The Good, the Bad and the Downright Ugly: Music and Wellbeing

As advocates for music and music education, we constantly seek research that supports engagement in music, often, because of its claims of the positive impact on our overall wellbeing. There is a plethora of such research. For example on the recent program, Catalyst: Music on the Brain, examples of people with dementia and Parkinson’s disease who were exposed to music they liked had much greater connectivity and fluidity in their speaking and movements when engaged with the music and directly after (Newby, 8th March, 2016). Oliver Sacks looked at this relationship and the production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that activates neuron activity along particular pathways (1986). One of these pathways is associated with ‘reward’ and another with motor control. As Sacks points out, dopamine is deficient in patients with Parkinson’s disease. Music triggers the release of dopamine. There are a number of reasons for this, but partially it is to do with the anticipation of music sequences we wish to hear and with which we are rewarded on hearing them. We know what’s coming and we wait for the ‘hit of it’. It is the anticipation that evokes the dopamine response.

Some drugs elicit a similar response to music (Salimpoor, Benovoy, Larcher, Dagher, & Zatorre, 2011). And similarly with drugs, the impact of anticipation can wear off. Instead of sending us to heaven, music that attempts to ‘play on’ that sense of anticipation can actually back-fire, sounding clichéd, and we reject it. We respond to different music at various times for a range of reasons associated with the internal and external contexts in which we find ourselves, that is, who we are at a given time and in a given place.

But there are other fundamental aspects of wellbeing that would seem to be associated with various forms of participation with music. Differing researchers have interpreted these features as having greater or lesser importance in their contributions. Attention to each is provided in an article which focuses on the advocacy for music in educational settings (Stefanakis, 2013). Clarke and Tamplin (2016) are music therapists who have broken down particular traits of music to provide specified music therapies for those requiring a variety of outcomes. It is a matter both of knowing how different aspects of music come together to create an effect and the specific musical needs of individuals. Composers have used such musical devices for millennia and although culturally situated, there are characteristics of music which are fairly universal in evoking particular moods, especially contrasting moods, such as joy and sadness or physical states, such as energised or calm.

A recent summary of literature looking at the biological origins of music concludes that music essentially helps to regulate our emotions assisting, therefore, in regulating our whole beings (Habibi & Damasio, 2014) or, as Clarke and Tamplin describe music, ‘an environmental modifier to change the way (our) bodies move and feel’ (2016).

Although in education we seek out such research to advocate for music in education, more recently researchers such as Wayne Bowman and Alexander Crooke have questioned whether ‘wellbeing’ is a consistent outcome in music education settings (Bowman, 2010 and 2012; Crooke, Smyth & McFerrin, 2016; Crooke, 2016). The point about the research cited above is that the participants were choosing the music they listened to or played, or it had been carefully chosen for them. In Musical Identities (Macdonald, Hargreaves & Miell, 2002) the contributors relate the circumstances and environments required for, particularly, young people to feel musical and to have a sense of themselves as being musical, that is, a musical identity. Music education programs which do not connect with the musical identities of students and even alienate them from a sense of musical self, are unlikely to contribute to their wellbeing.

Wellbeing is not always the focus of music programs. For some, the development of music skills is the major motivation and that is justified as long as those with this trajectory do not advocate for the program based on its contribution to wellbeing. Such a direction may indeed contribute to the wellbeing of some students, but it may not. There are many factors affecting the outcomes of such a program including the rapport students have with a teacher, the repertoire they are playing, student outcomes, the student’s drive and the amount of responsibility for learning placed in the hands of the student to name but a few variables. See, for example Welch and McPherson (2012).

Music is not a case of ‘eat it Freddie, it’s good for you’. Music can, because of its emotional and physical bearing, actually have the reverse effect. Music, unwanted music, is used to torture people. Juliane Brauer looks at the impact of music on the emotions and the body through the ways in which it was used in concentration camps as a form of violence (2016). (See, also Lin, 2012). Additionally Cusick discusses the use of music as an anti-resistance strategy in America’s involvement in Middle East conflicts (2003). In some of these same parts of the globe wracked by conflict where music is used so detrimentally, the organisation Music Without Borders is designed to ‘bridge divides, connect communities and heal the wounds of war’ (2016). If one is seeking advocacy for wellbeing, the videos on this site are highly convincing in demonstrating the power of rhythm and song in connecting people and eliciting positive emotions.

