rap" and "Techno" music are even more destructive. The following observations will illustrate this more clearly.

In his researches, Professor A. Tomatis has helped to uncover music's influence on mind and body. He has shown that the brain functions like a battery, which is charged and discharged as a result of sounds. When these sounds reach the right inner ear, they excite the ciliated cells of Corti's organ, which in turn sends vibrations to the brain by neural connections. The brain is recharged by high frequencies and discharged by low frequencies. Tomatis concludes that certain types of music have a "recharging" effect (particularly Gregorian Chant and the music of Mozart); other kinds of music have a "discharging" effect, such as Jazz and, of course, Rock, Rap and Techno, which derive from it. In fact, Gregorian Chant and the music of Mozart are essentially vocal and harmonic music (even when played on instruments), hence their dynamic effect. We must remember that music's spiritual essence lies in melody, and therefore in song. Rhythm regulates the durations and provides a formal and coherent structure.

What can we say about Jazz and other music? In the first place, rhythm beaten out by percussion instruments and in binary time is based on marching: it never lets the musician rest. It takes him over, and he passes from a state of trance to a state of utter discharge. Singing amplified by microphones is full of repeated formulas: the same theme is constantly and insistently repeated, or even bellowed, inducing a state of trance which gets more and more intense. The frequencies used are generally very low, and therefore they have a "discharging" effect. Furthermore, Rock, Rap and Techno music, as it is performed in festivals and night-clubs, is accompanied by coloured lights, flashing very fast, which not only tire the eyes, but also destabilize and erase the notion of the surrounding space, cutting the listener off from reality. Added to all this there are drugs, the most recent of which is "DOB" the most potent known mind-altering drug, 50 to 100 times more powerful than Ecstasy. Listening to Techno music is linked to taking this drug.... It is associated with hallucinations and a heightened aggressivity lasting for 24-36 hours, followed by an abnormal feeling of anxiety and depression, which can lead to suicide.

People talk a lot about the dangers of drinking when driving. Of course, the danger is not inconsiderable, but if one considers that the majority of fatal road accidents involve youngsters, it would not be wrong - indeed, it would be right - to lay the blame on the Rap or Techno music which can be heard coming from nightclubs or from the open windows of passing cars. The driver is in such a state that he can lose control of the vehicle. There can be no doubt that Rap and Techno music are the cause of many accidents. There is another danger: deafness. This music is played with such volume that damage is done to the ears; our young people are going to become deaf! There is even talk of setting-up classes of Techno music in the conservatories of music. We shall have musicians who are deaf, but who will not manifest the genius of a deaf Beethoven or a deaf Gabriel Fauré!

Techno music is made by electronic procedures; i.e., it does not use any vibrating thing. To that extent it cannot be regarded as an art, because every art requires the artist's direct action on matter. In the case of the sculptor and the painter there can be no argument about this. The musician, by acting on an instrument's vibration, creates beauty by his intimate contact with the sound thus made. The excess of electronic sonorities is clearly a disorder; it means that we cannot savour direct contact with the vibration, and we can see where it leads: to an excessively "cerebral" approach to the creation of music, or to artificial paradises leading to suicide. As Christians, we must remain faithful to the natural order of music, which in no way hinders its continual enrichment, i.e., the world of sound, all the rhythmical and melodic possibilities. The whole realm of timbres has certainly not been fully explored as yet. Let us allow the human voice and the instruments to show their full scope and their natural resonance, without having recourse to amplifiers which more or less distort the quality of sound and so affect our hearing faculties. By means of singing let us rediscover music's spiritual essence: melody.


Music's Influence
Music teaches us the art of listening

St. Pius X attached great importance to the restoration and cultivation of the kind of music that is intrinsically sacred, and to the influence of a well-grounded musical education. In this he was only repeating what the Church Fathers had urged long before him. St. Basil, for instance, says: "When the Holy Spirit saw how hard it was to lead men towards virtue, and how many times they were turned aside from the right path by their natural inclination towards sensual pleasures, what did He do? He mixed the precepts of religion with the pleasing effect of melody so that, by the intermediary of the ear, undoubting, we should accept the health-giving content of the words... "

St. John Chrysostom recommends: "Learn to sing psalms full of wisdom to your children. If you make them familiar with them from earliest times, you will soon be able to guide them towards the higher things."

As the Fathers say, canticles and hymns have an elevating influence on the soul. Thus Diodorus of Tarsis says that the Canticle "awakes in the soul an ardent desire for what the chant sings about; it calms the passions which have been aroused by the flesh; it banishes evil thoughts which invisible enemies have suggested to us; it floods the soul, making it fruitful in many ways; it makes those who are engaged in religious warfare able to endure the most terrible ordeals; and it gives all religious and faithful people a remedy against the ills of earthly life". St. Hilary, for his part, says that the canticles and psalms contain the doctrine and the knowledge of good works.

