[Position Paper]

“Judge a Man’s Wealth by the Number of Songs He Knows”

By Carolyn Kenny


In my article, I present images relevant to the relationships between land, culture, music, health and healing, and Indigenous societies. I offer examples of how music works effectively to create positive social change. I also present some theoretical ideas to support the significance of music in our indivitual and collective lives.

Keywords: Music, music therapy, indigenous, ceremony, ritual, play, social change, healing

Editorial note: In 2016, Voices hosted a special edition to accompany the launch of a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on the topic of "How Music Can Change Your Life". Thirteen authors agreed to develop position papers for the MOOC, with two articles being developed to accompany each of the six topics within it. Each author has highlighted the theorists and researchers who have influenced their thinking, and included references to their own research or music practices where appropriate. These papers have been written with a particular audience in mind—that is, the learners who participate in the MOOC, who may not have had previous readings in any of the fields being canvassed. We hope that you find these articles interesting, whether reading as a MOOC learner, a regular VOICES reader, or someone who is discovering VOICES for the first time.

Photo: Carolyn Kenny

Dawn arrives on the edge of the world. It brings a sense of anticipation and comfort. We will have another day. This is the scene on the Navajo Reservation each day when I awaken after a long night of chanting by the medicine man and others. I am here for the Blessing Way to participate in a ceremony that will help to guide Brenda, one of my former students, on her future path after completing her Ph.D. The medicine man tells me that there are many Blessing Ways for the Navajo people. He especially wants to tell me about the Blessing Way that happens when a mother is pregnant. This ceremony happens in the eighth and a half-month of pregnancy. He says that by chanting all night for 3 nights the values and beliefs of the Navajo people are planted as seeds in the fetus prior to birth. Once the baby is born it is the responsibility of the parents, grandparents, other family members, and the entire community to nurture those seeds as the child grows so that she can lead a good and balanced life, a life full of beauty, balance, and harmony – hózhó in Navajo.

Listen to the navajo flute played by Carlos Nakai.

During the ceremony, I remembered the Navajo saying about songs and wealth. And I said to myself, ”This medicine man is very wealthy.”

When I returned home from the desert ceremony, I told one of my colleagues, a neuroscientist, this story. He said, “Oh, yes. That seems to confirm what we are learning about music and neuroscience.” I was happy to have lived long enough to hear that a neuroscientist agreed with an Indigenous medicine man without a blink!

Music and Well-being

A special issue of the open access journal, Music and Arts in Action, focused on the topic of music and well-being, covering several countries from around the world. In her opening editorial, Jill Sonke wrote:

Music and other art forms have long been utilized in the realm of health and healing across cultures and times, with applications ranging from traditional healing rituals, to the social use of music in communities, to the more prescriptive use of the arts in biomedical settings. We can historically document a long-standing ‘knowing’ of the opportunities through artistic forms and activities to effect healing and wellness. And today, as arts therapies and other healthcare and community-based arts practices meet the standards and demands of evidence-based medicine and scientific assessment, music and other art forms are becoming more widely accepted and practiced through psychotherapies, biomedicine, and community practices alike. (p. 6)

In the same special issue Paul Moulton wrote about the use of music in Navajo healing rituals like the one I described earlier:

According to a Navajo legend, the deity Changing Woman told her twin sons, “Do not forget the songs I have taught you. The day you forget them will be the last; there will be no other days” (Haile, 1938, p. 12). Engulfed by American culture and penetrated by globalization, members of the Native American Navajo tribe have struggled to remember their songs and maintain that identity. In particular, traditional ceremonies provide the cultural bedrock that helps tribal members retain their identity. This identity affirmation is an important function, albeit an unarticulated one, resulting from the primary purpose of these ceremonies, namely, producing healing for a variety of ailments – physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual. (p. 79)

Once again, in this same special issue, Kate Bingley describes her fieldwork with Bambeh, a performer in post-conflict Sierra Leone:

