J. Mark Scearce on the Power of Music


Everyone thinks they know a little bit about music, says J. Mark Scearce, because it touches all of our lives every day.  At the annual Friends of the Library Fall Luncheon on November 8, J. Mark Scearce, director of the NC State Music Department, held one hundred and fifty attendees enthralled as he described the power of music and the ways in which music is woven into the fabric of society and our campus. He spoke to the richness of the musicianship and musical accomplishment at NC State, including the fact that of the 305-member marching band, half are students from the College of Engineering.

Susan Nutter, Vice Provost and Director of Libraries, also presented the 2010 NCSU Libraries Faculty Award to Dr. David Zonderman, history professor and associate department head.

We thought that Professor Scearce's talk was so powerful and interesting that many of you who weren't at the event would like to have a chance to read it.

The Comprehensiveness of Music

by J. Mark Scearce

Thank you, Jonathan. Thank you, Friends of the Library. Thank you, fellow faculty and staff at NC State.

It is indeed an honor to be here and introduced by my old friend Jonathan Kramer, who is, I dare say, one of NC State's finest teachers. For 25 years Kramer has brought his fierce intelligence and insatiable appetite for learning to his students, colleagues, committee work, and community engagement, and is a prime example of why, for the last four years running, the Music Department has been awarded the Outstanding Extension Service Award. But more on what Music can do for a community a little later.

When we were setting up the details of this event, MacKimmon Center staff told me that a lunch speaker should speak and not make any noise. I explained that while I was planning to speak today I am a composer and while we normally don't like to think of it as noise , organizing sound is what I do. Ok, they said, just as long as there is no dancing; we try to discourage dancing during the daytime.

I won't be dancing, you'll all be happy to know, but sharing my reflections on the mystery of music and why, after devoting my entire life composing, performing, and interacting with other musicians, I continue to marvel at music and its myriad meanings on so many levels to so many people. Music is one of those fields that pretty much everyone thinks they know something about because it touches all of our lives every day. Imagine with me four scenarios:

A mother sings her child to sleep to the same tune her mother sang to her, never aware of the words, only the haunting, oddly comforting, melody.

A soldier on patrol secures the perimeter of his unit's compound, policing to the soundtrack on his Ipod, personally selected for his deployment.

An elderly stroke victim, no longer able to speak, re-learns the words I love you  through Melodic Intonation Therapy, her five-year-old great-grandson singing them to her to a tune he learned from a giant purple dinosaur.

An airline on the verge of bankruptcy buoys public confidence with television commercials synced to an opera that has, since its creation a century and half ago, moved from popular culture to a high art culture without changing a note.

Music is intrinsically tied to every society on the planet and, as the four examples above illustrate, in a dizzying array of possibilities. And yet, Music is fundamental to the healthy workings of nearly all social practices. It is, as the old adage claims, truly universal and, as far as we know, Music has served important functions in human interactions and understandings for as long as we have been on this planet.

Recent studies have uncovered musical instruments tens of thousands of years old, created by a prehistoric man predating our own ancestors, unfamiliar to homo sapien as we thought we knew him and his world. At the same time we are discovering a closer link ever considered between Music and speech, one that quite possibly predates Music to that of actual verbal communication.

The ethnomusicologist John Blacking held that like the roar of the lion, music is a behavior unique to the species, whose singing and dancing preceded language by several hundred thousand years. Darwin, in his second great tome on evolution, The Descent of Man,  opines that ¦it appears probable that the progenitors of man, either the males or females or both sexes, before acquiring the power of expressing their mutual love in articulate language, endeavored to charm each other with musical notes and rhythm. 

Clearly, our sense of hearing is one of the first that is developed and activated, in utero . For each of us, the first sounds we heard were our mother's: her heartbeat, her breath ”inhalation/exhalation ”and the tone of our mother's voice. These were the first sounds that connected us to our bodies and the world around us.

