Why Music Matters

The power to change lives

The Ford Motor Company Fund recognizes that creativity and artistic expression enrich lives and inspire innovation and that communities which support and provide access to the arts are stronger for it. In this collection of stories, we share how and why music affects us at all ages and stages of our lives.

Kurton Harrison III was a quiet child, who met most of his developmental milestones. Yet, he didn't make eye contact and he didn't talk. He also was sensitive to loud noises and certain sensations. Warm water caused him burning pain.

After years of taking her son to fruitless doctors' appointments, LaJuana Harrison finally received the diagnosis. Five-year-old Kurton had Autism Spectrum Disorder, a developmental condition that affects behavior and communication. The doctor reported Kurton would doubtless end up in a group home.

Kurton Harrison III in the JEDI Jazz Recording Studio
Kurton Harrison III, of the Jazz Educators of Detroit Jazz Ensemble, in the recording studio.Photo by Jeff Dunn

Despite the negative prognosis, LaJuana Harrison, her husband and her mother dedicated much of the next year to painstakingly teach Kurton to speak. And although they succeeded in getting him to speak, Ms. Harrison said music is what taught her son to live.

MSU Community Music School-Detroit

Shortly after asking for a trumpet at age 7, Kurton began attending the Detroit Academy of Arts and Sciences, where other children bullied him. When he was 12, he began attending the Aspiring Musicians Program (AMP) Camp at the MSU Community Music School-Detroit (CMS-D), an independent affiliate of Michigan State University that offers music classes and therapy.

Kurton Harrison's hard work, his family's perseverance and the support they received through the network of music are paying off. Harrison graduated from the Detroit School of the Arts in June and will attend Oberlin Conservatory of Music this fall on a full scholarship.

Music on the brain

Music's impact on Kurton Harrison aligns with years of research by scientific researchers and academic experts who have found that music increases productivity, advances learning, boosts self-esteem, and helps heal bodies and minds. These are some of the reasons militaries use music to improve coordination, surgeons use it to heighten concentration, physicians use it to rehabilitate patients and parents use it to calm infants.

Neurologist Alexander Pantelyat, who studies the effects of music on the body, is the founder and co-director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Music and Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. Dr. Pantelyat explained that music — whether listened to, played or sung — activates more parts of the brain than any other physical activity. As a result, music can improve social behavior, such as eye contact, and social interaction, notably between children with autism and their parents.

Lauren Koff
Lauren Koff (left) and Cristina Rodriquez, co-founders of Miami-based Mind&Melody Inc.

"People on an autism spectrum might be hypersensitive to lighting, touch and sounds," Cristina Rodriguez, president and co-founder of Miami-based Mind&Melody Inc. said. "Music is probably one of those things that doesn't feel so intense and can bring comfort."

Kurton Harrison agreed. "Music never hurts, even when it makes you emotional," he said. "It can be a cure, any time, any place."

Harrison, who also participated in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's Civic Youth programs, said that music also teaches diligence. "My mindset changed (because of) music," he said. "I was in an environment where I didn't want to fail. You have to study and you have to practice. Music is hard work."

Banding together

Learning to sing or play an instrument in a classroom setting can also lift children, emotionally and economically, out of poverty, researchers have found.

In 2017, the Latin GRAMMY Cultural Foundation in collaboration with the Ford Motor Company Fund held a Latin GRAMMY in the Schools program at Miami Senior High School as part of their initiative to give music students an opportunity to learn about the music industry.

Since 2014, the partnership has donated more than $360,000 in musical instruments to more than 6,000 students in U.S. cities, such as Dallas, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami and New York and in Argentina, Mexico City and the U.S. Territory of Puerto Rico.

Miami Senior High band students performed as part of the 2017 event. The opportunity was "a big shot in the arm" for the teens, said band director Michele Fernández Denlinger. She said the kids felt like professionals playing a Latin jazz salsa under stage the lights.

Even more impactful, however, were the $20,000 in new instruments the school received as part of the event, she said.

