Music, Humanities and a Globalized Society

Music, Humanities and a Globalized Society
Gisela P. Concepcion
(Speech delivered at SEADOM Congress 2015, University of the Philippines Diliman)


“The future is first shaped by words, whose meanings shift as ourselves change.”

This is a line from a poem composed by eminent poet and University of the Philippines professor emeritus Gémino Abad. In twelve simple words, Prof. Abad was able to capture the value of the humanities, and it is that they embody the things that move us, that drive us to choose one path over another, such impetuses being truth, beauty and goodness.

Like words, music can shape the future. And as part of the humanities, music can also be a source of what is true, beautiful and good, if we allow them to exist in our ­world view or what is known as Weltanschauung. Our philosophy, values, emotions and ethics can all be understood in the music that we create, and as the listener or receiver goes deeper into the core of music – its meaning – so much so that the person becomes part of it, then he or she also goes deeper into the core of the music’s creator.

Music and its symbolisms: the search for knowledge, altruism/humanity, and the innate self

It is precisely because of this depth that music is able to flow freely from the inside to the outside, from person to society, from the self to the non-self. This movement is very symbolic of how we rational beings search for knowledge: from the tangible to the intangible, from the tellable to the untellable, and the ever-present eagerness to reconcile these extremes. To understand life, we start from the simplest life forms then move to a greater awareness of the environment, farther along we know more about nature, next the earth, until finally we are able to grasp the mysteries of the universe – back to the depths of ourselves where, yet again, we are faced with a profound sense of awe and amazement.

Similarly, this property of music to flow is depictive of our pursuit of interests. The need to promote and pursue self-interest is understandable because securing the self is only natural. However, like knowledge, it must transform into a higher form by contributing to the non-self: family, then community, then society, then nation, then region and ultimately the world. Like music, the pursuit of interests should be kinetic for it is only in progression that we can grow fully.

Music emphasizes wholeness and balance, especially because with music, you hear not only the voice of humans and civilizations but also of nature. Thus, music allows us to contemplate the relationship between nature and its human inhabitants. How do we shift from pride to humility in the way we commune with nature, what with its power, wonders and greatness? How far do we go to recognize its inherent value?

As Jean-Jacques Rousseau posited, it is in nature where we can find our authentic selves, our original state that is innately good, replete of unnecessary needs. In nature, humans not only think but more importantly they also feel. (Besides being a philosopher and novelist, Rousseau was also a botanist, and a music theorist and composer who penned seven operas.)

Professor of law and ethics Martha Nussbaum appears to be in support of Rousseau’s philosophy when she said that:

“…We are pursuing the possessions that protect, please, and comfort us—what [Rabindranath] Tagore called our material “covering.” But we seem to be forgetting about the soul, about what it is for thought to open out of the soul and connect person to world in a rich, subtle, and complicated manner; about what it is to approach another person as a soul, rather than as a mere useful instrument or an obstacle to one’s own plans; about what it is to talk as someone who has a soul to someone else whom one sees as similarly deep and complex.”

Soul, she says, is “the faculties of thought and imagination that make us human and make our relationships rich human relationships, rather than relationships of mere use and manipulation.”

Indeed, in a world of rapid change that puts a premium on interconnectedness, how many times have we, amidst all the technology and modern means available, felt disconnected still from the rest of the world?

Social value of music: connectedness and interconnectedness

Now more than ever, we need music to help us connect with ourselves and others. One study in the US, for instance, showed that children learned a particular instrument because they liked the sound of it, but in some cases, friendships were considered significant.

Music can stimulate meaningful social interactions. This is because it enables communication, beyond what is verbal, by inciting shared emotional responses. As a result, it supports the creation or enlargement of group identity: commonality versus uniqueness, togetherness versus aloneness, and collective feeling versus individuality. It can promote right behavior in vulnerable groups. In fact, music can be so effective in delivering such outcomes that in some places, its use is regulated by those in authority.

Most of all, music itself stands for connectedness – the way notes are put together in a manner that is grazioso (graceful), and the way harmony leads to something grandioso (beautiful). Certainly, we can learn so much from it, which all the more supports the need for education in the arts, culture and the humanities.

Music and the humanities: forming critical, creative and socially responsible citizens

In today’s globalized society, economic opportunities perch, by and large, on specializations and technical skills found in science and technology, research and development, and innovation. There is emphasis on greater specialization of disciplines and the intensified compartmentalization of knowledge to be able to secure jobs and make money. While such skills and knowledge are necessary as we face the prospect of stronger internationalization, particularly with the impending ASEAN Community, we should not forget the role of the arts, and the humanities like music as we pursue more specific socio-political and economic goals. We should continue teaching them with passion because a student who goes through them “is marked by a general cultivation, by certain scholarly traits, and by an attitude toward learning and the process of thought,” to quote UP professor Tenmatay (1961).

Nussbaum eloquently explains it further when she said that, in a democratic world, we need the abilities that the humanities and the arts foster.

“First is critical thinking: to debate respectfully with others, to tell a good argument from a bad one, to examine tradition and prejudice in a Socratic spirit. Second, we need history: a knowledge of the world and its many cultures and religions… we will only preserve democratic values of debate and mutual respect if we try hard to understand the past and the present. Finally, we need the imaginative ability to put ourselves in the positions of people different from ourselves, whether by class or race or religion or gender… The imagination is an innate gift, but it needs refinement and cultivation; this is what the humanities provide.”

