Many good qualities are attributed to making music together. But does music also make you happy? And what is happiness? These questions are not only of concern to science but they are investigated in this article on the basis of scientific findings.
A fairy tale from Mexico describes how music brought happiness to earth. “Come, O wind!” Tezcatlipoca, god of heaven and the four cardinal directions, is called the plaintive earth wind. The sad earth is tired of silence. She has light, colors, and fruits, but she lacks music. The wind was to ensure that all the multicolored melodies, musicians, and singers who lived happily in the light of heaven with Father Sun accompanied him to earth.
With the help of lightning and thunder, the wind god succeeded in bringing the musicians and singers to earth. They scattered over the earth and with them, happiness returned. The wind forgot its complaints and sang. Everything learned to sing: the awakening day, the dreaming man, the playing child, the waiting mother, the flowing water, and the bird of the air (cf. Kreusch-Jacob 2001, pp. 9-10).
Music is also associated with happiness in many other fairy tales, legends, and myths. In a fairy tale about the origin of the world from Japan, for example, the sun goddess Amaterasu is lured out of a dark cave by wonderful music and dance. Thus, the dark and empty earth becomes bright, colorful, and alive. In general, the origin of music is attributed to the gods in many cultures, and music is seen as a means of connecting with the divine.
Importance of music for humans
Neuroscientist and music physiologist Eckart Altenmüller discusses why humans cannot live without music in a recently published book of the same name on the basis of his research. Singing and making music is part of our humanity since music serves the understanding between people on several levels and can contribute to better understanding and enduring the world and our lives (cf. Altenmüller 2018, p. 9). The fact that music is not useless, i.e. not an “acoustic cheesecake”, i.e. an ultimately unnecessary delicacy, but rather a complex, fundamental social art that is older than language, can be seen in the important role of music in the history of human development.
Making music apparently brought evolutionary advantages for humans, for example by creating emotional cohesion in the group or by coordinating and synchronizing movements in dance or at work. Not only in the Neandertal – music is still important for people today. Presumably, it was retained as a communication system alongside language in order to convey feelings, promote group processes and facilitate work organization, but above all to enable feelings of happiness and thus make life more worth living.
What is happiness?
In the German language, the term “happiness” is used today with two very different meanings: to have happiness and to feel happiness. The feeling of happiness is both a brief moment of feeling and a state in which a person finds himself and which is characterized by a general, often unconscious well-being. The decisive factor is not the objective facts, but the subjective experience of the person concerned.
“Feeling happiness” therefore exists in two possible variants:
- a short period of time, we experience a moment of happiness. Examples include: listening to favorite music; eating something good; being with friends; successfully completing an important matter and
- lasting feeling, living in happiness (English: happiness). Examples include: being satisfied with life; perceiving or assessing his life as “good”.
In psychology, happiness is described as an extremely strong positive emotion and a complete, permanent state of intense satisfaction. In interdisciplinary happiness research, a distinction is often made between the current experience of happiness (“state”) and the biographically developed, longer-lasting happiness (“trait”). The ecstatic, momentary happiness can also contribute to a good, perceived as successful life or “happiness of abundance”. The complexity and multiperspective of “Glück” represent a challenge and opportunity to explore all facets of the phenomenon, also in connection with music.
How happiness arises
What exactly causes feelings of happiness in humans? It is known from neurology that the left prefrontal cortex – part of the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex – together with other brain regions, such as a nerve bundle in the lower part of the forebrain and some regions below the cerebral cortex, is responsible for the regulation of positive emotions. These brain regions regulate, among other things, the release of dopamine, which is often referred to as the happiness hormone. It is released in situations where we are happy or anticipated and plays an important role in motivational processes.
Serotonin also has an influence on the experience of happiness and influences the ability to remember and learn. Lack of serotonin leads to depression, and lack of dopamine to listlessness – both deficiency symptoms are antagonists of happiness. The left prefrontal cortex, together with the nucleus accumbens, a nerve node in the lower part of the forebrain, could therefore also be referred to as the happiness center (cf. Bucher 2009, pp. 55-61).
Music and happiness
There are few things that can fill people with happiness in such a simple way and that has such a strong impact on life as music. Science has been trying to find out why this is the case for a long time; However, many details are still open. One thing is certain: music changes the heartbeat, blood pressure, respiratory rate, and muscle tension of humans. In addition, it affects the hormone balance and can cause the release of “happiness hormones” such as dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin.
