Out of Phase: What if the Restoration of our Soul and Spirit through Music is a Fundamental Need?

In modern, post-industrialist, rationalist, materialist, late-capitalist society (can you tell I’m not a fan?) we tend to think of art as a luxury item. We appreciate it as life-enhancing, sure, but not fundamental. For basic survival, the prevailing belief is that humans must have shelter, food, water, sleep, clothing, safety, and personal security, before we have the leisure time to even begin to think about making a piece of art to express ourselves. Yet anyone who has intuitively searched out their favorite album to soothe a heartbreak, sung a chant at a yoga class, put an iPod into their ears to rev up a morning run, or danced their way out of a depression with pop music (here’s one of my favorite playlists for that) is familiar with how therapeutic and life-enhancing a companion music can be.

But what if the solace and regenerative powers of music are not merely a secondary benefit or incidental function, but one of the core purposes of music? And what if that healing mechanism suggests that there is a non-vertical, holistic approach to human needs? What if we can actually meet our needs “out of order”? How would a shift in our thinking about what purpose the arts serve contribute to not only better appreciation (and funding) for the arts, but also perhaps help facilitate a shift away from our materialist, competitive values?

Certainly, music is not the only art form with therapeutic benefits. But there is something special about music. (I mean, of course, as a musician I am inclined to believe, as Frank Zappa did, that “music is the best.”) In musical experience we have a particular type of integration between the body, voice, and sound vibration that is unique amongst the art forms. This special trait of music is true across all genres; whether the sound vibrations comes in the form of songs, chants, instrumental jams, a pulsing dance floor at a sweaty club, concertos, barbershop quartets, or choirs, all of this integrates physical movement, breath, spatial awareness, and pattern recognition, which makes for a healing elixir par excellent for our brains, bodies, and emotional selves.

I always felt this as part of my inward reality, and saw that it was a general shared experience amongst other humanoids. But in my work as a Teaching Artist with Urban Voices Project, a nonprofit that provides music programs to people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles, I had a visceral lesson in just how fundamental music truly is for human well-being.

In our workshops at UVP, we use songs and instrumental jams as a jumping off point for creating a communal setting where people can sing or play along, improvise, or just observe. Throughout the workshops, members can share what the music means to them and how it affects their emotions and mood. We facilitate just to provide structure, but not to “teach” (an orientation that required some ongoing adjustments for me, having come from many years teaching piano, music theory, and technique). One of the basic tenets of the program is that in these spaces people who are typically dehumanized, and even criminalized, for being on the street get to restore a sense of personhood through the chance to meet the need for expression, connection, community, validation, and identity. Too, I think that those of us who are housed in these spaces also get to disabuse ourselves of the false idea that people who are on the street are less human; we are not rescuers swooping in to save people from their suffering, we are simply showing up in a room and remembering, all together, that we’re all human.

The only real musical skill is listening; everything else is just preparation.

What I learned in these workshops is that regardless of whether a person is housed or not, regardless of whether they have a place to sleep that night or know where their next meal is coming from, they can still find significant emotional and spiritual restoration through musical experience.

In one lesson, one of my beginning guitar students, who has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, kept nervously shifting in her chair and shared that she was being wracked by aggravating thought loops that were distracting her from the activity we were trying to focus on. We refocused again and again, and as she got a few repetitions of the chord progression in, something clicked.

“Oh okay, the chords are like a loop, but a nice one,” she noticed.

Using breath to help focus her thoughts, the simple pattern of switching between two chords became a new loop that had a more friendly, positive feel than the negative, harassing mental patterns she was used to. I thought I was simply showing her how to play a chord pattern, but the music demonstrated something about what it could do for the student, and the student explained what the music was doing for her, in a way that I wouldn’t have anticipated or predicted.

Two of the kids who are more advanced musicians were talking one day about how it’s difficult to make time or have enough privacy to practice their music on the streets, or to take their mind off chronic concerns about getting enough food and where they will sleep that night. All of the attendant “adulting” that kids in their late teens and early twenties have to reckon with, these kids are dealing with in hyper-drive, with zero systems of support outside of circles of friends they know on the street and, thankfully, the support organizations available (like Safe Place For Youth). As one counselor said, one week is like several months on the streets, because daily life experience is so full of obstacles and stresses.

And yet, still, all of these young artists light up with esteem, confidence, and even spiritual transcendence, when they share their musical gifts and have those gifts affirmed and celebrated by others. They might not know where their next meal is coming from (root chakra, survival needs), but they are evolving emotionally, psychologically, and most definitely in their self-realization, nonetheless. 

These are all examples of why the only real musical skill is being able to listen; everything else is just preparation that may or may not be useful at some point in the future.

The idea of a linear ordering of fundamental needs versus non-fundamental ones is of course not endemic to modern capitalism. To look to Maslow on this topic, belonging, esteem, and self-realization only enter the picture after the lower tiers of the pyramid of needs have been met. Maslow’s hierarchy is in some ways a sort of compressed, simplified version of the Eastern chakra system of seven energy centers; Maslow’s hierarchy has five sections, whereas the simple version of the Eastern chakra system has seven. But regardless of the system, the general idea in many cultures modern and traditional is that we have to meet certain baseline, foundational needs before we can fully self-actualize.

But maybe it is a mistake to relate to any model of human health and needs in a strictly linear model, where energy only moves in one direction. And although Maslow’s Hierarchy is extraordinarily useful in many applications, even groundbreaking in its day, it can also be beneficial to reorient ourselves to a nonhierarchical view of needs — especially when such large numbers of our population are experiencing a profound emergency of one category of needs not being met.

Traditionally, the throat or fifth chakra is thought to correspond with music, singing, and public speaking, but we also activate the root chakra with repetitive drumming or rhythmic patterns, or the sacral chakra with dance, and so on. You could wager that root chakra-stimulating music, for example, can help with root chakra-oriented needs (basic survival), but my experience is that these processes are nonlinear and do not operate according to any type of verticality.

humans often intuitively figure out how to meet this need, even if it isn’t charted in official diagrams. 

There is something profound about being a part of a musical experience where people are getting fundamental needs met through song and movement in such a transparent way. Too, there is considerable value in seeing someone who often feels marginalized and disenfranchised get to enjoy a sense of accomplishment and excellence at creative expression, even while struggling with the everyday requirements of surviving in a capitalist system.

Music may not be directly helping these kids survive on a material level, but it is nonetheless fundamental to their survival. None of this is to minimize the homelessness crisis, but simply to help us remember that there are values and needs that can and do operate outside of the materialist value system. Imagine for a moment that alongside our capitalist reality there is a parallel reality where, despite capitalist values not being achieved in their prescribed linear progression, human realization is still occurring — in real time, on the streets, all around us, throughout the city.