On the way to the musical contemporary

By Barbara Kern, Holger Kern, February 2021

Great minds of the past have sought to find out what binds the world together at its core. Should we not also seek to discover what moves the world at its core; what stimulates the human being and what would like to break fresh ground into the future?

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

When we bring matter into motion, it reveals something of its inner state through the sound it makes. Be it the invisible crack in porcelain, the void and hollowness of a box, the density and degree of moisture of a piece of wood or the sound made by the voice of a living being: In the audible range we learn something about the interior of things and what is not manifest in our opposite number. Music augments this.

Even when a person just sings a plain folksong, such music has an effect on the attentive listener and beyond that intensively affects them inside. How much more diverse and differentiated can this effect be with artistically created music! But music enables not just profound impressions. As an expressive medium it is a way of communicating innermost feelings, a valve for emotional tension and the cradle of the purest joy in playing. This expression of the inner nature of one or several people is what characterises music as a tonally occurring event. Thus all current music is the audible picture of the inner life of the people concerned. The music of our time reflects in its audibility the zeitgeist working in humanity.

Furthermore, we can transcend time and place with music – in seconds, thanks to today’s media – and thus learn something about the cultural and inner spiritual and emotional life of people who may be long dead or who live far away. We can therefore participate in what lives and lived in the people there in terms of spiritual currents.

Movement from inside

In Waldorf schools, we pursue an educational progression through the year groups which lets the pupils experience the course of the spiritual and soul development of humanity in a compact and metamorphosed way. At its end there is the emotional and intellectual connection with and involvement in today’s zeitgeist in music.

Essentially the pupils experience through their own music making and singing selected stations of musical history and something of the diversity of sounds from all over the world. In doing so, they develop their own inner forces. Music has been a central influence in Waldorf schools from the beginning  which pervades everything, and can and should set everything inwardly in motion. Is that still relevant today?

Specifically in our economically so advanced time, which through increasingly dominant algorithms is mechanising and hardening the circumstances of our lives to an ever greater extent in all areas, music is more important than ever. The great longing of people for music seems to express precisely this, even if they satisfy this longing largely (only) by electronic means.

But music which is produced for people here and now allows us to be involved directly in the inner motions of the other and hence is irreplaceable in education. Even more important in the educational sphere is musical practice since this helps the growing human being to strengthen their powers, learn to control them and differentiates and expands expressive abilities. In addition, it also provides great pleasure to most pupils.

The former English teacher and founder of Alibaba (the Chinese “Amazon”), Jack Ma, emphasised in an interview that school in future should increasingly concentrate on those subjects which contribute something to the education of the specifically human qualities. He is one of those people who not only works in the field of technology but also understands it so well that he knows and has a sense of the fields in which it surpasses or will surpass humans. That is precisely why he calls to mind those things which make human beings human. He too comes to the conclusion that in the school of the future it will be less important primarily to communicate knowledge but that rather art, music, the movement subjects and the social sphere should be practised with the children – and all those abilities which humans cannot transfer to machines.

Empathy and a feeling of community

The specifically human in the world that cannot be replaced by machines is based on the communication between people. The chasm between two people, between their respective inner experiences, can only be bridged if they overcome the “externality” that divides them: if both have learnt to communicate accessibly and listen attentively and follow the thinking of the other. In singing and making music together, we learn, as if in passing, basic abilities of empathy. We practice social skills in listening to one another. We communicate through inner impulses, inner emotions and feelings, and if we achieve a harmonious outcome in such giving and taking as we make music, we produce an intense feeling of community.

What binds “the world” together at its core in so doing is what moves those involved to the greatest extent inwardly. The individual also learns to express themselves in such a way that the other can hear the impulses that come from them. Both sides are guided by something communal, something greater: namely the thing that wants to come to expression as a piece of music. These forms of musical social effects arise even with the simplest, if inwardly fulfilled, music making. But if music, as an expression of the spirit, is then further lifted to an artistic level through jointly bringing the music of great classical musicians to life, then we immerse ourselves in our thinking into an extensive, foreign world of thought and thus elevate our own, as happens in a choir or orchestra.

Tonic and leading tone

For something more than a hundred years, it has been evident in all musical directions that have developed in some way that – irrespective of stylistic constraints – the tonic has, more or less obviously, been called into question and the leading tone circumvented. The tonic not only indicates the key or chord but above all a sense of a standpoint, a starting and end point, a clear reference point. Anyone who wants to give it a try should sing a few tones up a scale and then return to the starting tone: once back there, we can experience that this tone gives a secure hold and that we “snap back” into the target tone. This experience is even stronger when we continue the scale upwards until we take the step from the seventh to the eighth tone. With the eighth tone we have arrived at the upper tonic and “snapping into the target” (in the eighth tone) is even stronger here. This is connected with the emotional action of the seventh tone which clearly “indicates” and “tells us” where we have to go. The seventh tone of the scale clearly leads us up the eighth and is therefore called the leading tone. Its leading, indeed almost “commanding” action and everything that musicians do with this became increasingly popular in central Europe from 1600 AD. All subsequent music, the whole of classical and romantic and almost all “western” music that has arisen from it works in various way with this effect.

Today’s pleasure in circumventing this leading tone shows the longing of human beings to go their own self-determined paths, no longer to have prescribed for them where their steps should take them. The abandonment of the tonic or indeed its “loss” corresponds, on the one hand, to the many different reference possibilities as well as, on the other hand, to the lack of orientation we often find today. We can see everywhere the difficulty of people in formulating and accepting common reference points. Here, too, we find the connection with musical phenomena because music is an expression of the soul and spiritual constitution of human beings and human communities.

Freedom and a hold within oneself

Now education can no longer mean a return to the “old harmonies”. Both tonic and leading tone to all intents and purposes arose “naturally” in the development of music and abandoning them occasionally represents progress and a benefit for human beings. Today we want to form our own standpoints and reference points, have confidence in ourselves with a feeling of responsibility and the willingness to act, and no leading tone can force us any longer to progress directly to the end tone. Either I take the step (from the seventh to the eighth tone) of my own volition, go a different way, or not at all!

Just as was the case in human development many centuries ago, small children have not yet arrived “on the ground of the tonic”. Just like humanity, they conquer the action and controllability of the tonic and leading tone effect in the course of their years at school. But in most, the interest in music that seeks the freedoms referred to above in its sound space or already “speaks” about them in a new way awakens to a greater or lesser extent during their time in school.

In such music the individual is no longer guided by the “natural forces of the tones” but is challenged as an autonomous person, has to find orientation, the goal and a hold within themselves and beyond that consciously create a community with others in the musical sphere.

In order for the adult person to gain access to this phenomenon of their time, the openness beyond the tonic which is maintained in the early years of the Waldorf school provides the perfect prerequisite. In the course of their schooling, the pupils begin by completely immersing themselves in the world of harmonies and pleasing rhythms. At the end of their schooling, however, they also acquire for themselves by means of contemporary phenomena secure independent action, differentiated feeling and the appropriate capacity of judgement. A mature judgement can go beyond mere likes and dislikes and also understand emotional content such as music in its respective context.

This gives pupils the opportunity to become independent individuals not just with regard to music but also to find support on their path to becoming emotionally free contemporary people. They have obtained the ability with which they can move the world, but also hold it together.

About the authors: Barbara Kern is a class teacher at the Uhlandshöhe Free Waldorf School in Stuttgart; Dr Holger Kern is a professor of music and music education in Stuttgart.

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