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When is music bad for you?

In a mental health context…from the viewpoint of a cohort of music therapists…drawing on studies and literature…in what circumstances is music doing people harm?

Damn good question it seemed to me, so I popped down to Melbourne to attend ‘Healthy and Unhealthy Uses of Music in Mental Health’ Symposium. The name derives from the HUMS Scale, a scale for determining the function/dysfunction of people’s music engagement, developed and validated by Katrina McFerran, the convenor of the forum.

You can go find the program online if you want some more background to the excellent speakers, but the short (Cotterell) version is this:

From the presentation and responses of people with mental illnesses there is evidence that music listening can evoke powerful negative, dissociative, isolating emotions and impact on people’s identities. For some it can be a spiral of descending or manic moods. For some there is a need to hide their listening from others’ judgement. In music therapy activities there can also be anxiety, intense needs to perform and an accompanying fear of failure. In particular, the narrative of a proficient musician who loses their capacity to perform well can generate chronic suffering. Some people also report fears that are triggered by specific musical pieces.

Inversely, sharing music can break through anxious feelings. Continuing to play and be involved in music making can bridge our lives before and after episodes of illness. Success in new kinds of music making can enhance identity and create pleasure. Music can unlock healing opportunities by harnessing imagination. Sharing our music preferences can be a way to connect, to be understood.

It’s all about context. Our relationship with music is as varied (functional and dysfunctional) as our relationship with others and with ourselves. Our feelings for music mirror our inner lives. The most painful realisation that came from considering music in a mental health context is the observation that not only are acute care facilities like run-down gaols, but because our music recordings are kept on machines that can also make images, when going into care we can’t keep our music with us. How lonely would that feel?

I have a list of related questions that I’ll be trying to answer during my Doctoral research:

  • How are status and shame induced by music performance?

  • How do songs evoke pain?

  • Is rumination intensified by music?

  • How does singing induce physical release?

  • Are our music perception/reception systems stronger and/or more direct in inducing emotional affect than other cultural products that connect us to our ‘inner selves’

  • Are we still coming to terms with our access to recorded music?

  • Does conscious examination of the conditions of music creation change the listening/emotion/identification phenomena?

I want to consider what mechanisms underlie the intensity of our emotional connections to music, particularly singing. Looking at how those emotions and identifications create faulty and harmful responses is actually quite helpful in framing my thoughts.

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