Why making music isn’t just about living longer

Dr Simon Procter, Nordoff Robbins Director of Music Services, responds to the recently published article in the British Medical Journal (Fancourt & Steptoe 2019), which has demonstrated an association between attending arts events and living longer.

Dr Simon Procter, Nordoff Robbins Director of Music Services, responds to the recently published article, which has demonstrated an association between attending arts events and living longer.

A recently published article in the British Medical Journal (Fancourt & Steptoe 2019) has demonstrated an association between attending arts events and living longer. This is a substantial and rigorous piece of research published in a very prominent journal, and it is clearly to be welcomed and celebrated.

Attending events is often referred to as “receptive engagement” – but this implies a lack of active contribution to the art being made, even though many contemporary writers emphasise the collaborative, co-operative nature of all art. It portrays the arts simply as a product, yet while the authors point out that it would have been good to consider active involvement in the arts too, even this stance puts an unnaturally clear dividing line between what is receptive and what is active.

Living longer is not only easy to measure but at first glance an uncomplicated good. Whilst most people would probably want a long life, most patients or professionals engaged in social prescribing would not necessarily be primarily concerned with extending lifespans: probably a greater need today is helping people to live well with the conditions with which they have ben diagnosed.

This study builds on data collected as part of the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing (ELSA) within which informants self-report their receptive arts engagement: examples provided are “going to museums, art galleries, exhibitions, the theatre, concerts or the opera”. However, while “concerts” might be taken to include non-classical gigs, this still doesn’t capture the kinds of cultural engagement that is meaningful for everyone. Busking isn’t included, for example, even though for many people this may be their primary experience of live music. The authors do acknowledge the many reasons why not everyone can access the arts equally, and these include pre-existing medical conditions and also socio-economic conditions, but this should also include people who are routinely excluded from aspects of communal life – for example people with learning difficulties, with acquired brain injury or with dementia. The analysis in the article suggests that people’s longevity benefits from receptive arts regardless of these factors, yet this makes it all the more concerning that arts activities are not being equally accessed, if they can have such tangible benefits.

What all these concerns have in common is their focus on the individual. If we focus our attention purely on individuals then it may seem uncomplicated to divide arts experiences into receptive and participative, to focus on length of individual lives, and to disregard inequality of access to the arts.

But the arts have historically been social. The arts are how we tell our communal stories, and how we deal with difference. The arts have been a source of strength to communities under siege, to the point where they have been considered subversive to those in power. It may seem ironic, but is hardly surprising, that in an era where communal access to the arts has been systematically undermined, we are now focusing on individual benefits.

Grassroots arts traditions blur the differences between the receptive and the participative: audiences are active, young people and new members are supported in learning the various crafts of singing, playing, dancing etc. Older people who may experience physical barriers to participation are enabled to do so by community itself. Expertise is not just individual, but social.

The sustaining interaction of communities and their arts has been systematically eroded by the shift away from teaching artistic competencies within schools. If children are to draw upon artistic motivation as adults, they must be exposed to such enthusiasms as children. If artistic engagement is to be open to all, we must prioritise enabling the active engagement of people who we know find it most difficult to access the arts, providing tailored opportunities where these are needed.

Social prescribing holds out some hope of making these opportunities more available, and developments in this area are clearly welcome. But the arts should not be seen simply as a way of helping individuals to live longer: rather the arts (including music) are inextricably linked with the lives of families, communities and societies being fully human, supporting each other and learning from one another. Enabling communities to engage artistically is not just a matter of healthcare: it is a matter of human rights.