We are rhythmic creatures, no doubt, continuously suspended in a vibrating world of rhythm. Inasmuch as all matter is vibrating, our bodies are a series of overlapping rhythmic patterns: heartbeat, pulse, brainwave activity, electrical currents from our muscles, etc. But more importantly, humans have musical skills and perceptions hard-wired  into their neural networks.

Just as the overtone series is built into our world as a naturally occurring acoustical phenomenon, the capacities to make and respond to music are built into the human body system ”universal and biologically supported by our genetic makeup.

In actuality, we use sound and Music as part of our ongoing human experience and communication network, whether we are consciously aware of it or not. Whatever the purposes musical behaviors of pitch inflection and rhythmic patterning, the capacity to make and respond to music is now part of what it is to be human. And more than any other species, humans require the cultural transmissions of a society to become viable ”not fully human, but human at all.

Dr. Albert Merabian, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at UCLA, has famously proffered what has come to be known as his 7%-38%-55% Rule . When we speak, the variations of pitch, tone, volume and rhythm, are responsible for 38% of our communication. The remainder of human communication is 55% non-verbal, and 7% actual verbal language. What this rule with the awkward name  tells us is that a staggeringly significant expression of Music in Society is manifest in our ability ”whether by nature or nurture  ”to distinguish subtle gradations of the very elements of Music (pitch, rhythm, timbre) in our daily communications with each other.

Separate from language, part of the richness of Music and the profession of Music is that it seemingly touches everyone. However, what the word itself means to individuals is so disparate to be nearly meaningless, particularly in a diverse society. It is indicative of the fragmentation of society that there are so many interpretations meant by the word. The very Biblical story of The Tower of Babel metaphorically paints the picture of a thousand musics , each incomprehensible outside its community of origin. Or perhaps more apt, the fable of The Blind Man and Elephant, all understood to have the same name but each part with drastically diametrically opposed attributes. Or so we assume, for we are not taught the multiplicities of Music and the very real commonalities that do exist.

Most of us can write, for example, but not everyone who writes is a "writer". In my profession, we are challenged to define a discipline of serious study--one that impinges on the nature of consciousness itself--when the category of our investigation, Music,  shares its name with a popular culture that empowers everyone by nature of having two ears to know a little something about what it is that we, as professionals, do.

The profession itself compounds the problem. What field of study has so many diverse sub-specialties than the Music field? Take a piccolo and a tuba, to name the mouse and the elephant . Sub-disciplinary relationships within the Music profession are often as far from each other as the greatest differences between the sciences. Academic music departments encounter this global explanation every time tenure enters into play. Is Music the idea in the composer's mind? Or is it what sits on the music stand awaiting realization? Is Music that thrilling performance we attended last weekend? Or is it our experience of it ”at that moment, sitting in the hall, wave upon wave of sound washing over us, or lingering (as it is right now) in memory?

And yet it is Music, they say, that bridges all. We in Music know there is no greater interdisciplined multidisciplinarity than Music; in fact, departments as diverse as management and engineering, biology and architecture, turn to Music to help explain everything from the psychological concept of flow  to the very heart of the creative impulse  at work in all disciplines. Some might say this is the very comprehensiveness we seek: large in scope, inclusive, broad, extensive, allowing as metaphor for us to grasp, understand, embrace, find meaningful, truly comprehend.

"No wonder music is the object of so many sub-specialities," writes Claude Palisca, editor of the Norton Anthology of Music, the bible of Music History. "Its complex raw material requires a student competent in physical acoustics. To study the sensation itself, requires a psychologist. Music is made by instruments built by craftsmen and technologists and to understand them one must be one or the other. It is also made by the voice, which involves physiology. To bring music listeners often requires highly articulated social organizations; making musicologists sociologists. Music is associated with rituals and ceremonies, both sacred and secular, and the forms these take demand both theological and anthropological sophistication. Music as art-product is studied to reveal its structure, its values, and its meanings. The various forms music has taken

over the ages may have to be subjected to the methodologies of the historian. Music expresses values, the forms of thought and the human relationships of a people or ethnic group, and as such is susceptible to the methodology of the geographer and ethnographer, and philosopher, and on and on.