And so at polar extremes, music can enhance the physical and emotional wellbeing from those locked into their bodies by disease or challenged by other physical, cognitive and emotional aspects of wellbeing. At the other, music can be used for those involuntarily locked up, to break them. What this demonstrates, if nothing else, is music’s potency and our understanding (conscious and unconscious, positive and detrimental) of its potential (Clarke and Tamplin, 2016).

Most would argue that music only continues to exist ubiquitously because of its positive impact on wellbeing. Music therapy is common practice in most healthcare and many educational settings now. If all it provided was ‘entertainment’ there are much cheaper forms of access.

However although most strive to provide music education and music therapy environments that enhance wellbeing and we continue to improve our efforts in sculpting the kinds of experiences for people that will ensure such outcomes, one would never advocate for those we teach or nurture to become professional musicians. Because it is not just the source, music, that can be manipulated to either enhance or undermine our wellbeing.

Statistically, if one wishes for a long, healthy life, music, particularly music performance, is perhaps the worst profession one could choose. Indeed research by Greg Hall into the lifestyles and longevity of the 252 individuals making up Rolling Stone magazine’s top 100 greatest contemporary music artists found that the 82 of those of the 252 who had already died, had an average mortality age of 49, the same as Chad, which has the lowest life expectancy on the planet (2016). He also found that those deaths relating to drug and alcohol use were disproportionate to the rest of the population, a similar conclusion to Dianna Kenny who has also studied the impact of lifestyle on contemporary musicians (2015).

Kenny sees the effects of alcohol and drug consumption – the partying preferences of contemporary musicians - as a major contributor to their demise and she categorises longevity against musical genre, with a ‘stay away from hip-hop’ red flashing light much like a diseased lung on a cigarette pack.

Why do some musicians live what would appear to be self-destructive lifestyles? What are other factors impacting on their wellbeing?’

Kenny has addressed one of the issues relating to musicians across all musical styles and that is performance anxiety. She provides examples of artists across the genre spectrum who indulge in both alcohol and/or drugs to counteract this anxiety and allow them to perform. She cites research indicating that a third of musicians pop beta-blockers (often used as a heart regulating drug, blocking as it does, the effects of the naturally occurring hormone, adrenaline) to cope with the stress associated with auditions, solo recitals and performances and ensure they are playing with the same capacity as in rehearsals. In research with professional orchestral musicians in Australia (2014) Kenny found that women under the age of 30 were particularly prone to anxiety. But of all respondents (70% of those approached to respond):

Thirty-three per cent of musicians may meet criteria for a diagnosis of social phobia. Twenty-two per cent answered in the affirmative to a question screening for post-traumatic stress disorder. Thirty-two per cent returned a positive depression screen (p. 210).

Auditions and solo performances provided the greatest degrees of stress (p. 221) and musicians used a range of techniques, from more practice to hypnosis to beta blocker use to relieve this anxiety, beta blocker use ranked seventh as an effective method of alleviating such anxiety (p. 222). However Kenny concluded that there is not a natural affiliation between those with anxiety disorders (three times the general society average) and those who suffer from performance anxiety and is further investigating this issue (p. 227). She comments on the fact that those who suffer from this affliction continue their commitment to performance. She also found that most musicians suffering from performance anxiety were their own harshest critics.

Kenny and colleague Anthony Asher also note this aspect of the life of a performer in their article on the early demise of female contemporary musicians (2016), which reveals similar mortality statistics to those for male contemporary musicians. In referring to the high incidence of breast cancer amongst female musicians, double the rate of the general population, the authors again refer to the abuse of alcohol as a likely cause. However, there is great complexity in pinning down the triggers for breast cancer and, interestingly, this is differently interpreted by researchers and cancer survivors (Dumalaon-Canaria, Hutchinson, Pritchard, Wilson, 2014). Given that in this study survivors often cite stress as a contributing factor, despite a lack of scientific affirmation of this cause, research into the associations with other aspects of musician’s lifestyle would be fruitful. The young age of many who acquire the disease is also of great concern.