So we see that Gregorian Chant bears fruit in that it promotes Faith. Faith, say the theologians, enters by the ear, just as music does.

The Prologue of the Rule of St. Benedict begins with the following advice: "Listen, o my son, to the Master's precepts, and incline the ear of your heart." St. Bernard says that the Faith enters by the ear. He explains it like this in one of his sermons on Psalm 90: "Indeed, the Faith comes through hearing (Rom 10:17), not through what one sees. Furthermore, it is the substance of realities one hopes for, the proof of things that are not apparent (Heb. 2:1). With the Faith, as with Hope, the eye is defective: only the ear is effective. As the Prophet says, The Lord has opened my ear (Is. 50:5)." In a Pentecost sermon he makes the following observation: "A twisting serpent was sent by the devil to infuse its venom through the woman's ear and so to reach her spirit, spreading it thence throughout all her posterity right from the very beginning (Gen 3:1). Meanwhile, however, the Angel Gabriel was sent by God with a message for the ear of the Virgin, to bring about, in her womb and spirit, the Father's Word (Luke 1:26 ff). Thus the antidote took the same path as the serpent's venom."

St. John of the Cross, in 'The Ascent of Carmel', also refers to the necessity of hearing when he quotes St. Paul: "Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ".

In all these cases we see that the word enters by the ear. We must not be content simply to hear: we must listen. This attitude of attentive listening is fostered by listening to music, and even more so by music-making, which requires a good musical education. The teacher must begin by helping his pupil (young or old) to grasp that the essential thing in all musical education enters by the ear; it is necessary, therefore to put oneself in a mode of listening that is very different from what one usually understands by the word. Often we hear the sounds and conversations going on around us without really listening to them attentively. To really listen, we have first of all to create a silence in ourselves so that we are in a position to receive a message in the form of sound; this dynamic attitude is helped if we sit upright with good posture, with a straight back, and not, as is often the case in concert-halls and cinema, in a soft armchair with one's spine curved and one's legs extended - a position which is not only careless but which favors indolence and sleepiness. Once the necessity of this attitude of listening has been understood, music, genuine language through the melody, the harmony of sounds and the rythme, instills a profound life, because, being vibration, it makes us vibrate in the proper sense of the term. Here we meet St. Bernard's thinking: by the ear, man can enter into communion with the worst and with the best. Like every language, music can lead us to the good, and even to God; and on the contrary it can be the agent of the worst excesses, or at least lend powerful support to them. It is our duty, therefore, to know the elements of music so that we can use them for our own personal good and for the common good.


The value of a musical education

We have considered the influence which music has on our life; we must go on to consider the benefits which come from learning it.

The foundation of musical education is, of course, learning how to listen. When music forms part of family life, the mother-to-be who sings is immersing her baby in the world of her voice. It receives her voice's vibrations and is rocked by the respiration-rhythm which comes from her singing. Later, her lullabies, nursery rhymes, rounds and folk songs will develop its musical instinct, which can provide the basic materials for what we might call a musical "apprenticeship". We must stress the necessity of this natural experience which, by nourishing harmony in the development of the human being, can establish a link between the members of the same family. Singing together and learning various instruments will mean that parents and children will be able to make music together; these will be hours of fullness and joy spent together, so much richer than the hours spent in front of the television! Why not end our daily prayers with a hymn, sung first in unison, and then in several parts?

Whenever we engage in music-making, our activity is stimulated. Singing, even when children are still very young, introduces them to language and teaches them to breathe properly. The movement of rhythm promotes their motor functions. Learning music by the sol-fa system, so often detested, can bring great advantages. Even simply to sing an ascending and descending scale can help to situate us in the space around us. The effort required to sing in tune makes us listen and puts us in control of our own voice. The various lengths of the notes obliges us to pay attention to the passage of time; the rhythms indicated and played on an instrument promote rapid reflexes, bringing our motor functions under control in such a way that they acquire a fine tuning which they do not have in ordinary life. Reading the notes requires close attention and develops a sense of logic as we observe the succession of the notes of the scale and the intervals. This brings us to harmony, where different notes are sounded simultaneously to form chords, and their relationships appeal to the mind's reasoning and intellect. The skill called "musical dictation" demands a thorough awareness of music's language and an ability to analyze it, and transcribing the music correctly calls for a considerable control of one's sensitivity.

The singing of songs develops memory, and it facilitates a better integration of the music. Later, performing larger works like sonatas, for instance, calls for an analytic memory that can follow the structure of a passage as one executes the whole piece.