"Our instruments had been taped and tied together," Denlinger said. "But there are only certain things you can do with an inferior instrument."

The data show more than 80 percent of students at Miami Senior High School live in disadvantaged communities. However, Denlinger said they can escape that through music, especially if they have the right instruments.

"Having a good instrument creates opportunities for someone who is inspired to play music," she said.

Denlinger recalled one student who lived in the middle of Miami's Little Havana community. "They had absolutely nothing," Denlinger said, "But, he got full ride to play tuba at Yale."

A sense of belonging accompanies being in a band or a choir and that feeling contributes to a child's emotional growth and ability to succeed in every facet of life, Denlinger said.

"Imagine a teenager with all these self-esteem issues and home life issues who finds a place where they are part of something, a place where they are getting cheers, they are doing solos, and getting support," Denlinger said. "Once you get them to feel like they are a vital part of something, like a band, it inspires them. Kids with social anxiety come out of their shells. Kids who didn't have anyone to talk to at home find a family."

That bond helped Denlinger's family heal after the death of her son in 2002.

"Getting back into band (in 2006) helped me get back to me because being able to play music is intoxicating in a good way," Denlinger said. "Music healed my whole family."

Violinist Anita Dumar found kinship with the Sphinx Organization, where she volunteers while attending the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The Sphinx Organization is a Detroit-based nonprofit that helps find, develop and promote young classical string players of Black and Latinix heritage. Working to address the lack of diversity and inclusion in classical music, the Sphinx Organization has received support from organizations that include the Ford Fund.

"Sphinx provides a community of people who look like you and are talking about issues in your field," Dumar said.

The Sphinx society also gave Dumar a goal.

"As a young person, I saw what was going on in the world and thought, ‘I'm just sitting in my room practicing, what good am I doing?'" Dumar said. "But Sphinx shows that what I do affects what happens with underrepresented musicians. Music gave me a purpose that fit me. Losing music would be like losing a part of myself."

Notes of hope

Richard White was literally lost.

"Every day was about finding food and trying to find my mom," White said.

Dr. Richard White with tuba at dusk from documentary film, R.A.W.
Dr. Richard Antoine White during production of the documentary film, R.A.W. Photo by John Waire
Born prematurely to a mom who suffered from alcoholism, White started his life homeless on the streets of Baltimore.

During a snow storm one night, a 4-year-old White crawled into an entryway to stay warm. Miraculously, a stranger found him and contacted his mother's adoptive parents, Richard and Vivian McClain. They took White in; but, he wouldn't speak to the McClains beyond saying the basics like, "Thank you, yes, no, please, hello and goodbye."

Still, the McClains were supportive. They gave White a trumpet when he was in fourth grade and then threatened to take it away if he didn't improve his grades.

"I never got a failing grade again," White said. "The trumpet gave me a voice, it belonged to me."

Musicians process music as another language, scientists have discovered. In addition, experts have found that knowing multiple languages makes learning subsequent languages easier. The ties between music and language help explain how Kurton Harrison can play multiple instruments and why it was easy for Richard White to not only play the trumpet, but to switch to the sousaphone, an instrument in the tuba family.

Music opened doors for Richard White. When he showed up at the Baltimore School of the Arts and requested an audition – one day after auditions ended – administrators saw the 15-year-old's passion and gave him a chance anyway.

One hard-fought opportunity turned into another. Eventually, White earned a scholarship to the Peabody Conservatory of Music at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

Today, White is an associate Marching Band director at the University of New Mexico. He also is principal tubist for the New Mexico Philharmonic and founding member and principal tubist for the Santa Fe Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

"Music became the thing that made the impossible possible," White said. "I went from surviving to living. Without it, I would have stayed lost."

The Ford Motor Company Fund supports a range of music-rich programming, including the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Mosaic Youth Theatre of Detroit, the Sphinx Organization, The Ark in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the League of American Orchestras in Washington, D.C., the GRAMMY Museum's GRAMMY in the Schools program and Latin GRAMMY Cultural Foundation’s Latin GRAMMY in The Schools program.