This kind of learning is likewise supported by Mansilla and Jackson (2011) who argued that creating clearer, higher standards in education is not enough in order to develop citizens, workers and leaders in the 21st century. What is more important is to “produce students who actually know something about the world – its cultures, languages and how its economic, environmental and social systems work.”

Allow me to add to what Prof. Nussbaum put forth.

First, I believe that it is in the humanities where we learn ethics, civics and public mindedness (or the balance and continuity of personal, family, community, national, regional and global good) as well as national pride and global orientation.

Second, knowledge of the humanities breeds creativity: a sense of curiosity complemented by critical, quantitative, abstractive, integrative thinking, and skills for innovation, construction and communication.

Third, they help us develop progressive, constructive leadership, creating experts or specialists with broad foundational knowledge who can work with experts in other fields.

Fourth, they open us to a multi-, inter-, trans-disciplinary, integrative approach to creating holistic goods, products, services, systems and lifestyles, and providing well-rounded solutions to complex problems in society.

Finally, from the humanities, we acquire an entrepreneurial spirit, translating the value chain/network of innovations/creative output to sustainable, productive, culture and history-sensitive applications in society.

In short, the humanities foster a deepening, heightening, broadening, quickening of our education, our experiential learning.

At the University of the Philippines, this is how we envision our graduate in Philippine and global society: a life-long learner with a zest for living and knowing; who creates, constructs, progresses; who pursues higher order, critical, integrative thinking; which begins with self-knowledge that strives for self-improvement (in other words, “becoming” instead of simply “being”); who lives a life of balance with a focus; who is fearless of change, of experimentation, of failure and of self-correction; and finally, who strives for the greater, higher, long-term good. In the academe – the universitas (which in Latin means whole, total, the world, the universe) – we must open ourselves to unlimited search for knowledge, some of which is best learned through personal experience of or involvement in the arts, music and the humanities.

Internationalizing the humanities and the arts

While the humanities and the arts can help engrave a more reflective sense of the global society, internationalization in turn can intensify culture, humanities and the arts. We can multiply the pervasive, invasive, lasting effects of music through massification and greater public dissemination using technologies such as Youtube and iTunes.

Because of internationalization, it has become easier to acquire creative and artistic inspiration from places halfway around the world, and these inspirations can lead to dances, songs/lyrics, visuals and total performances that empower music even more and further enhance its effects to individuals and society.

Proposals: unifying experiences, strengthening education

Music, culture, art and the humanities remain important, useful and germane, even as we continue to modernize as a globalized society. In light of the ASEAN Community, what do I propose then?

First, I propose the creation of materials in the arts and humanities in English that can be used in the whole ASEAN. Our common features as well as the commonality of our songs, dances, music even our stories, myths and religions indicate that we share similar life experiences, and this commonality can help us learn together concepts that are needed in producing better individuals and building better societies. The Philippines through the University of the Philippines can take the lead in developing these materials with its pool of expert English speakers and writers. Joint to this is the country’s unique advantage of a deep, blended understanding of Eastern-Western culture because of its history.

Second, I propose the creation of a symbol that would capture the spirit of the ASEAN integration. Similar to music, the ASEAN is a collection of perceptions that come from the inside and move to the outside, and therefore the spirit of internationalization can be articulated and promoted through music. The wholeness of a masterful music composition, every note and beat in place, every phrase or frame building up to a whole – this is a wonderful metaphor to illustrate the lofty goals of integration. These days, too, metals and other natural materials are augmented by modern instruments and tools, including computers, to create, blend and control new sounds and rhythms, showing dynamism and openness to change in a modernizing landscape, the same ideal on which the ASEAN Community is built.

Finally, I propose that we strengthen education in music. Music has become so accessible that people no longer see the need to learn it formally, resorting to tutorial videos on Youtube as substitutes for professional teachers and the classroom. One writer speaks up about this and says:

“At the same time as music is becoming a more integral part of everyday life, the place of music in formal education worldwide is consistently being questioned. This can lead to neglect in considering how the infrastructure supporting music and musicians is resourced, maintained and developed.” (Source:

When something moves or affects us so greatly, so deeply, so badly, we are compelled to compose or create music. But music is not all about expressiveness and emotiveness and lyricism; we should equally be concerned with quality. High quality technical performance demands long hours of rigorous practice and discipline, and these skills are more likely to mature in a formal learning environment.

Formal education also exposes learners to Western classical music which serves as ideal rigorous training for the innovative moderns, being very humanistic, intellectual, cerebral and mathematical. On the other hand, Eastern music tends to be simpler and more reflective of the sounds of nature, and formal training can then enrich the area where the East and West meet.

Finally, with the benefits of music being increasingly demonstrated to contribute to health, wellness and well-being, it is expected that the use of music to promote good health will proliferate. Society therefore needs properly educated musicians.


If there is one similarity that I deem most important between the ASEAN Community and music, it is this: balance. The future ASEAN Community seeks to equalize interests, contributions, needs and opportunities towards durable peace, stability and shared prosperity among its member states, just as music searches for and creates harmony. It is this spirit of balance, harmony and connectedness that will drive us – as citizens, as nations, as a region – to create what is truly beautiful, namely the higher, common good.

 (I would like to acknowledge Alice Ross Morta for her input and writing assistance.)