10-Minute Talks: Music and wellbeing

by Professor Tia DeNora FBA

13 May 2020

Senior woman playing piano with younger man in music therapy session.

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Professor Tia DeNora FBA considers everyday musical engagement as a way of regulating emotion, holding focus, managing pain and promoting social connection.


My name is Tia DeNora. I'm a Fellow of the British Academy, which is the UK's national body for the humanities and the social sciences, and this 10-minute talk is about music and wellbeing.

At Exeter, I'm part of the SocArts Research Group, and a lot of my research has been in collaboration with music therapist Professor Gary Ansdell. Gary and I conducted a 10-year longitudinal study of music and mental health looking at community music therapy and more recently we're working with music therapists in Bergen, Norway at the Grieg Academy of Music. With our Norwegian partners, we're examining how and why people care for music in scenes of late and end of life, in hospices and care homes in Norway and the UK. I'm also affiliated with the ESRC MARCH Network for mental health and I've got a really long standing interest in music’s role and function in everyday life. In this work, I've been interested in how music is part of social ecology.

Thinking about music ecologically reminds us that we are by no means the only species to be doing things with organised sound.

I'm recording this talk in the springtime, and lately I've been hearing a lot of birdsong. We know that birds sing for functional reasons, for example, to warn of danger or herald the daylight hours and as part of ritual interaction chains, linked to things like display and courtship. So for birds, acoustical activity is part of how action gets coordinated and birdsong is a medium for conducting behaviour in concert. Some ornithologists have suggested that birds may also sing for the sheer joy of singing and because they are so very well equipped for singing and therefore, that birdsong mixes functionality and aesthetics. In other words, birds may not be so different from us humans musically speaking, and vice-versa.

When we humans engage with music we're exercising our communicative musicality. In other words, our intrinsic capacity for producing and sharing organised sound, through parameters like timbre, tempo, pulse and melody. We get great satisfaction from exercising this capacity, whether that's through singing in a choir, or in the shower, or simply enjoying the sound of music made by others. The key thing either way is that we're contributing our sounds and our noises to the atmosphere and enhancing the potential habitability of that atmosphere. This communicative dimension can take on heightened salience in situations where people can no longer use language or can't use language. And in our research, we're seeing just how important music can be to people in extremis. Sometimes even a micro-detail, a tapping toe or a gesture like a pointing finger or tapping a nose, can have huge significance for people. These micro-musical moments can have effects that reverberate, social-psychologically speaking, well after the real-time engagement with music is finished. So for example, shared music can change how we perceive ourselves and others, and it can open up new ways of relating. It can draw our attention away from things that might otherwise prompt us to notice differences between people and to believe that these differences are important – things like old and young or able and disabled. And it can actually create situations where for all practical purposes those differences are no longer relevant, or at least not relevant for a while.

Music fosters meaning and connection and coherence, and all of these things of course enhance our entwined sense of physical and mental well-being. A growing body of research, and a recent WHO scoping review on arts health and wellbeing, has suggested that music helps, and in ways that emphasise mind-body interactions. For example, engaging with music can prompt the release of the body's natural opioid compounds, the bonding hormone oxytocin and the so-called happiness hormones such as serotonin. In 2011, The British Journal of Psychiatry published an editorial about music and depression, with the subtitle It seems to work but how?

Obviously, there are lots of answers to that question. In the work that we're doing, our answer is that music seems to work for two inter-related reasons; in other words, reasons that operate in tandem or together to activate music’s powers for well-being. The first reason is that music’s properties afford or offer many resources that are conducive to what wellness means and what wellness entails. I've talked about a few of these already. The second reason is that music helps because of the resourceful ways that we engage with it to harness its health-promoting properties. Many of us regularly act as music therapists to ourselves, knowing what, musically speaking, we really need and in a sense musically self-prescribing. We may not be fully aware of what we're doing, but we are using music and music technologies in highly crafted ways, curating what we choose to hear or play and organising our attention in really quite precise ways – sharing our favourite music with others, talking about music and so forth.

Across time and across cultures, the degree to which the consciousness of these lay practices and lay forms of expertise is recognised and integrated into daily life has varied. It's varied in really interesting ways and for very interesting reasons. It wouldn't be quite accurate to say that some forms of musical engagement, say, singing in a choir versus listening with headphones, are more or less social than others. That misses how all forms of musical engagement are socially oriented. Many of the participants in our projects have spoken to us of music as a kind of companion or friend, and of course we know that listening to familiar music can prompt memories of people we know or people we have known. It can prompt memories of key social life events. Things to do with love and loss and joy and sorrow, and in this respect music can facilitate cathartic processes. Music can also offer a kind of virtual haven, respite or asylum, and we can go into music when we feel in need of things like consolation.

That said, some music therapists have cautioned that we need to take great care how and how much we listen to and engage with music, because sometimes music can work against us – it can keep us fixed in negative patterns, associations and behaviours.

How we engage with music can alter our sense of ourselves. It can alter our relations to others. It can alter our moods and our motivations and our energy levels in and over time, and this means that engaging with music can change who we are and how we feel moment to moment. Music can reposition us in time, and music can reposition us in imagined space. To the extent that it can do these things, music can also alter what we believe we're capable of, and therefore what we might really be capable of doing in actual social situations.

Music offers opportunities for action and music empowers. It can empower us as individuals when we feel a bit of a boost after listening or playing, and it can empower us collectively. It can galvanise groups to act and to feel the need to take action, and I think this is really the final and key point, and it's one that a growing number of researchers in the area of health humanities are increasingly recognising. Namely, that it is empowerment that lies at the very heart of what it means, holistically speaking, to be well.

This talk originally took place on 13 May 2020, part of the series The British Academy 10-Minute Talks, where the world’s leading professors explain the latest thinking in the humanities and social sciences in just 10 minutes. 10-Minute Talks are screened each Wednesday, 13:00-13:10, on YouTube and available on Apple Podcasts. Subscribe to the British Academy 10-Minute Talks here.

Further reading

Music Asylums: Wellbeing Through Music in Everyday Life, Tia DeNora.

Scots study reveals making music together during lockdown good for the soul and lifts spirits, article about study by Tia DeNora.

Care for Music, project by Tia DeNora.

Musical Pathways in Recovery, Gary Ansdell, Tia DeNora.

Music-in-Action, Tia DeNora.

Lead image: Music Therapy, Senior Woman Playing Piano with Young Man. © PamelaJoeMcFarlane via Getty Images.

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