Music as a Resource for the Adult Education Experience

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A National Symposium

November 16–17, 2012

Dillard University and Xavier University of Louisiana
New Orleans, Louisiana

This article represents an extended version of our breakout discussion group, which was developed as an extension of a Faculty Resource Network Summer 2012 course led by Professor White, and attended by Professors Serrano and Tietze. The outline originally used for the presentation serves as guideline for the present summary article. The present article includes details from the presentation dialogue.

The presentation team began by engaging each other in dialogue, which in turn served as a model for engaging the audience. The team sat in a semicircle, and commented or added connections to one another’s ideas during the discussion. Clips from a PBS documentary The Music Instinct directed by Elena Mannes were shown, and the team presented some of the recent work in music, brain, and creativity, as well as some of the latest discoveries in neuroscience in a non-technical way.

The team then discussed the experience of teaching music to non-musicians, as well as musicians. Professor White discussed music as an educational medium for preserving culture and history, especially in his home city of New Orleans (White, 2010, 2012). He played several musical examples of blues, and musical rhythms that readily evoked responses from the audience (White, 2011, 2012). Professor Serrano described several case examples based on her teaching experience of students who had transformative experiences through music education. She described a young man who had great difficulty reading, but was able to respond and remember music and learned that he had a skill previously unknown to him. Professor Serrano then used this as a means to encourage his learning and improve his self-esteem. She also taught singing to a college professor. Through this work, the professor gained experience as an adult learning a difficult skill, direct experience with performance, and responding to feedback both from Professor Serrano and by listening to her own singing. Moreover, this professor learned to visualize sound production as a process of learning to producing sound, a complete body-mind coordinating experience (Serrano, 2012).

The presenters then shared some ancient, even universal, views of music. Plato said: “Children should be taught music before anything else; in learning to pay attention to graceful rhythms and harmonies, their whole consciousness would become ordered.” Plutarch noted: “Music, to create harmony, must investigate discord.” Although no written forms of music come to us from the ancients, Plato’s acknowledgement of the importance of music for education, ordering consciousness toward graceful rhythms and harmonies, values music as an educational tool. Renaissance poet Plutarch’s idea of creating harmony through investigating discord, seems an important theme in musicians’ historical exploration of new sound ideas which continues into the present, sometimes described as “pushing the envelope” (both excerpts taken from Deutsch, 1987).

The dialogue with audience centered on five practical ideas concerning the use of music in adult educational settings to enhance learning:

  1. Music listening is the most common leisure activity, and induces strong emotional and motivational responses in the human brain. To supply new energy, and a novel experience, any professor can use music to begin a class, or mark a transition, or balance a lecture, and afterward discuss responses with students. Since music strongly stimulates creative and emotional responses in the brain, it can be used by any teacher to create a transition to a different mode of thinking, whenever it seems appropriate. Most likely, this would be transitions from a lecture/reading mode to a more active listening or interactive activity mode.
  2. Music also encourages creative imagination, or “play mode,” which reduces stress, encourages exploration without focus on a result, and helps expand social responsiveness, by placing the focus on the process of sharing experience. “…(Erikson’s) play mode includes creative rehearsal of behavior within a context of enjoyment and exploration that enriches connections between self and experience with the world…play incorporates intrinsic motivation and a dual focus on process as well as performance…the process of creating art, and responding to it, continues this mode of exploration into adulthood” (Tietze, 2006, p. 36).
  3. Cognitive learning often occurs by first working with a general schema or an outline of a given idea, then adding details through connecting the schema with individually-different experiences, so we actually create meaningful connections as we learn. Music can be used in many situations where experiences among students are varied. Given his or her depth and variety of experience, often the adult student has a strength to contribute. The concept of schema (or basic framework of an idea, which informative details can then be added to) is an important one in human cognitive development (Myers, 2010). Considering that the human brain makes meaningful connections for learning and “internalizes the environment” in ways that match our individual experience, recent neuroscience confirms a similar process for making meaning of music. Levitin, after testing thousands of subjects (2006), using the idea of music learned first in overall contour, and later in detail (after repeated listening), found the average listener can reproduce her or his favorite song with incredible accuracy. This adds further value to the greater experience of the adult learner, which can provide more experience to make connections with new educational information.
  4. Jerome Bruner’s modes of thinking are also useful in understanding how music can be used in the classroom (cited in McAdams, 2000, pp. 720-26). They include the paradigmatic mode (“say no more than you mean”) and the narrative mode (“mean more than you can say”). Often, the critical thinking required in a course needs to be clear and focused; however, mixing the modes can be stimulating. Both professors and students can be encouraged to bring music that tells a story, or their own identity story (see Appendix 1: “Musical Landmarks of Identity” exercise by Tietze). Bruner’s narrative mode of thinking was an early insight for human cognition (McAdams, 1994) and recognizes that the human brain is primed to organize experience, including memory of events and the emotional states that connect them, into stories. This narrative approach has been applied to understanding individual personality (McAdams, 2001), including the creation of an individual identity, as well as family development and clinical treatment of families (Nystul, 2011).
  5. Finally, psychological theories of adult development can be used informally to clarify some of the contributions and challenges that adult students bring to an educational setting, such as linear vs. cyclic thinking (Wordsworth’s “the child is father to the man” vs. Erikson’s “the adult is parent to child within, as well as without”). Carl Jung’s theory, including the first psychological Life-Span approach to Human Development, offers useful opportunities for understanding the challenges of adult education, especially the range of experience they bring to the educational community, and the motivation for deep reflection on the meaning of their experience. Prof. Tietze used an example of working with adult students in a career course at Marymount Manhattan College, where he teaches (Tietze, 2012).


Deutsch, Diana. (1987/99). The Psychology of Music. San Diego: Academic Press.

Erikson, E. (1997). The Life Cycle Completed, extended version. New York: Norton.

Jung, C.G. (1964). Man and His Symbols. New York: Doubleday.

Levitin, D. (2006). This is Your Brain on Music. New York: Plume/Penguin.

Mannes, Elena (2009). The Music Instinct [documentary film]. USA: PBS.

McAdams, D. (2000). The Person: An Integrated Introduction to Personality Psychology. New York: Harcourt.

Myers, D. (2010). Psychology, 9th Ed. New York: Worth.

Nystul, M. (2011). Introduction to Counseling: An Art & Science Perspective, 4th Ed. Boston: Pearson.

Serrano. R. (2012). Unpublished case study excerpts teaching music.

Tietze, R. L. (2012, Spring). Creating an Adult Self. Marymount Manhattan Magazine, 44-45.

Tietze, R. L. (2006). Jazz and the American identity. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, S(1), 33-41. doi:

Tietze, R. L. (2008). Jazz and American identity: Case study of a college course. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 2(4), 245-255. doi: White, M. (2010). Traditional New Orleans Jazz as a Metaphor for American Life. Imagining America, 6. Retrieved from

White, M. (2011; 2012). Adventures in New Orleans Jazz, Vols. 1 & 2 [Musical Recording]. New Orleans: Basin Street Records.

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