Sonatas for Sustainability: How musical training imparts important qualities and skills for sustainability

By Chrissie Bausch Sustainability addresses urgent, multi-scalar problems that cut across social, economic, and environmental domains, have long-term implications, and high potential for damage (1). Sustainability researchers and educators are continually discussing the content of and approach to sustainability education. They agree that it must foster a unique set of skills and qualities, including creativity, empathy, system analysis, interdisciplinary thinking and collaboration. All of these skills are developed and fostered in musical instruction, which suggests that music can contribute to sustainability education.

"Music," wrote poet Walter Savage Landor, "is God’s gift to man, the only art of Heaven given to earth, the only art of earth we take to Heaven." Music is among humanity’s most splendid, inspiring, powerful forms of communication. But music is not just an aesthetic pleasure. Studies show that musical training during childhood correlates with improved motor and auditory skills, and improves the brain’s capacity to reorganize neural pathways. Research shows that music education contributes to personal development, cultivating confidence, listening skills, diligence, persistence, self-discipline and self-expression. It is not surprising, then, that it cultivates many of the skills and qualities required for thinking about and solving multifaceted challenges, including those tackled in the field of sustainability.

Perhaps the most obvious contribution that musical training can make to sustainability education is nurturing creativity. Wals and Jickling (2) tell us "there are no recipes" in sustainability: the field requires creative solutions for complex problems. Every process of music is creative, from practicing a piece to dancing to it. Describing music’s virtue of rousing creativity, Beethoven said, "Music is the wine which inspires one to new generative processes." The creativity stimulated by musical study is not limited to art forms; it can permeate any endeavor, including problem-solving for sustainability.

A musical work is a system of relationships among components such as rhythm, key, harmony, melody and instrumentation. Peretz and Zatorre (3) describe the systemic nature of even a simple tune, "which is defined not by the pitches of its constituent tones, but by the arrangement of the intervals between the pitches" (p.90). Music trains its students to recognize patterns and anticipate change, both important elements of systems thinking. Although music operates within a framework, it is about using that framework creatively; bending, stretching or even breaking away from it. Music unfolds, teaching students to anticipate change. Musical training prepares students to analyze dynamic systems, as well as recognize and conceive of creative adaptations, a skill that can be useful for developing sustainability solutions.

Underpinning the layers of music is the foundation of mathematics. Mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz said, "The pleasure we obtain from music comes from counting, but counting unconsciously. Music is nothing but unconscious arithmetic." Some of the basic components of music—rhythm, intervals, melodies and harmonies—are essentially arranged fractions. Music students must therefore learn to use quantitative, historical, cultural and linguistic information together, all while processing the music visually, aurally, physically and emotionally. In other words, music is an inherently interdisciplinary endeavor, like sustainability. Vocalists sing in many tongues, and instrumentalists partake in the feast of languages that comprise music’s vocabulary. Music is multicultural, encompassing a tremendous variety of instruments, qualities and formats, such as Argentina’s tango, Indonesia’s gamelan or Poland’s mazurka. All compositions have a cultural and historical context. Tchaikovsky’s "Overture of 1812," today known from the climax of the 2006 film V for Vendetta, was written to commemorate a proud moment for Russia: the defeat of Napoleon in the Battle of Borodino. Musicians unwrap the fascinating layers of meaning, history, politics, culture and structure so elegantly packaged in song.

Many of these elegant musical packages are the result of collaboration—a rewarding challenge in science and music alike. To create music together, people must listen, restrain the ego, work with the strengths and weaknesses of themselves and others, and settle differences to achieve a goal. Participating in a transdisciplinary project is like playing in an orchestra: musicians—or scientists—who could be doing solo work come together to bring to fruition something they could not have created alone. Ensemble work requires patience, compassion and communication. Music students can transfer these qualities and abilities to group work in other domains, making them effective participants for challenging transdisciplinary projects.

An essential quality for collaborative success is empathy, which sustainability education strives to cultivate while promoting the principles of justice, intergenerational equity and intragenerational equity. Empathy is at the heart of what musicians do. Researchers believe that empathy exists when humans create "pretend" desires and beliefs to match the emotions they think others experience. Arguably, humans enjoy art because it provokes this interaction between real and imagined emotions (4). When a good musician writes or performs a piece she communicates emotion, evoking the empathy of her audience.

Scholars of sustainability have much to gain from the skills and characteristics that musical training imparts. As we develop sustainability education, we must teach ecosystem functions, intergenerational justice and systems thinking. We must also emphasize creative, expressive and collaborative activities, such as music, that develop the competencies needed to address today’s complex, multi-scalar challenges. If we succeed, perhaps we will also bestow a little more "heaven on earth."

Contributor Biography Chrissie Bausch is a graduate student at the School of Sustainability (SOS) at Arizona State University. Her research explores agricultural sustainability, sustainability assessment, and equity and justice in sustainability. She was inspired to write this piece at a SOS town hall meeting, when during an icebreaker it was revealed that the overwhelming majority of faculty, students and administrators in attendance played a musical instrument. She would like to thank Kathryn Kyle and the TSR editors for their insights on music and sustainability, and for bringing more Bach and Mahler to her writing. Finally, she is grateful to her music teachers.

References 1. Brundiers, K., Wiek, A., & Redman, C. L. (2010). Real-world learning opportunities in sustainability: from classroom into the real world. International Journal of Sustainability in HIgher Education, 11(4), 308-324. 2. Wals, A. E. J., & Jickling, B. (2002). "Sustainability" in higher education: From doublethink and newspeak to critical thinking and meaningful learning. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 3(3), 221-232. 3. Peretz, I., & Zatorre, R. J. (2005). Brain Organization for Music Processing. Annual Review of Psychology, 56, 89-114. 4. Putman, D. (1994). Music and Empathy. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 28(2), 98-102.