Though Gershwin penned his songs in a vastly different era, his songs continue to be amongst the most favored by jazz artists, classical singers and community groups, alike. The reasons for this are both simple and complex and speak to both the “everyday” and the scientific. Certainly, the simplicity of his melodies, rich harmonies, tight phrasings and driving syncopations, offer much to both listener and singer.
George Gershwin was most well-known for bridging the gap between Classical, Tin Pan Alley, Spirituals and the new (in his time) musical form of “Jazz”. His lack of formal music education allowed him the freedom to move way beyond existing norms in musical composition. This led to a fantastic level of innovation in his writing. The early development of his craft in the public streets of Tin Pan Alley, are why Gershwin’s songs are quickly sing-able, easy on the ear and dance-able! Indeed, the driving, youthful (and even boisterous) energy of the era in which he wrote – the Roaring 20’s – is palatable in his music. He wrote “everyone’s” music and consequently trusted the general public’s opinion of his work far more than that of the “experts”. Even today, his songs inspire personal connection, musical conversation and interpretation. Listening and singing to a Gershwin song is simply “good for life”, as we will now explore.
We were created to connect, live, person to person. Listening and singing to a great Gershwin tune has the capacity to connect us to something deeply personal and relational. It takes us beyond ourselves. Gershwin’s expressions of love, relationships and the ebb/flow of life give us a richer experience than mere verbal communication. Key to this, is the expression of our own emotions while experiencing a Gershwin song. Unique to Gershwin’s song writing, is that he wrote the melody together with his rich harmonies. This magnifies the emotional power of his songs and amplifies the subtext of the melody. Emotional communication through our voice, face, body and spirit develops all levels of emotional intelligence. Singing his tunes in a group develops empathy and healthy social bonding. Singing and interpreting a Gershwin tune helps us formulate who we are, our hopes and desires. These experiences, likewise, develop intra/inter personal intelligence. This personal connection to the material is what creates personal meaning. Meaningful learning is memorable for a lifetime. Self-expression and song interpretation inspire creativity. Singing Gershwin songs is also the most accessible way to connect to the history, spirit and culture of his time. Additionally, listening and singing unites us with the very sentiment and spirit of Gershwin as a living, breathing person. The experience gets us “into the skin” of the composer like nothing else.
Singing a song is one of the most effective ways to positively impact the brain and central nervous system. Singing a Gershwin song – with its melodious contours, rich bass lines, and syncopated rhythms – is a recipe for robust brain development. Singing his songs, particularly as a group, induces the release of dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. These brain chemicals are associated with intrinsic motivation, relaxation and social bonding, respectively. Singing also decreases the secretion of the stress hormone, cortisol (which is responsible for destroying brain cells!). The deep breath required for singing provides rich oxygenation to the brain. A well oxygenated brain improves focus, concentration and self-regulation. Singing the syncopated rhythms while “keeping the pulse” of a Gershwin tune, develops the “timing” mechanism of the cerebellum. Though small, and known as a “primitive” brain structure (in comparison to the cortex), the cerebellum contains 50-80% of our total number of neurons! The cerebellum’s timing mechanism has a direct impact on impulse control, body movement, planning, speech, and aural processing. The relationship between the cerebellum & music also has a great impact on another subcortical structure, the amygdala . A small, almond-shaped structure – the amygdala is involved in the remembrance of strong emotional events. Strong emotional response to music is the amygdala in action, which can impact one’s life-long taste for particular types of music and even the context in which that music was experienced!
In language development, singing songs with lyrics is a definite “robust” brain activity. With repeated experience, singing songs develops “cross-wiring” in all learners. These neural pathways cross repeatedly between left and right cortical hemispheres, potentially increasing the size of the corpus callosum (the nerve bundle connecting the two cortical hemispheres). This results in vitally strong interplay between the two hemispheres. In addition, the rhyming, playful banter of a Gershwin song increases fluency in oral language, reading and writing. The energetic syncopations of his songs have the capacity to inspire alertness and innovative thinking.
Listening, sharing, reflecting and collaborating – all skills determined as “essential” to a Common-Core education. These are also the identical skills honed and developed in singing a song. However, the medium is the quantum difference. Developing core thinking skills in the context of song can make the learning of those skills far more memorable and enjoyable. The acquisition of these skills can also be far less effortful. A Gershwin song is a particularly good choice, in the context of Common-Core, because the simplicity of his melodies illicit divergence! Divergent thinking is one of the key components of Common-Core and the thinking skill most in demand in today’s creative economy. This type of thinking also opens the flood gates to depth of expression and re-interpretation. This gives students the opportunity to express their feelings and opinions through song in a manner that is truly autobiographical. Students are, literally and figuratively, given a “voice”. Additionally, if one were to take a careful look at the structure of a Gershwin (song) standard, one would find all the components of a well-balanced Common-Core lesson! Namely, the “left-brain” expressions of sequential, organizational and prioritized thinking (i.e. singing the correct verse in the correct order, anticipation of the chorus in the same recurring place, analysis of rhythms and pitches). Simultaneously, “right-brain” expressions of emotionality, nuance, imagery and subtext would be exercised. All of this happens quite automatically without arduous planning and training for the teacher! In addition, extending the jazz element of beginning with the main melody and then improvising with alternative rhythms, pitches, harmonies and words – provides endless opportunities for divergence and creativity all within one song! In the midst of such play (and we learn best through play) mental focus is absolute. Students become self-motivated. In this type of lesson, students are directing their OWN learning, making connections, and being inspired by their own discoveries.
In conclusion, Gershwin’s songs remain popular throughout the passage of time due to their simplicity and heart-felt honesty. His songs still sing with a depth of sincerity and youthful exuberance that we can still connect to. His personal expressions of relationships, dreams and desires come to us as personal conversations floating through time and space. His songs are an antidote to the overly busy, isolated world we often find ourselves in. Gershwin is simply good music that’s “good for life” – and THAT’S simply good for all of us.
 This Is Your Brain on Music, Daniel J. Levitin