Hall (2016) also suggests that musicians, as with other artists, have a tendency towards mental illness. But do environmental or genetic factors or a mixture of both drive this mental illness? Research demonstrates that musicians tend to be more sensitive to sound and emotional valance of sound in their processing, both in language and music (Strait, Kraus, Skoe and Ashley, 2009). Since music is a sensory pursuit, this outcome is not surprising. But such sensitivity can have both positive and negative impacts on the musicians’ dealings with their surroundings on an everyday basis as discussed above in people’s responses to music in varying contexts.

Despite Hip-hop having a bad rap in regard to musicians’ longevity, there are actually programs promoting hip-hop in education, particularly to disenfranchised youth (Diaz, 2016). Their mission is:

to develop an alternative educational space that utilizes hip-hop culture as an interdisciplinary teaching tool of essential life skills, all of which supports the emotional, physical, creative, cognitive and civic development of young people, in an effort to transform their lives and communitis.

Similarly, the organisation, Today’s Future Sound is driven by a desire to ‘transform and inspire youth to create positive change in their lives and communities. We view our work as having educational, therapeutic and social components that can empower individuals to build confidence, inspire creativity, and create change’ through music’ (Gann, 2016).

So is it the music, the chosen lifestyles of musicians, the inherent nature of musicians, the nature of people’s engagement with music or the lifestyles thrust upon musicians that impact on their wellbeing? Perhaps it is hard to separate one facet from another.

An article in The Guardian in 2014 conducted by Help Musicians UK looks at the deeper causes of the early demise of professional musicians with a focus on the influence of touring (Britton, 2015). There are some enlightening narratives from musicians in the article which point to the psychological impact of being away from family, coping with the lows and mundaneness of everyday life after the highs of performing, sleep deprivation, continual financial insecurity, sudden exposure to fame and media scrutiny. In addition to the narratives of those in the industry, a chart with a breakdown of the importance of issues as perceived by musicians is provided (2014). The organisation also devices assistance packages for emerging musicians and those who may be struggling with mental illness or finding later-life performing opportunities, for example. The figures in the chart are fascinating, particularly in relation to the perceived problems of alcohol, drugs and smoking in comparison to other issues. Respondents tend to place these behaviours at the bottom of their list in regard to the impact of issues affecting them. Perhaps respondents choose to blame the lifestyle rather than their behaviour, but the data provides an interesting contrast to Kenny’s conclusions.

Similar outcomes emanate from a study by Stacy Parker from the University of Queensland whose data was drawn from Australian performing musicians across genres (2015). The results here are perhaps even more startling than those in the Help Musicians UK report. For example, 91% of musicians reported a ‘precarious work situation’ with 87% working an additional job to supplement their income. They earned on average $547 less than the average weekly wage and 45% earned below the minimum wage, despite lengthy working weeks (p. 1). This study found that career uncertainty and job insecurity were the major threats to musicians’ life and work outcomes. One of the research respondents commented that:

The main stress in this job is dealing with a society that doesn’t value the arts, particularly musicians, because everyone sees us as having fun on stage and apparently that should be enough payment in itself! Then there is economic rationalism where all musos are forced to work in duos just to pay the rent which is soul destroying (p. 12).

This is despite the contribution that music in Australia makes to the economy. The dollar value is estimated in a paper by Hans Hoegh-Guldberg on Music in Australia: The Knowledge Base (2014) at 6.8 billion dollars, however the estimation was for 2005 – 6. It also places the collective worth of the Australian Music Industries at between 7 and 8 billion dollars. He reports on all aspects of the music industry including education and sales. There is other data of various music industry sectors and their financial import. For example, The Real Thing: Australian Music in a Digital Age (Phonographic Performance Company of Australia, (No date)) states that the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry records Australia as the sixth largest market in the world for both digital and phonographic sales. This document also records that Victoria in 2011 had 600 live music venues with 5.4 million attendees. That’s just one state.