Learning an instrument requires all the foregoing. It also requires us to give attention to our physical posture, which is based on our centre of gravity (the solar plexus), whatever our instrument may be. Wind instruments call for, among other things, good respiration, control of the lips, and breath-related bodily movement. String instruments like the violin require a completely different activity from the right and the left hand; the right hand holds the bow while the fingers of the left act directly on the strings. Keyboard instruments develop the faculties of coordination by the layout of the keys, which follows the order of notes, ascending and descending; but this order is executed on the horizontal plane, which causes certain difficulties for beginners.

All instrumental playing demands great muscular control, an excellent lateralisation (related to a sense of balance) and great independence of bodily operations, which are themselves dictated simultaneously by sight (reading the music) and hearing. This self-knowledge and self-mastery needs great energy, no less great mental concentration, together with a workmanlike discipline, if it is to produce a satisfying result. But what is this result? The essential thing in all art is beauty, and here it is a beauty revealed in the quality of sound and in the gesture which produces it, resulting in a piece of music, however simple. Now we know that God is beauty itself; this means that, at our level, however humble it may be, by cultivating and seeking for beauty and perfection in music making, we can "attain" His divine essence. So let us make music, not only for the enjoyment and learning it brings, but also so that we may better love and serve our Creator.


Making music as a family

"Radio, which has given us so many opportunities to hear good music, has unfortunately caused a scarcity of amateur music-making at home. This particular group used regularly to spend one evening a week around their fireside playing string quartets or piano trios; this music-making created a delightful atmosphere of comradeship among the participants. Every Sunday evening three clergymen from near Yverdon used to come to Montagny, to my grandfather, who was both a clergyman and a violinist, to play chamber-music. At midnight they would say goodbye and leave, walking home through the night for several hours. Today the number of quartets played in houses can be counted on the fingers of one hand. It is a great pity, because the music we play ourselves (compared with the music we merely listen to) fulfils much more directly our need to escape the habitual grind and immerse ourselves, even if only for a moment, in the world of the ideal. At a concert, we hear the players; but at home we have the pleasure of listening to ourselves as well as our partners."

This was written around 1940 by the great Swiss educationalist, Emile Jaques Dalcroze (1865-1950). He gives due weight to the advantages of radio and disc, which enabled people to discover more and more musical works, yet in his writings he is not afraid to point out the drawbacks: the isolation and passivity of the listener; the lack of analysis which causes him to absorb the bad as well as the good. What would he say today of the widespread use of television and cassettes?

We are not only living through a crisis in the Church: we are also living through a crisis in society and in family life. The proper use of music could help to remedy this, not only if we listen to good music - which is itself a great blessing - and refuse to allow the poison of Rock (among other things) to enter our homes, but more particularly if we can rediscover practical music-making. We could start with our own national folk ("traditional") music, singing and - why not? - certain traditional dances.

The experience acquired in Hungary thirty years ago, while it was under the control of the Soviet Union, is particularly interesting. Inspired by Bela Bartok, and thanks to his research in the area of traditional Magyar folk music, his disciple Kodaly created a complete method of practical music teaching in schools and conservatories, from the nursery right up to the very highest level, based on the national folk tradition. For Hungary, in this way, music became a way of keeping its national identity during the Russian "occupation". Of course, this method is no longer followed, since it is opposed to the uniformity imposed by globalization.

Taking up our own national folk tradition would be a way of maintaining - or even rediscovering - our national identity.

"But," you will say, "not everyone is a musician." No matter! Apart from rare exceptions, everyone can sing, blow in a flute, beat a tambourine or play a xylophone. Parents and children can take up an instrument together. My experience as a professor has shown me how music can be a means of communication between the members of a family. When brothers and sisters sit down at the piano to play duets, they forget all about cassettes, television and electronic games. Family music-making becomes a way of listening to each other and creates a climate of joy and relaxation. This is the best antidote to the surfeit of noise which invades us at all points.

Catholic families need not wait until they are in church before singing religious canticles. Gregorian Chant has priority in the liturgy, but it can also be sung at home; many of these chants are full of instruction: St. Grignion de Montfort used them in his missions. Let us sing them as a family: they can become part of our evening prayers and will radiate the joy of a Christian family. "But I sing flat!" - you may say. Listen to the words of a great musician, Robert Schumann: "Even if you do not have a good voice, try to sing at first sight without the help of the piano; in this way your ear will gradually improve. But if you do have a good voice, do not hesitate to cultivate, for it is the most beautiful gift that Heaven has given you."

Once you have enabled the left and right sides of the brain to work together harmoniously (in the proper sense of the term) by means of practical music-making, you will have done a great deal for the equilibrium of family life, and hence also for the equilibrium of the City.

Pierrette Beutter