Bambeh uses music to mobilise women to attend health sessions, to build relationships and rapport, to foster a sense of solidarity among the health session participants; she uses song to reinforce messages and extend them to people who do not attend health sessions, and she encourages singing and dancing among community members for the therapeutic benefits these activities bring. (p. 78)

The final article in this issue of Music and Arts in Action is written by Lars Ole Bonde who emphasizes the role of professional music therapy and the interdisciplinary nature of music fields:

In this way, health musicing can be understood as the common core of any use of music experiences to regulate emotional or relational states or to promote well-being, be it therapeutic or not, professionally assisted or self-made. Social science research in recent years has documented some of the many ways in which music is used to promote health by “lay people” in their daily lives. (p. 121)

Theoretical and Conceptual Considerations

Music has played a central role in our lives since the dawn of our existence as human beings. This notion is clearly described by neo-Darwinian scholar Ellen Dissanyake in her work Homo Aestheticus (1992). She considers music and other arts as food that we must eat in order to sustain life itself. A plethora of ethnomusicologists have explored the many functions that music performs in cultural contexts. John Blacking, one such ethnomusicologist who focused on the relationships between music, culture, and human experience explained:

If we knew more about “music” as a human capability and its potential as an intellectual and affective force in human communication, society, and culture, we could use it more generally to enhance general education and to build peaceful, egalitarian, and prosperous societies in the twenty-first century, just as our prehistoric ancestors once used it to invent the cultures from which all civilizations evolved. (p. 242)

Edward Hall, the prolific anthropologist, has helped us to understand the complexities of cultures. In his “Map of Culture,” a grid that represents the many relationships and interconnections between the concepts included in “culture”, he offers music and the arts in his category of “play”, as one of the essential elements of culture. In fact, Hall employs the analogy of music as the best way to understand culture itself.

Concepts like “communitas” and “liminality” from Arnold Van Gennep (1960) and Victor Turner (1969) emphasize the legacy of musical rituals across time and place. These concepts are associated with rites of passage in tribal societies. The idea of rites of passage can easily be analogized to music therapy sessions in which a patient or client needs to pass through suffering or some other human dilemma into a better state of health.

The conclusions of many of these scholars are that music can create a sense of belonging. Social cohesion, identity formation, memory, virtual time, represent only a few of the important themes about how music performs itself in life-sustaining service.

Important scientific and philosophical ideas have also contributed to the value and importance of music in our lives to support health and well-being. Lakoff and Johnson (1999) proposed a philosophy in the flesh, one that marries art and science. The senses, the ones that provide our pathways to musical expression and appreciation are key in this philosophy. They go so far as to state, “Reason is shaped by the body” (p. 5) and assert, “Mind is not separate from the body.” Indeed, in our most recent discoveries in neuroscience, we have discovered the inseparable connections between mind and body. This is a marriage of mind, body/senses, and consciousness. Perhaps the saying that music begins where words end emphasizes the importance of music in a comprehensive understanding of reason.

Indeed, music can be considered as a metaphor for our very existence.

Living in a Global Society Through Music

Let us turn to a much broader issue within the context of music, culture, and social change. Over many years, musicians have come together in an attempt not only to remind us that we live in a global/cultural society, but to raise funds for natural disasters and war torn regions around the world. John Lennon’s “Imagine”, is one of the 100 most-performed songs of the 20th century. In this song, Lennon advocates a “one world” approach through powerful lyrics that invite the listener to put aside any notion of “country, religion,” or such boundaries that would deter our connections to each other to “Live as One”. This song has been tremendously influential over the years since Lennon’s death and serves to remind us that we share this world together.

In 1985 a movement called “Live Aid” began in an effort to alleviate poverty and famine around the world. Concerts inspired by the initiative happened in many countries, such as Great Britain, the United States, Australia and Germany. It was one of the largest-scale satellite link-ups and television broadcasts of all time; an estimated global audience of 1.9 billion, across 150 nations, watched the live broadcast. This movement grew over the next years to included live concerts and recordings of studio sessions to raise funds for the alleviation of suffering caused by war and natural disasters.

