The necessity of music

I expect most people would find it difficult to imagine life without music, but just how important is it?

People may answer that question differently, but here are some interesting facts. Today there is an impressive body of research which tells us authoritatively that the effects of participation in music-making has wide-reaching benefits and enhances us in some fairly surprising ways.

Cognitive benefits

For example, children learning a musical instrument outperform their peers in literacy, memory, and spatial reasoning.

PHYSICAL benefits

More obvious perhaps, with the development of gross and fine motor co-ordination, and in the case of singing improved breathing which leads among other things to better immune system functioning.

PERSONAL benefits

Such as increased mood, self-esteem, confidence, creativity and emotional intelligence. It’s also a great way to connect with others and develop relationships.

That’s not an exhaustive list but already it makes music look like the ultimate body-mind-soul pursuit, integrating every aspect of our being and uniting us with others. I’m not sure what else does this.

Contemporary neuroscience shows us that music-making is the brain’s equivalent of a full body workout. Playing an instrument engages almost every part of the brain at once and induces changes in the cerebral cortex, enhancing skills in other areas. Plato may not have known this, but I think he was spot on when he observed that ‘the patterns in music and all the arts are the keys to learning’.

So when we talk of ‘music therapy’, you might think that we’re stating the obvious. Music is therapeutic, full stop, surely?

The problem is that not everybody can access music-making easily. So to help them, there’s actually been a music therapy profession developing for over 50 years. Today, music therapists are allied health professionals, registered with the Health and Care Professions Council.

The thing that music therapists are most skilled at is in enabling people with no musical training, people of any age, with sometimes far-reaching illness or disability (mental or physical), to get into active music-making, often against significant odds. Here they become exposed to that rich and strange array of benefits otherwise out of reach. Music therapists do this by making music alongside: listening, improvising, responding to what they hear and see, framing a person with music, drawing them into activity, interactivity, and relationship. It’s a skilled craft, polished by training and experience, and after nearly twenty years of being a music therapist I still never tire of the thrill of seeing the results.

In the final climactic scene of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale the statute of Hermione is brought to life by music. It’s a marvellous moment, and at work I often find myself recalling that image. At a London care home a woman with dementia hurls a torrent of abuse. Downhearted, she has suffered accumulated loss of every imaginable kind: retirement, bereavement, and lately immobility and memory deficiency, and her upset requires little imagination to understand. “You can take that drum right away from me, I’m not touching it!” she barks. The music starts and as other residents begin to unfurl she quietens. Minutes go by and the music slowly sinks into her. In the corner of my eye I see a foot beginning to tap, though for now her face remains frozen. But when my eyes meet hers there is a flicker of warmth, a smile. Suddenly she is helping her neighbour. “Here, try holding the stick like this. You’ll get a much better sound…. Let me show you.” Then she is singing, remembering, laughing, relating, asking for more. It’s like an awakening, and it happens every week.

The neurologist Oliver Sacks was fascinated by the power of music. “Music can lift us out of depression or move us to tears – it is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear,” he wrote. “But for many of my neurological patients, music is even more – it can provide access, even when no medication can, to movement, to speech, to life. For them, music is not a luxury, but a necessity.”

Fraser Simpson, Nordoff Robbins music therapist

“Nordoff Robbins has brought music back into my mother’s life and it’s through music that we have found a way to remember the good times, have fun and see her in a way that we will always want to remember her.”

Hear Betty’s story