From the ngére tribal rituals of the Suya Indian Amazonian tribes to the strobe-lit techno haze of the all-night New York club, music is the phenomenon, perhaps the only one, that binds us all. The familiar, if overused, claim of ‘I don’t have a single note in my head’, may be used by many as an opt-out in sing-song situations meaning ‘don’t ask me to sing, ‘cos I can’t’, but this is largely proven inaccurate after a couple of drinks, or some social encouragement. Even those who claim to have no interest in music will often be seen to engage in a little shower-singing, in private, but these culprits will rarely if ever admit this.

While the Suya Indians use music to define tribe members’ place within their society, others use it simply to unwind. It defines us socially, as we define it socially. It is perhaps the best example of life imitating art, and art imitating life in the infinite loop. This is the visible side of music - the side that can be conceptualised in words. In other words, this is not music. It is merely the by-product of music.

So what is Music?

Put simply, we do not know exactly what music is, or why humans seem to engage in it - I say 'engage', for it is an interactive phenomenon. At its core, music has always been a method of bringing people together. Its earliest examples are evidenced in pieces of old bone found to be pieces of primitive instruments. Sociologists place much weight on music’s importance in procreation. Images of tribes dancing around a fire at night conjure many familiar associations, and it is difficult to avoid comparisons of these to modern dancing, and contemporary musics place in the ‘love’ world today. And I’m not just talking about Barry White.

Outside this obvious evolutionary connection with the rhythmic dance moves that often accompany music, however, lies a deeper connection. To watch a rendition of Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb’ for example is unlikely to inspire any great desire to hit the dance floor. Equally, a symphonic orchestral production of Dvorak’s ‘New World Symphony’ may not get your foot tapping (although it does mine!) but it cannot be denied that there is a deep emotional appreciation of these pieces experienced by many. Music has the power to send that satisfying chill down the spine, and to give goose bumps. It also has the power to connect people.

Music - A Therapeutic Tool

As a musician, and having used and seen the benefits of music therapy in a group setting with elderly people with dementia, I am very aware of its extraordinary power to show the best in people. Men and women in quite advanced stages of memory loss, who often will not even be capable of basic conversation, will visibly light up and smile, or even join in, when a song from their youth is played.

I would bring along both my guitar and my very limited knowledge of ‘old’ music - that is Irish traditional folk, or popular music from the 1950s (I live in Ireland, so these two genres, plus country music generally, dominated around this time, and still do in some rural areas). If I was lucky I would get one or two requests for songs such as ‘The Mountains of Mourne’ or Doris Day’s ‘Qué Sera Sera’, and I must say my lack of knowing the words was equalled only by the older crowd’s memory of them, because despite their diminished recall of many things, they could always surprise when it came to the music of yore. If I wasn’t so lucky, I’d have to think of something to play myself, and hopefully I would judge well in my choice. Whatever the case, I could see that the music, and the social shared experience, was clearly accessing some deep rooted memory in these individuals. On a neuropsychological level, perhaps the limbic system, or maybe the hippocampus was being stimulated on some primitive level. On a less scientific level, we were all having a valuable, and more importantly fun, shared experience.

I am a great believer in the power of sharing one’s problems and burdens with others generally - this is the ethos of ProblemBox.

In considering the use of music within therapy, I came to a realisation. I have never once seen a therapeutic situation where there was both shared musical experience and a worsening, or continuing of negative social interaction.

To Conclude

Whilst many scholars have tried to break down our experience of music scientifically or objectively, none have managed it - I believe they would all admit this. It would, I guess, be like trying to explain the colour blue to a person who has been blind since birth. Our explanation is limited by the fact that the experience of music is both subjective - individual - and at its best, shared. It is this paradoxical dichotomy and oneness that in my opinion make music the ideal companion to psychological therapy. Quite simply, the greatest and most important phenomena in Psychology share this paradoxical duality. We all function, at the most basic level, as a single unit with unique experiences but within the wider systems of society. Music, thankfully, can be enjoyed on both levels. For every solitary man sipping his beer listening to ELO there is a group of Bossa Nova dancers in Brazil living it up together. For every soprano operatic aria, there is a line dancing troupe making the most of Kenny Rogers' greatest hits. Music is that rarest of things - a staple in a changing world, and something tells me it always will be, long after we’re gone.

Author's Bio: 

Gareth McLaughlin has worked for six years in an adult mental health context, and has worked specifically in an older persons' setting for 3 years. He is currently completing an MSc in Applied Psychology (Mental Health and Psychological Therapies).
Gareth has launched a general wellbeing forum based site, http://problembox.com, where people can share problems and receive advice and support from others.
Gareth's interest in health extends to physical, and he is a great advocate of healthy body, healthy mind. Check your BMI at http://BMIindicator.com. In addition, some of Gareth's own music can be heard at http://www.jango.com/music/Gareth+McLaughlin?l=0.