Music, Health, & Wellbeing

From the neuroscience of music and psychoneuroendocrinology to music therapy and dance therapy, this multidisciplinary volume does a great job of bringing together far-flung strands of research at the individual, group and community levels and exploring just how much we are beginning to learn about the impact of music on our lives.

Rating: 4.5

Music, Health, & Wellbeing

Edited by , 2012. ISBN 9780199586974. Oxford University Press. 568 pages.

It won’t be a surprise to anyone that music can have a powerful impact on many different aspects of our subjective experience, but it may come as a surprise to some — it certainly did to me — just how much research has gone into measuring the apparent responses of psychological and physiological variables to music. The research goes far beyond the so-called ‘Mozart effect’ that was popularised by the mainstream press (more on that below), and it is telling us something. This book offers a robust look at this body of research and some of what it may be telling us. While many contributors in the volume mention the relative lack of coherence, the problems of methodology, and the lack of solid underlying theory which characterise the field, all are agreed that there is something here that is significant and worth exploring more carefully and in more detail.

The headings below correspond to those of the book’s five sections; I’ll highlight the material in each which I personally found to be some of the most interesting.

Introductory Chapters: Setting the Scene

In their opening chapter ‘What is Music, Health and Wellbeing and Why is it Important?’, editors Raymond MacDonald, Gunter Kreutz and Laura Mitchell allude to the lack of coherence in this area of research but offer a positive outlook (p. 4):

The diversity of approaches and findings, the heterogeneity of methods, participants, outcomes, and interpretations of findings which are reflected in this text may be serious obstacles in theory building and could well compromise progress in the field. But by the same token, this heterogeneity of research is also indicative of an undercurrent suggesting broad support of basic ideas… The fact that music is implicated in so many different types of interventions relating to health and wellbeing underscores the belief that being moved or touched by music cannot be held purely as a metaphor…

The first section is rounded out with a chapter addressing the biological foundations of music’s effects on health (Eckart Altenmüller and Gottfried Schlaug), another by David J. Elliott and Marissa Silverman on ‘Why Music Matters: Philosophical and Cultural Foundations’, and finally a look at models and interventions in music therapy, by Gro Trondalen and Lars Ole Bonde.

Community Music and Public Health

This is a broad section, ranging from Norma Daykin’s ‘Developing Social Models for Research and Practice in Music, Arts, and Health: A Case Study of Research in a Mental Health Setting’ to a report by Even Ruud on a community music project among young Palestinians living in a refugee camp in South Lebanon and Jane Davidson’s and Andrea Emberly’s chapter ‘Embodied Musical Communication Across Cultures: Singing and Dancing for Quality of Life and Wellbeing Benefit’. And Stephen Clift’s contribution ‘Singing, Wellbeing, and Health’ surveys research involving community choirs and other singing groups and describes the programme of research now underway at Australia’s Sidney De Haan Research Centre for Arts and Health.

Music as Therapy and Health Promotion

This is the largest section, with a wide range of articles focusing on effects in health and mental health settings. I was especially interested in the material on music and pain (one article by Laura Mitchell and Raymond MacDonald, another by Günther Bernatzky and colleagues), music in chronic illness (Maria Pothoulaki and colleagues), and music in operating theatres (Ralph Spintge). The section also includes a thoughtful critique of over-reliance on evidence-based practice, in the form of ‘The Religion of Evidence-Based Practice: Helpful or Harmful to Health and Wellbeing?’, by Tony Wigram and Christian Gold. That article alone deserves a review of its own!

Educational Contexts

‘Cognitive Performance After Listening to Music: A Review of the Mozart Effect’ by E. Glenn Schellenberg reviews the literature surrounding the original publication of a 1993 article in Nature purportedly showing that listening to music has cognitive benefits. The study’s result suggested that performance on spatial tasks was better after listening to Mozart — the so-called Mozart effect. Schellenberg’s review takes the original research and the Mozart effect itself and utterly demolishes them. In short, there is no Mozart effect over and above the fact that “Mozart’s music is simply one example of a stimulus that can change how people feel, which, in turn, influences how they perform on tests of cognitive abilities” (p. 333). Schellenberg goes on to say that “there does not appear to be a specific link between music listening and cognitive abilities, and certainly not between listening to Mozart and spatial abilities” but that “it is clear that music can change listeners’ emotional state, which, in turn, may impact their cognitive performance, and the fact that the link is mediated by arousal and mood does not make it any less meaningful” (p. 334). Schellengberg concludes the same paragraph: “music is special because it is an easily transportable but non-toxic stimulus that influences how we feel, and because how we feel affects virtually all aspects of human experience.”

Everyday Uses

In ‘Psychoneuroendocrine Research on Music and Health: An Overview’, Gunter Kreutz and colleagues suggest that “music can be seen as a psychoactive stimulant inducing physiological effects that are sometimes similar to those produced by pharmacological substances” (p. 457) but note that research on musical behaviours in the context of psychoneuroendocrine (PNE) research has so far been limited. Some preliminary research offers potentially provocative and controversial tentative conclusions, however, such as that “physiologically androgynous individuals are more likely to have higher levels of creativity than individuals that are more in the centre range of testosterone levels with respect to their sex” (p. 463). (The authors go on to suggest that the conclusion, based on a study showing that among talented young musicians, females tended to have higher levels of testosterone and males lower levels, compared to non-musician controls, may be premature, due to the study’s not having assessed testosterone:oestrogen ratios.)

‘The Effects of Background Music on Health and Wellbeing’ by Susan Hallam offers a relatively brief survey of the literature, but nonetheless the takeaway messages are worth noting — among them, that people (except for younger children) are generally very good at selecting background music the effects of which will be positive for them for the task in which they’re engaged, but that when music choices are imposed by others, the effects may be detrimental to performance, health and wellbeing and may generate significant distress. The authors also touch on ‘problem music’, which may promote maladaptive behaviours and attitudes, citing for example the potentially problematic influence of country music “with its focus on problems commonly experienced in everyday life” (p. 493), mentioning one study that found higher suicide rates correlated with greater airtime devoted to country music.

Finally, ‘Music Listening and Mental Health: Variations on Internalizing Psychopathology’ by Dave Miranda and colleagues, reviews the impact of music listening on emotion regulation and internalizing psychopathology (e.g., depression, anxiety, social withdrawal). They conclude that “adaptive and maladaptive music listening behaviours may coexist and — depending on their relative strength or frequency — can lead to less or more internalizing psychopathology, respectively” (p. 525). Arguing for the importance of more research on music listening and internalizing psychopathology, the authors suggest that while the beneficial effects of music should outweigh the negative ones, “individuals may need to maintain a healthy listening regimen in order to fully benefit from the…wellbeing provided by everyday music listening” (p. 526).

On the whole, I really enjoyed this book as an opportunity to learn more about a field that is almost entirely unknown to me. If the book is anything to go by, the future of research into the interplay between music, health and wellbeing promises to be very interesting indeed.

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