The “We Are the World” phenomenon brought together American musicians to support various countries like Haiti and Africa in times of natural disaster and human crises. Musicians from rock, pop, and country genres sang collectively to bring awareness to world problems of hunger and desperation encouraging listeners to donate funds to help with specific crises.

More recently, musicians from around the world have come together to collaborate through video recordings to spread a message of one world solidarity. “Playing for Change” is a multimedia music project, created by the American producer and sound engineer Mark Johnson with his Timeless Media Group that seeks to inspire, connect, and bring peace to the world through music (www.playingforchange.com). The project’s video recording of “Stand By Me” has been viewed on You Tube by 88,464,597 viewers as of this writing. Inspired by the Irish proverb, “It is in the shelter of each other that people live” they recorded the Rolling Stones classic song, “Gimme Shelter”.

A project titled explicitly “How can music inspire social change?” created a four-part interactive online discussion beginning with the powerful influence of music in the 1960s Civil Rights Movement in the United States. The initial focus is American soul music. Participants in the project take up the themes of music, history, and social change in the contexts of identity, race, belonging, and how music can be power in a social movement (http://www.facingtoday.facinghistory.org/topic/sounds-of-change). They document how music was used to break racial barriers during this historical period.

In a stunning interview conducted by Bill Moyers, Bernice Johnson Reagon offers us a crystal clear case for the power of music. What touched me most was Reagon’s description of how music makes safe space that is virtually impenetrable by those who wish us harm.

Clearly music has a unique way to express, validate, and influence culture and social change. There is a plethora of recordings and self-help materials emphasizing the important role music can play in relaxation and healing. As well, an entire profession is dedicated to the use of music for special human dilemmas like mental illness, disability, death and dying, and a host of other human conditions.

Music and Disaster Relief

Vedran Smaijlovic performs in Sarajevo partially destroyed National Library in 1992. Photo by Mikhail Evstafiev, 1992, [GFDL CC-BY-SA-2.5 ]via Wikimedia Commons.

After working for 6 years in war-torn Bosnia Herzegovina at the Pavarotti Music Center in Sarejvo, Alpha Woodward wrote her dissertation as an autoethnography detailing the music, the place, her impressions, and her own growth as a humanitarian aid music therapy worker. In her own words, she tells part of the story:

The following quote from Kalmanowitz and Lloyd (1999, p. 16) coincides with the image of Vedran Smailovic (Figure 7.1) playing his cello in the middle of the blown up rubble of the National Theatre in Sarajevo, BiH. Kalmanowitz and Lloyd, both art therapists, used the environment as a kind of “portable” studio for art to emerge in a natural relationship to the surroundings....What we aimed to create was what we called a portable studio. This is based on the premise that the internal structure we carried with us as art therapists could allow for work to physically take place inside and outside: in the bedroom, in the dining room, on the hill, in the town dump. (p. 23)

From Alpha M. Woodwards dissertation "Tapestry of Tears: An Autoethnography of Leadership, Personal Transformation, and Music Therapy in Humanitarian Aid in Bosnia Herzegovina" (2015). http://aura.antioch.edu/etds/192

This beautifully illustrates how a conceptual, but concrete, convergence of the arts and the environment could provide a working framework for all of the creative arts modalities and the populations to which they serve. That is to say, that perhaps the inner wound heals in direct relationship to the ability of the surrounding human environment to support that process. This is not a vision for the future, so much as it is a reminder that we are, by nature, aesthetic, and that this aesthetic is a resource to build coherence, meaning, and agency within our community and ourselves. (p. 178-1799)