And of course music is the protean art par excellence: wed to poetry it is song, wed to gesture, it is dance, wed to drama it is opera. It provides the psychological soundscape for the cinema, and it is the glue that binds us together in religious rituals and sporting events.

The great anthropologist Levi-Strauss found Music perhaps the greatest mystery of our humanity. And it is this mystery that certainly makes it challenging to decide and agree upon what, why, and how to teach Music at each level of human development.

But despite the veritable Tower of Babel of musics that causes us to wonder what, if anything, they have in common that this single word ”Music ” might refer to, Society itself enables us to look and listen at its uses across cultures to help us see and hear enough commonalities to determine what form follows which function.

And here I pause to put into practice the ineffable which we have only delayed with words. Ladies and Gentlemen, our newest hire in the Music Department, from Moldova, surely one of the greatest pianists I have had the pleasure to work with, performing a solo piano work I wrote for her last year: Guernica, after Picasso. I present to you Olga Kleiankina.


Thank you, Olga, for your great artistry.

In his classic study, The Anthropology of Music , Alan Merriam presented ten functions that music serves among nearly all peoples of the world. They are: emotional expression, aesthetic enjoyment, entertainment, communication, symbolic representation, physical response, enforcing conformity to social norms, validation of social or religious rituals, contribution to the continuity and stability of culture, and contribution to the integration of society.

Music, it is clear, is involved in the most important circumstances in the lives of individuals and communities. It is integral to the personal realms of courtship and mating, childrearing, work and leisure, celebration and mourning; it marks holidays and is heard publicly in coronations, inaugurations, at sporting events--as our 305-member marching band will attest.

Entertainment, emotional expression, and communication, are, by and large, understood. However, physical response , while seemingly one of the easier to see  if tied to the muster summoned for sport or war, is less a part of our lives if tied to Music and Healing, for example.

Of the examples that opened this talk today, which of these are taught in our public schools and universities? Are we taught how to sing to our babies? What music is best to program the soundtrack for war? How does advertising manipulate a populace with music? Only the example using music to heal is just beginning to be recognized, researched, and reproduced outside the lab in the world. Not by musicians, but by scientists.

In traditional societies, Music, Medicine, and Religion were tied together by a Gordian knot of emotion and mystery, taught us from our earliest days chanting together around the fire. In the beginning was the Word, we are told, which is far easier to hear when told, than read, for today we don't often attribute that Word as Sound. But surely, the Word that came to Moses, to Jesus, to Buddha, to Abraham, to Mohammed ”that word was sound long before it was written. And in nearly all religious traditions of the world, the Word is sung.

From the dawn of civilization music was used to heal. In ancient Greece, Apollo was both the god of music and medicine. Ancient Greeks believed that Music was an art imbued with power to penetrate into the very depth of the soul. When an appeal was made to the Muses for creative power, it was understood that one asked to be filled with enthousiasmos ”not our modern word of passion or zeal ”but to have awakened ˜the god within' each of us.

In ancient Egypt, the professions of priesthood, musicians and physicians were combined. In the Bible we read of the healing of Saul's depression by the harp of David. And Burton's Jacobean Anatomy of Melancholia  clearly described the healing powers of music. The late 18th century Romantic poet Novalis wrote in his Encyclopedia  of music's role in wellness. "Each illness,  he writes, has a musical solution. The shorter and more complete the solution, the greater the musical talent of the physician."

But it is a rare music therapy program in university or hospital that acknowledges, let alone teaches or practices, the power of Music to heal. And yet few among us would not find Olga's healing powers to advantage for physical and mental health. But along with the power to heal, comes also the power of Music to encourage learning. And it almost doesn't matter what kind of Music is used to teach as long as it is presented as a Way to Learn.

