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Why Music is Subversive

Photo from the Olympian, Olympia,Washington

As I was mid-way through the Women’s March Olympia, (capitol of the other Washington), a woman near me burst into song:

“This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.”

This gospel song from the 20’s hardly sounds like a revolutionary anthem, but it was perfect on Saturday. Soon a group of strangers, women and men, youth and grandparents, straights and gays, were singing as we marched. Those three lines of song brought us together and uplifted us, making our steps in the march lighter and our spirits more buoyant, despite the gray skies.

This strengthened my suspicion: music is subversive.

This week, as I checked into some of the research on what music does to our brains, I found this research by Stefan Koelsch, music psychologist at the Freie University in Berlin. He reviewed and presented more data on brain research than my brain could absorb, supporting his statement:

“Music listening and making activates a multitude of brain structures, the engagement of which is likely to have beneficial effects on the psychological and physiological health of individuals.”

Loose translation: Music, whether you listen to or make it, is good for the brain. It can help people come together in positive ways, and makes them healthier.

He describes seven “C’s” of music that happen when we listen to or make music (backed by voluminous research).

  1. When people come together to make music, they have social contact, something most of us need.
  2. Music engages “social cognition,” in other words, we get to think about what somebody else—usually the composer—was intending in writing a piece.
  3. Music leads to “co-pathy” —a word that currently eludes the dictionary but appears to mean a kind of social empathy that spreads in a group (or, in more technical terms, “getting in a groove” together).
  4. Music involves communication.
  5. Making music requires coordination.
  6. Performing music together requires cooperation.
  7. Music leads to social cohesion. It can help us feel like we belong, which in turn leads to better health and longer life. It can also put us in touch with the transcendent.

Brain geeks can read more here.

Loose translation: music can take us from contact to connection.

Ergo: Music is subversive.

My extensive research during the march Saturday confirmed his findings:  music helps us feel connected, gets us on the same emotional wave length, uplifts us and helps us feel we’re a part of something bigger, something universal, something that has meaning. It encourage us to cooperate and coordinate. And it helps our brains (a fact I could not examine while marching).

I don’t think the dark forces want to hear this: Music brings us together.

Playing for change.

Several years ago, a really neat video of street musicians from around the world went viral, put out by an organization called Playing for Change. The nonprofit started when one audio guy, Mark Johnson, took his recording equipment out to street musicians around the world and started creating amazing videos. If you missed it, watch it here.


He visited communities that were destitute and watched them come alive as people started singing. Playing for Change has been connecting musicians and starting music schools in communities around the world, using music as a tool for education.

Music belongs to everyone. It lives in the laughter of children and the minds of the very old. Our brains remember music when they have forgotten most everything else, Music thrives in the poorest barrios, where the pavements are broken, the roads gutted, and the sanitation primitive. It spreads hope in dismal surroundings and moves people to act. It inspired a revolution.

You believe me now? Music is subversive.

After the United States elections, Playing for Change musicians put out this version of Rivers of Babylon. It’s not a political statement. It just makes you feel like life is possible.

Which might be a political statement.

Communicating, Connecting. Coordinating. Helping people see each other as remarkable human beings. Lifting us up and giving us hope.

I repeat: music is subversive.

The Women’s March was great but we’ve got a long way to go. Social programs and social justice are on the line these days. We’re going to need a lot of song.


This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.

This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine.

Let it shine. Let it shine. Let it shine



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