The later report conducted by the University of Tasmania for APRA/AMCOS in collaboration with the City of Sydney Council, the City of Melbourne and the Government of South Australia through The Live Music Office estimates that 65,000 full and part-time jobs are created in the live music industry. They speak of the vagaries of attempting to determine the financial benefits to the economy given the range of defining features. It is a thorough report touching on all areas associated with working, or not working as a performing musician. The authors draw on the reasons for people to be involved in live music experiences from the interviews they have conducted. For example one survey respondent comments that live music ‘creates wellbeing, goodwill, excitement, aesthetic, intellectual and emotional stimulation. … Time set aside purely for focussed, extended listening in company of others creates social cohesion’ (p. 29). So the ‘capital’ that this report looks at includes social, physical and human capital. But this is from the perspective of the wellbeing of the recipient of the music, not the provider.

However, in the Queensland survey, musicians said that they often stayed in the profession because they enjoyed the autonomy and the life-satisfaction it provided, so there would seem to be reciprocity between performers and consumers particularly from the contemporary music performance experience. This study also highlights the drinking behaviours of participants, which, in 62% of cases exceed World Health Organisation ‘harmful levels’ (p. 1). This is replicated from the Queensland report.

Additional research from Queensland which draws on Australian census data collected in 2008, concludes that ‘some 167,000 people currently earn some income from music’ (Bartleet, Bennett, Bridgstock, Draper, Harrison & Schippers, 2012, p. 33). However they suggest that there are only 16,000 professional performing musicians in Australia. They indicate that Australia employs only 600 orchestral musicians on a full-time basis and has only 48 full-time company vocal positions (in opera and musical theatre), with many of these appointments allocated to overseas born, or trained musicians. Indeed it is suggested that across all musical genres only about .4 per cent of musicians have full-time employment. The authors urge musicians to build career portfolios, developing skills in self-management for example. They suggest that ‘the process of locating and acquiring the complete range of core qualities required for a successful musical career are the product of environment, behaviour, competencies and beliefs that contribute to identity’ (p. 37). It would seem one must be a one-person band in order to carve out a music career unless serendipity offers a helping hand.

The question then is, are we doing a disservice to potential musicians by advocating the benefits of music, when in fact, it can actually be bad for your health, or do the positive aspects of being a musician outweigh these considerations?

Is the issue confronting professional musicians the lifestyle that has, to at least some extent, been imposed on them in order that they can be financially and artistically sustained in the music industry? And if so, what can be done about it?

And finally is there something about the lack of value afforded music and musicians in our society contributing to this problem? Because through all of this there is a seam, a common thread weaving itself through from the sublime to the unthinkable. Music is a way in which we forge identity – physical, emotional, intellectual, biographical, social and cultural. It can also be used to undermine our identity, and therefore, our sense of self. At its extreme it can be used in a range of insidious ways to destroy our sense of self, to make it impossible to live with our self. It is this notion of self which is fundamental to every individual’s and every collective’s sense of wellbeing.

As previously suggested, in music therapy scenarios, there has been a developing awareness of the need to understand individual contexts and individual musical needs and preferences for such therapies to be effective. Music on the Brain (2016) provides a multiplicity of evidence to support the need to musically reach patients through attention to their individual musical stories, their musical identities. This is also the case in the use of background music in working environments where workers are more attentive to music they like (Huang & Shih, 2011). Because this study’s aim was to suggest the kind of background music that would aid worker productivity, the recommendation is to provide music that is neither highly disliked, nor intensely liked as both detract from worker efficiency, just in differing ways. We must get our priorities right! Exploring the connections between music therapy, community music, music education, everyday music and music medicine, Raymond MacDonald states that it is the ‘very individual aspects of musical life that lie at the heart of why music has powerful beneficial effects upon health’ (2013, p. 11). And it does, when this is the intent, but, as can be seen, music can also be negatively manipulated in a range of ways.