Too often, however, our educational system encourages what Shakespeare's MacBeth laments: ¦we but teach bloody instructions, which, being taught, return to plague.  We are experiencing at present ”at this moment of crisis ”this very plague. Music as metaphor, as an epistemology to nearly every area we teach on this campus is an answer to the plague of siloed self-protected fiefdoms.

In his book Music, Society, Education  Christopher Small gives us a prescription for the 21st century: A true regeneration of western music ¦can come only when we can restore the power of creation to each individual in our society.  And we hear this more and more. Last year the Emerging Issues Forum on our campus devoted its annual symposium to that single word "Creativity."

But to restore the power one must teach the power, and to teach the power is to teach the capacity of Music in and to Society as well as the creative act itself.

Music ”we know first-hand, have seen and heard ”is richly incorporated throughout the world into the very fabric of human life. Understanding Music provides an avenue into historical, social, psychological, economic, and religious dimensions of human experience at the level of feeling and value ”a means to explore the human condition in all its variety as it is embodied and expressed uniquely through music. Music of courtship, labor, children's games, entertainment, trance and shamanism, religious ceremonial, social opposition and cohesion, and solitary contemplation are all part of the polyphony of the world's music making. Far from being a frill,  music as a liberal art can serve across the curriculum if making these wider connections becomes part of the skill set of all educators .

The Music Department at NC State--for those who know us only by our superlative marching band at football games--became an official department in 1924, and in 86 years we have grown well beyond the vision of our founders and its university. Student Affairs, it must be noted, took us in when no one else on this campus cared. That drum and bugle corps we once were is today a marching band of 305, half of whom came here to become engineers--half of our marching band is from the College of Engineering! And that marching band is one of a staggering 20 ensembles ”from three choirs to four jazz groups to two orchestras where, in a university/community cooperative, players sit side by side, their personal music alone but a single line, but together producing harmony, cohesion, integrity and purpose.

Last year 2,186 students enrolled in 75 courses for a total of 4,249 credit hours ”up 11% from the year before. We gave 32 formal concerts to an audience of 6,392 during a recession ” but if one takes the music we supply to our sporting events, 158,493 students were touched by Music Department performances last year. Think about it: that means every single student attended five performances. If one includes televised sporting events, our total audience figures are in the millions.

And we work all this magic with 9 untenured full-time special teaching faculty, three full-time staff, and a dozen adjuncts. The 9 non-tenure-track special teaching faculty all have doctorates and meet the same rigorous teaching, research, and service expectation as do our tenured faculty on this campus and off. Some in the past have gone on to tenured jobs elsewhere, and others, like myself, have come here from tenured jobs to be here. These faculty have the same renown in their field, and find their research in the same publications as tenured faculty at universities noted for their schools of music. Why did we come? Why are we here? Why do we stay?

Because we believe in a vision we've collectively built on a promise that NC State desires to be more comprehensive. We believe in the current economy that regional competition with Duke and Chapel Hill will no longer allow NC State to be what it has always been. We recognize what others are just now coming to ”that creativity is the answer to tomorrow's questions, and these 9 faculty teach creativity every day.

It's not STEM we should be concerned with--it's STEAM: Science, Technology, Engineering, ARTS, and Mathematics. We simply cannot compete in the new economy unless we do something now about creativity and innovation. And you can't do that without the Arts. We are the creative professionals. A single Emerging Issues symposium--however a great start--won't do it. And without the momentum coming out of that symposium as it should: recognizing that our creative artists are already right here in our own backyard and putting artists and scientists together to generate that STEAM.

Music has come a long way in 86 years and, if I say so myself, a long qualitative climb very fast in the last seven I've been here. The Chancellor's Installation was proof enough of that. But we strive to equal performances of our Dance and Theatre colleagues. I've said it before and say it again: Dance is the highest art form we have on this campus. And ARTS NC STATE has done a great job of bringing high quality arts to this campus for the last dozen years. But integration into the fabric of a university's mission is something that will take STEAM. From this day forth, let's stop saying STEM, and start saying STEAM.