A study on the psychobiological effects of singing, in which saliva studies were carried out among members of a concert choir, found that singing together can affect physical stress and immune processes; the different concentrations of the protein immunoglobulin and the hormone cortisol played a role. A follow-up study showed that singing can have a positive effect on subjective well-being, improve mood, reduce stress, and generally promote health. Compared to simply listening to music, singing one’s own generated more positive emotions and reduced negative mood components (cf. Kreutz 2015, p. 87 ff.). Health is not a prerequisite for happiness, but happiness promotes health and well-being.
Opportunities of making music
For children – as well as for people of other age groups – making music offers special potential for happiness with regard to fulfilled moments as well as a meaningful life. Children are intuitively music learners and are born with all the prerequisites for musical development. Making music is an elementary human need for expression. It affects thinking, feeling, and acting, develops subtleties of hearing, and can promote learning behavior in general (perseverance, attention) and language development. In connection with auditory and speech processing, the results of a study on elementary music practice with kindergarten children are interesting
Accordingly, the holistic approach to music (“early musical education”) has just as good an effect on individual phonological awareness as targeted language training (cf. Kreutz 2015, pp. 125-130). The active playing of an instrument, singing, or dancing offer particularly good chances for experiences of happiness, as they are sensually immediate, self-directed activities in the here and now, in which all basic human capacities and potentials, i.e. “head, heart, and hand”, work together. Making music starts with the body and with the immediate aesthetic experience. Learning to make music includes movement learning, motor differentiation, work on body awareness and body image, and functional pleasure.
In addition, music-making is explicitly not only about understanding music and the creative design of sound in time, but also about the intensive experience, working through, updating, and remembering feelings, the non-verbal expression of feelings, communication, and social interaction. Results of studies suggest that, for example, high-quality singing offers can significantly promote the social integration of primary school children in the long term (cf. Kreutz 2015, p. 67). It is important not to be satisfied with short-term projects, but to create long-term offers.
Open ears to music
So there are many reasons to give music a high priority in primary school. Despite their heterogeneity – due to different socialization, education, motivation, personality, prerequisites, preferences, interests, etc. – children are receptive to very different types of music and ways of dealing with music. It would be remiss not to take advantage of this “open-earedness” and to get curious about the variety of musical styles and genres together with the children. Making music together and inventing music, sounding picture books, musical fantasy journeys, and audio stories, music to sing along, music to listen to or dream, paint to music, music to move or dance – children react differently to musical activities and offers.
This makes it all the more important to have a joyful, varied approach to music that appeals to as many children as possible, takes up their interests, and promotes creativity and musicality. It is advisable to let the children bring or choose music, but also to bring in their own favorite music, which can often be conveyed particularly authentically. Joint concert visits and cooperations or projects with other educational and cultural institutions such as music schools, concert halls, and opera houses can also provide valuable impulses and help to expand the musical field of vision.
Happiness experience in or through lessons?
Whether children experience happiness or unhappiness in class depends on many different factors (cf. Bradler; Losert; Welte 2015). Biographical, pedagogical, and cultural previous experience and the resulting expectations and aspirations play a major role.
Many people experience social relationships and activities, such as activities with friends and family, as exhilarating (cf. Bucher 2009, pp. 92-119). Social contact, i.e. the process of making music and learning music with others, could also play an important role in perceived happiness in connection with music lessons, especially since making music per se strengthens the group feeling. Other factors that may favor happiness experiences in classroom situations include:
- a good teaching atmosphere, characterized by mutual respect and the willingness to listen (or) listen;
- a friendly, open, appreciative, sensitive, reliable, and competent teacher who loves music, makes music, and teaches music;
- the certainty of being taken seriously and heard in class with their needs, wishes and ideas;
- to be appropriately supported and challenged individually (neither under- nor overstrained), manageable, varied tasks, achievable goals, a real, clearly tangible increase in music-related skills and knowledge;
- supportive, stimulating, and methodologically diverse guidance and accompaniment that provides security and orientation, but also leaves room for initiative and development;
- appropriate feedback from the teacher (praise, constructive criticism) and support from parents, friends, etc.;
- a suitable, pleasant place to teach.
The pursuit of happiness is superior to the pursuit of education. However, happiness as an unfussily positive, direct experience in making music and in music lessons can neither be systematically controlled nor fathomed in detail. Perceived happiness depends largely on one’s own attitude, attitude, and subjective evaluation. But it is possible to develop and cultivate an attitude of alert, sensitive, serene attention in the here and now.
This creates a good breeding ground for experiencing happiness when listening to music and making music as well as when teaching. The happiness of teachers and learners is often complementary. If you as a teacher consider your work to be meaningful in principle and experience moments of happiness at work and in dealing with music, chances are good that you can inspire your students to music and contribute to their happiness.