If, as music educators, we think about the attributes of a flexible thinking approach, it may both change the way we teach, and also the way we advocate for music education.

It is disturbing to see people marching in cities to protest lockdowns impacting their freedom, when, ironically, their behaviour points to a lack of free or flexible thinking. They wish to be outwardly unshackled, but inwardly, they are not. Because such actions demonstrate an inability to empathise. Empathy requires imagination and the ability to imagine is reliant on a flexibility of thought processing. The faculty of imagination equips people with the capacity to envisage self in the situation of others and crystalise how one’s actions might negatively or positively impact those people. Anyone who has spent any time at all in an ICU, knows it ain’t pretty. And so just the slightest amount of empathy through, you know, viewing the daily news, should equip most people with enough empathy to not wish the fate of COVID on another human being. And the data’s in. If you lock down quickly and trace multiple rings of contacts, you can get rid of the thing, or at least keep it at bay – failing the availability of enough vaccine, which would also do the trick.

There’s a study that links brain inflexibility with rigidity of political affiliation. And researchers have identified the differences in such brains. There is a correlation between those with fixed, extreme and unflinching political views, whether left or right leaning, and their difficulty on tasks where they are required to reconfigure objects, or think creatively about how something could be used, or understand the common feature linking three diverse words. All of these tasks require one to think imaginatively and creatively.


Music, by its very nature, necessitates imaginative thinking. Music is not something we can see or touch, and yet it affects us profoundly. To be able to think in sound, is quite something! Although educators harp on about how fantastic music education is for one’s intellectual capacities (and any cognitive advantages really do depend on the kind of music education on offer), what is more important is that when we think musically, we draw on the emotional, cognitive, spatiotemporal and sensorimotor areas of the brain. We also connect our inner self with our outer experiences. It is the holistic nature of music that’s important in education, because it is reflected in the way we perceive the world, our place in it and therefore, the way we interact with it.

If we can encourage students to think creatively, to improvise melodies around a given scale, to create a soundscape exploring aspects of the environment, urban and rural for example, or to respond emotionally using sound, to an event, or a film sequence, we are nurturing flexible brains. These are brains that will facilitate critical thinking about the situations in which their possessors find themselves, and nurture their ability to make considered, flexible decisions to effectively problem solve.

If one was a cynic, one could be forgiven for drawing correlations between the current political situation in which we find ourselves, the existential crises we face and the offhandedness with which the arts are so readily dismissed as an inessential, even indulgent aspect of students’ learning. People are so easily bamboozled by a Facebook post, a misrepresentative headline, or a misleading government directive. It’s so much easier to accept, feel a sense of belonging to a clan, and act on a whim, than to imagine another possibility, or imagine the impact one’s actions may have on others.

Flexible thinking won’t solve the world’s problems. Three highly flexible thinkers who have earned a lot of money because of their ability to imagine, just took a rocket to space – so we can mess that up too. Hubris is as dangerous as inflexibility. Unfortunately, sometimes the two ‘attributes’ come in the same package. A number of current world leaders spring to mind.

The American vibraphonist, Stefon Harris speaks of the need to adapt in a jazz improvisation ensemble where every member is responding to an unfolding situation not knowing what may happen next. He talks of there being no mistakes on the bandstand. When someone plays a note that is not in the key currently being explored, it can be perceived as a mistake, or alternatively as a ‘missed opportunity’ if not taken up. The band members are all part of a clan, but they’re not limited by a fixed idea, indeed the reverse. The group is flexible to newness. Players are empathetic to each other’s sound-making possibilities. Harris speaks about being open to others’ creativity. Hubris does not work in this situation. Members know that group acceptance, collaboration and imagination (and some damned fine music skills) are what actually create the most rewarding musical interactions.

Imagination can lead to the embrace of different ideas, whacky ideas, but the ultimate goal for the group is musical cohesion and unity and that is another powerful reason for the presence of music in the curriculum. Harris is addressing a bunch of financial behaviouralists (heaven help us all), and he says that stereotypically, ‘we don’t have a great relationship to finance’. He speaks of the need to listen to what’s happening around him to know where the music is heading, rather than micro-managing or bullying. Flexible thinking lies at the heart of all musical interactions, even within a group interpreting someone else’s works. There are so many interpretative decisions to be made if only students are given the licence to make them! So let’s provide those opportunities because the impact can be like the ripple effect when a stone is skimmed across a pond.


Zmigrod, L., Rentfrow, P. J., & Robbins, W. (2020). The partisan mind: Is extreme political partisanship related to cognitive inflexibility? Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 149(3), 407 – 418.

Stefon Harris – There are no mistakes on the bandstand

Ken Robinson – Do schools kill creativity?

Ken Robinson – Bring on the learning revolution

Dr Richard Letts AM is the founder and Director of The Music Trust, founder and former Executive Director of the Music Council of Australia (now Music Australia) and Past President of the International Music Council. He has held senior positions in music and culture in Australia and the United States, advocated for music and music education, conducted research, written policy documents, edited four periodicals, published four books and hundreds of articles.

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