11/14/2012 05:14 EST | Updated 01/14/2013 05:12 EST

Speaking to Kids Through Music


In 2009 my friend Greg Rogers asked me if I could speak to 3,000 students at a youth conference in Toronto being hosted by Craig and Marc Kielburger from Free the Children. My 15-minute presentation would be focused on the positive effects that music has had on me as a person, an activist and a professional musician.

I was reading Daniel Levitin's book, This is Your Brain on Music at the time so I mentioned a couple of concepts related to new neuro-scientific research on the positive effects on music on cognitive function.

I asked my longtime co-writer Mladen Alexander to join and we played a few songs and did our little talk. During the presentation I saw that the kids were riveted and focused in a way that was completely unexpected. In retrospect it made so much sense. They love music and here was a discussion that empowered them with the knowledge that their passion and love for music is fundamentally human, ancient, powerful and positive.

At the end of the talk there were a dozen teachers and administers approaching us with business cards asking us to present at their schools.

Over the next few months I researched everything I could find on music related to neuro-science, sociological studies the effect of music on pro-social behaviour, and music's role in societal change.

A few interesting revelations were sparked:

1. Youth love music and consider it one of the most important things in their lives yet the education system rarely exploits this passion as the remarkable teaching tool it can be. (Consider that when we were in kindergarten we memorized 26 abstract concepts, in order, by singing our ABCs. For most of us that's the last thing we ever learned using the power of music as neumonic tool.)

2. There are many scientists who are studying the effect of music on our minds in laboratories across the world, but very few professional musicians are directly involved in those studies outside of being the subjects of experiments.


With Daniel Levitin at a performance by the Kitchener- Waterloo Symphony. I was one of the test subjects in an experiment that analyzed the effects of Beethoven's music on the brain.

Over the past three years I have been to music-centered neuro-scientific labs, I've been the subject of several experiments in the field and have begun a dialogue with leading scientists who are studying music. It turns out these scientists are quite interested in the insights of a person who has played music in front of tens of thousands of people for over 20 years. My lab, of course, consisted of clubs, festivals, arenas and stadiums.

It's been incredibly rewarding to bring the YMM presentation to students and hear their stories regarding music's remarkable therapeutic effects. "Music saved my life" is not a cliché for them. For many at risk youth music is a lifeline. It's time the education system acknowledges that fact and integrates music into the broader curriculum.

I've been deeply moved by these students and their stories have been woven into several songs on the new Barlow album Burning Days. In conjunction with the Toronto Catholic District School Board and Coalition Music, students with a passion for music can learn about the music business while earning a credit in an amazing new high school course (The Music Business), and I hope to keep bringing them the message that their passion for music is not merely a desire to be entertained but a powerful, ancient and magical thing.

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