When Erskine Bowles left his prepared remarks and turned to the 100 students of the Music Department who had just performed Copland's "Promise of Living" two weeks ago at the Chancellor's Installation, what he said was: "That was extraordinary. That's what NC State is all about." As beautiful a moment as that was, many of us heard: "That's what NC State could be about and should be about."

What we have shown in Music is that we can take that broad, university-wide participation in the arts and through some great teaching and many hours above and beyond the call of duty, shatter the preconceptions and transform the perceptions of what the People's University can achieve.

For decades, members of our faculty have worked to lay the foundation for a Music Major, now long overdue. We have long heard the false argument that a major here is not necessary, that it would inhibit participation by non-majors in performing groups, that it would be "Ivory Tower Elitist" like programs at nearby campuses. But it is just here that aspiring music professionals could learn how to make their art relevant to the broad societal concerns of the rest of the university community. And the rest of the community can see the hard work, dedication and commitment required of artists, while pursuing their own majors in a community enlivened by the presence and participation of our majors. A music major does not take away from the experience of the general student non-major, but adds quality to it. It augments student options, not limits them. And, most importantly, auditions for our ensembles would continue to remain open to anyone, as they are everywhere else that educates musicians in a comprehensive university.

My sub-specialty, as my colleagues have helped demonstrate today, is composition. I write the songs that make the whole world sing. I write the tunes that Chancellor's process to, and symphonies perform, and ballets dance.

I have done this for 30 years and have found a happy home here with my wife in North Carolina. And while my new works are little economic engines that a Museum of Art may employ to open a new building or a symphony may commission to open a season, or a ballet company may come to me looking for a money-maker in a hard economic climate--what they are each and every time are community engagements for this university of the first magnitude. But let's acknowledge it for what it REALLY is--community economic development.

Music is not just entertainment, it is life-altering, big-picture, socially-active, dollars and cents, Ivory Tower on the hill coming down into its community making a difference. To me, THAT is big-C COMPREHENSIVENESS: whole body/ whole mind/whole soul land grant mission. And Music is an important part of that. The Arts are a vital part of that.

Remember, those of you who were there two weeks ago, what those choral students sang at the Chancellor's Installation that made you cry, that made you feel alive, that made you respond as you did: for the words they sang are a lesson for us all--

Let us sing our song--they sang,

And let our song be heard,

Let us sing our song with our hearts,

and let us find a promise in that song.

Let us find a promise in that song. A Promise for NC State. So that the next time the next Erskine is stopped in his tracks, his heart about to burst, and says: "That is extraordinary: that is what NC State is all about." We can believe him. Because we made it true.

I want to end with sound--I want the last thing you hear today to come to you straight through your heart. But before I do, I must tell a story. A story of a younger man, fresh out of graduate school, who moved to North Carolina and was taken in by an older, wiser man--a man who was then ten years younger than I am today. This older, wiser sensei showed me a brave kind of teaching that they didn't teach at Indiana. They didn't teach it at Purdue either. They didn't teach it anywhere 20 years ago. But someone at NC State was teaching Music--and the power of Music--across campus divides. And thus my post-graduate education began with Jonathan Kramer 20 years ago, when I was fresh out of graduate school.

For his then 40th birthday I wrote him this piece: Mother Earth, sobbing, for what was then the Exxon Valdez disaster. And in the 20 years since it is sad to reflect on the worse pain we've endured in that time. But today I have asked Jonathan to leave you with this in your hearts, for it says more than words can ever say. It says, in part, that we've come a long way; that it still hurts; but that healing is something we do for ourselves and our world. My thanks to you, friend, for the education that we now together bring to this campus.

For as Allan Merriam writes, There is probably no other human cultural activity which is so all-pervasive and which reaches into, shapes, and often controls so much of human behavior  as Music. Thank you.