The Art of Interpretation and Connection

Woodward emphasized “the surrounding human environment” and, perhaps, echoes an even broader environment, the ones that Indigenous people believe is our saving grace if we live by the spiritual principle of interconnectivity. We are related not only to our human species, but all living things – all animals, plants, sky, sea, desert, forest, even space. Metaphor emerges from our treatment of music, health, well-being, music therapy, and how music can change the world. We are all bioregions, just like Mother Earth. A metaphor points to so much of who we are as individual and collective beings. Music is a metaphor. And music is also an ecological zone to honor, respect, explore, understand, create, and be created by these relationships. It is a symbol that can represent everything about us. Furthermore, it is a symbol, a kind of “speech act” that can go further and deeper than mere words because it engages our senses, our embodied and whole selves.

In his study of the Kaluli people of Papua New Guinea rain forest, Steven Feld (1982) proposed that the Kaluli people learn how to express their emotions from the songs of birds. Indeed, if one listens closely to most Indigenous languages, one can hear not only the songs of birds on traditional territories, but also the songs of mountain streams, rain, wind, animals of all kinds, even the sound of silence.

Our way of making sense of the metaphor of music is through the natural means of interpretation. “Texts” and art or music have used this powerful means to understanding for centuries. In scholarly circles it is called hermeneutics. One of the masters of hermeneutic philosophy is Hans-Georg Gadamer. He is particularly interesting to us because of his treatment of the triad culture/beauty/health (Gadamer, 1986; 1996). Like any philosopher, he deals with human problems and builds his philosophical ideas on the history of ideas as well as their critique.

Some of Gadamer’s notions like “horizons to connect” may apply directly to an endless learning experience and recognition of the interconnectivity of all things. In this case, we can ask the questions like is there music without culture? How can music represent both individual and collective consciousness at the same time? How do we interpret or judge the notion of beauty in the context of diversity? Can we make the music that reinforces our spiritual principle of the interconnectivity of all things?

Back to Native Lands

Haida gravesite
Photo: Carolyn Kenny

Let’s transform our environmental/ecological imagination now to the beautiful Haida Gwai, the Pacific Northwest Coast Rainforest islands of my Haida people, where I attended a ceremony for one of our great chiefs who had died one year ago.

Everyone met at the gravesite. After the graveside ceremony, we drove to the community hall. There was a great feast including chilled salmon with finely sliced cucumbers covering the skin. Then there were many dances and songs. With over 600 people in attendance, the hall was packed. Still, dancers and singers had us all feeling that we were in canoes. We were being teased by Ravens and Bears -- dancers who wore great wooden masks. After these celebrations, which went long into the night, it was time. The announcer said that it was time to begin the Haida Spirit song.

When I turned toward the back of the hall to look for the Spirit Singers, to my great surprise, I did not see singers, but a magnificent Blue Wolf. Blue Wolf moved slowly to the singing. Something between a dance and a slow walk punctuated by turning of shoulders and head. When he stepped, he dipped and rose, dipped and rose. He was represented in a magnificent blue mask, carved in the Haida way with deeply set eyes and monumental proportions. He walked through the hall accompanied by the Spirit Song taking time to gaze at people in the crowd, turning his proud and beautiful countenance to see us. Everyone was still.

As Blue Wolf walked through the hall, we were instructed to put aside our grief.

It took a long time for the wolf to walk through the hall with his penetrating gaze. No one was crying now. We were all part of an aesthetic moment, which for the Haida is a spiritual moment. We could experience both sides of the veil between life and death at the same time. In this moment, time did not exist.

As Haida, we believe that the intricate patterns of song and art weave the relationships between the people, the land, and the creatures on the land into a fabric of resilience and strength. We are intimately bound to ecology and place. Our singing reinforces this sacred relationship.

waterfall in the woods
Photo: Carolyn Kenny


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Van Gnepp, A. (1960). Rites of passage. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Woodward, A. (2015). Tapestry of tears: An autoethnography of leadership, personal transformation, and music therapy in humanitarian aid in Bosnia. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Antioch University, Yellow Springs, OH.