An explanation based on John Blacking’s “How Musical is Man” and Jane Davidson’s and Andrea Emberly’s “Embodied Musical Communication across Cultures: Singing and Dancing for Quality of Life and Wellbeing Benefit”
“There is so much music in the world that it is reasonable to suppose that music, like language and possibly religion is a species-specific trait of man” (John Blacking, 1986)
What qualifies music to impact people’s wellbeing? How can music create communities and thus benefit individual and collective quality of life and wellbeing?
First we have to understand how music can be defined, at its core. Even if different societies and even different people have different ideas of how music should sound, “all definitions are based on some consensus of opinion about the principles on which the sounds should be organised”. (John Blacking, 1986)
What Blacking is trying to say is that every human has a basic understanding that there is a difference between hearing organised sounds and noise, and that organised sounds, unlike noise, can communicate different things. Film music offers a good example to clarify this theory. Film composers assume that audiences can discern its patterns in response to its emotional appeals and that they will hear and understand them. In doing so, they assume that music is a form of communication and that, in a common cultural context, specific musical sequences can evoke feelings that are fearful, romantic, spooky or joyful etc… If audiences did not respond to this assumption, mood music in films would not exist. Think about seeing Darth Vader and his musical theme. Hearing that theme for the first time, did you think he was a good or a bad figure? We could expound further upon this theory, but let us revert to how music can benefit wellbeing.
In western culture, we often believe that only a few gifted people have the talent to communicate music and we are willing to be a listener and spectator for those with talent. Self-generated performance, like singing, often takes place in private (dancing in the bedroom or singing in the shower). However, both the passive form of participation by listening to music or going to concerts as well as self-generated performances play a powerful role in personal and social identification and expression. Of course, even in western culture, singing and dancing are part of traditions in social functions – in weddings for example, but these forms of musicality are often perceived as belonging to another era and furthermore to traditions. (Davidsons, Emberly, 2010).
In his “Psychology of Happiness”, published in 1978, the psychologist Michael Argyle refers to “English traditional musical art forms such as country dancing as key examples of how cultural practices function as an opportunity for unity and emotional expression and how this in turn leads to happiness”. In simpler terms, making music together makes us happy and thus brings us wellbeing (assuming that happiness and wellbeing go hand in hand).
During the last few years, there has been a growth in the body of musical arts practices as well as related research that add further arguments to our thesis that music enhances quality of life and wellbeing.
In 2005 and 2010, the music educator and teacher Robert Faulkner and Jane Davidson, professor of Fine Arts at the Melbourne University, observed adult singing groups and found that singing enhanced feelings of improved cognitive stimulation, a sense of social cohesion, trans-generational understanding when singing groups included people of different generations, and feelings of spiritual sharing (religious and otherwise).
In 1999, the music therapist Trygve Aasgaard proposed that musical arts should be an inherent component of any institutional setting. In his own experience working in a hospital, he found that music offers “a sense of community and coherence” for everyone: patients, visitors and medical staff.
In 2004, music therapist Dr. Wendy Magee and Jane Davidson analysed singing activities with patients in the late stages of multiple sclerosis. They used songs with reminiscence value and monitored the level of muscle control and strength of the vocal mechanism. Here music enabled patients to express emotions around loss and grief which they were unable to express before.
In 2006, a study led by the geriatric psychiatrist Gene Cohen showed that elderly people who engaged in musical activities made fewer visits to doctors and required less medication. Cohen’s research was related to a study led in 1999 by Prickett and Moore, which showed that people with Alzheimer’s disease who participated in music activities showed improved cognitive activity, with moments of insight and coherence. During our conference in May 2019 Dr. Theodore Hartogh presented his study on this subject, which came to the same conclusions. His research is published on our website.
Besides singing, dance has also became the centre of musical studies and researchers, since Lewis in1984, came to the conclusion that “centring the body, the specialised treatments can aid people to share emotion with the proximity and coordination of group experience, working for therapeutic goals ranging from psychodynamic to practical outcomes like improved self-esteem.
Thus, all of these studies come to the same basic conclusion: music improves wellbeing on different levels.
In an article published in Oxford’s “Music, Health and Wellbeing”, Davidson and Emberly concluded that “musical arts are an embodied communicative experience for wellbeing”. In their text, they claim that music offers “a personal and cultural identity, social integration, coordination and collaboration, socioemotional regulation, positive physical experiences and therapeutic benefits”. By practicing music and participating in different arts activities, individuals create communities which impact social, cultural and individual wellbeing.
With their innate understanding of the nature of music, humans can embrace music as a tool of communication and use it to enhance their quality of life and wellbeing. As Davidsons and Emberly stated: “Music[ality] can be viewed as both an innate and culturally determined function of humanity”.
These different studies as well as international sociocultural activities have provided the premises for the Fondation EME’s mission statement. Since 2009, the Fondation EME has been convinced that music is a universal language and that beyond the joy it brings, music breaks down barriers of all kinds and promotes individual and collective wellbeing, self-confidence and trust.
Aasgaard, T. (1999). Music therapy as milieu in the hospice and paediatric oncology ward. In: D. Aldridge (ed.) Music therapy in palliative care : New voices, pp.. 29 – 42. London: Jessica Kingsley Publications
Argyle, M. (1987). The psychology of happiness. London: Methuen.
Blacking, J.A. (1973). How musical is man? Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.
Blacking, J.A. (1986). Identifying processes of musical change. The World of Music, 28(1), 3-15.
Cohen, G.D. (2005). The Mature Mind. New York: Basic Books.
Cohen, G.D., Perlstein, S., Chapline, J., Kelly, J., Firthm, K.M., and Simmens, S. (2006). The impact of professionally conducted cultural programs on the physical health, mental health, and social functioning of older adults. Gerontologist, 46(6), 726-34.
Davidson, J.W. (2005). Bodily communication in musical performance. In: . Miell, D.J. Hargreaves, and R. MacDonald (eds.) Musical Communication, pp. 215-238. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Davidson, J.W. and Faulkner, R.F. (2010). Meeting in music: the role of singing to harmonise carer and cared for. Arts and Health, 2(2), 164-70.
Faulkner, R. and Davidson, J.W. (2005). Men’s vocal behaviour and the construction of self. Musicae Scientiae, 8(2), 231-55.
Lewis, P. (1984/1986). Theoretical Approaches in Dance Movement Therapy (vols I/II). USA: Kendall/Hunt.
Magee, W.L., and Davidson, J.W. (2004a). Singing in therapy: Monitoring disease process in chronic degenerative illness. British Journal of Music Therapy, 18(2), 65-77.
Magee, W.L., and Davidson, J.W. (2004b). Music therapy in multiple sclerosis: Results of a systematic qualitative analysis. Music Therapy Perspectives, 22(1), 39-51.
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