Besides being pleasurable to listen to, music has many life lessons and is even helpful to those, like me, who choose engineering as our career.

I recently attended a high school reunion for the first time, my 45th. It must have taken me that long to work up the courage. (I enjoyed it.)

The reunion got me thinking about what I learned and how it relates to today.

Steve Piet

Steve Piet

In eighth-grade in Camden, South Carolina, I took a class that would change my life. Julia Halford was one of the four most important and memorable teachers I had in either junior or senior high school. The other three taught science and math. Hartford taught music appreciation.

I thought then she was “only” teaching to appreciate music. I know now that she taught how to listen deeper and simultaneously analyze at different levels. I now realize that music can teach us important things about our political debates and indeed about most things in life.

We’d listen to a range of classical music, from Bach to In-A-Gadda-de-Vida by Iron Butterfly, which was popular that year.

She taught us to simultaneously hear each individual group of instruments like percussion, string, wind and vocal. We’d study the different components like melody and rhythm. Analyze the opening, body and ending. Do all this and consider the overall effect.

That ability to analyze, simultaneously at different levels is fundamental to how I approach many things today, from engineering to listening to a speech or watching a movie. It helped shape my nuclear engineering doctoral dissertation. A project, speech or movie must work at both small detail and the big picture. The parts have to work together. That’s true of our community, businesses, government and families.

The next time you hear a 5-second sound bite, consider if five notes of a piece of music are adequate to appreciate the full piece. Wouldn’t you feel cheated if someone took one of your favorite pieces of music and reduced it to just five notes? Isn’t listening to an entire song or even an entire symphony worth it?

Sometimes it’s better to read the entire article, watch a full speech or even (horrors) read a book rather than let a reporter, politician or slogan tell you what you should think. Five-second sound bites, trite slogans or tweets do not substitute for getting into the music of some issue.

Halford is one of the reasons I was so glad to have found a plaque in the town park where that school once stood. The plaque reads: “Placed in honor of teachers and staff of schools at this site, Camden High School 1936-1992. You guided our youth and opened our minds. For these gifts, we are forever grateful. With love from your students and community.”