Performance anxiety can cause the performer to dissociate his/herself from ‘self as performer’ acting instead as an observer, rather than a participant. It is called ‘depersonalisation’ (Kenny, 2011, p. 174). It is the potency of music and music in people’s lives that causes such extreme ramifications. This ranges from the positive outcomes of therapeutic interventions to the negative ones of removing self mentally and emotionally from a performance in order to avoid the paralysing anxiety associated with the fear of rejection if one does not live up to one’s own expectations of self and the perceived expectations of an audience.

Susan O’Neill (2002) describes the student who, on missing out on a place in an academy after audition, no longer refers to herself as a musician. She feels she can perhaps be a music critic, but shrugs off her identity as a performer, despite obvious years of endeavour. Later on, with acceptance into another institution, she re-assumes her musical identity. ‘I see myself as a musician. That’s all I can see myself as’ (p. 88). She suggests that you can’t alter this fact even though she realises that she previously tried to ‘run away from that’ (p. 88). One cannot avoid such disappointments in music or in any other life endeavour. However this case points to the vulnerability that can go with the ‘artistic temperament’. This is not derogatory. Musicians need heightened sensitivity. But you can’t close the door on this aspect of self when you put down the instrument. And it tends to be that for musicians and others in the performing arts, setting oneself up for acceptance or rejection as a performer is an ongoing part of the lifestyle. If one does not audition, one does not get the gig. If one does not apply for the grant or have one’s name constantly profiled, one is forgotten. It does not only impact emotionally, but also financially if one wishes to continue as a performing artist and, as seen from Bartleet et al., the likelihood of full-time employment without this merry-go-round of constant acceptance or rejection is minimal.

The music industry and audiences can and must reject sometimes, but I would suggest that this continual stripping of acceptance, through audition, through unpaid and underpaid work, lack of access to continual employment, the expectation of ridiculous working hours and even the confrontation of the literally deafening sound amplitude used in contemporary gigs, often the choice of sound mixers rather than musicians (this intensity also used as torture) plays havoc with wellbeing. Barry Blesser discusses the impact of such loudness on the listener and performer. Deafness is only one of the detrimental outcomes (2007). Even suggestions of strategies – doing it all, from playing the guitar, teaching the guitar, organising one’s own media profile, composing, engineering and so on, to ensure one can stay in the game, all detract from one’s central sense of musical self and physical and emotional wellbeing. In what other profession would one be expected to have so many areas of expertise and continually prove one’s worth in order, if lucky, to live above the poverty line?

In education, those students who find themselves in settings where ‘their music’ is not considered ‘music’, or their musicianship is not up to the perceived ‘standard’ of others can feel alienated and excluded from music despite, as MacDonald suggests, music being of optimum importance in their ‘beyond the school gates’ lives. He says, ‘there is evidence to suggest that adolescents lose interest in formal music education at just around the same time that music is becoming a crucial part of their identity’ (2013, p. 4). He is encouraged by the fact that

the movement within music education to broaden its scope and remit to include a wider range of music experiences, incorporating popular music, has resulted in a regeneration of formal music activities within educational institutions. This move is partly responsible for the increased interest in music, health, and well-being within music education (p. 4).

One’s musical identity can, under the right circumstances, be empowering. As one of the respondent’s in the Live Music Office research states, music

gives me a reason to live, makes me think, makes me feel, inspires and challenges me to keep singing my own song’ (p. 29).

Many who undertake professions in music, despite the obstacles, both personal and contextually imposed, do so because music means so much to them as suggested in the above quote. If we can acknowledge the importance of the role of music in people’s lives, then we can do so much more to advocate for music and musicians, whether they be listeners, performers or creators. But there is a need for a reality check and honesty in our advocacy. It’s not all beer and skittles, although in many cases it would seem, understandably, there is way too much beer. Music can have a positive impact on the lives of people – in education, in care, in environments contributing to health and welfare and in music professions. However, it can sometimes be that the dedication people give to music can be used to undermine their personal and economic value. Given its potency, music needs to be respected and handled with care. It is enlightening those who would use and sometimes abuse the muse and those who choose to do the muse’s bidding that is our most difficult task.


Mandy Stefanakis

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