What's music good for?

Published on 2 Jun 2014

Music. What is it good for? "Playing," said Francois Matarraso at the Everyone Deserves Music conference I recently chaired. But of course that answer isn’t enough. Is "playing," in turn, good for anything?

If you listen to my members you’d find a resounding "yes." It’s good for engaging people, building trust, communication, confidence, achieving success, building community, as a therapeutic aid, developing creative co-operation, increasing agency. Well, my members would say that, wouldn’t they? They’re all professional community musicians and their livelihoods depend on belief in these sorts of results. Indeed, the history of community arts has been littered with over-claiming: they’ll be saying music can save the planet, next. Oh hang on, that was the theme of Green Party leader Natalie Bennett’s talk at my conference.

But in this hard-nosed world, belief isn’t enough. People want evidence – proof. So we spend a lot of time these days evaluating and researching whether music is in fact any "good." That list of benefits above isn’t random, it’s the results of an evaluation I and my colleagues carried out on a music mentoring programme (Deane K, Hunter R, & Mullen P (2011) Move On Up; An evaluation of Youth Music Mentors. This was about young people, but the list is probably universal in age.

And the research is endless: take a look at one of my member’s work, the Sidney De Haan Research Centre for Arts and Health at Canterbury Christ Church University. And so are the conferences: read all about last November’s music and dementia seminar from the Rayne Foundation and National Alliance for Arts Health & Wellbeing in Sustaining the Note of Hope.

So my question to care settings staff this month why isn’t there more music in care homes and day centres? That’s not meant to be aggressive: I can think of lots of reasons on your behalf. Maybe you’re waiting for a NICE say-so? There is one, in the Dementia guidelines, but it’s a bit weedy: there is "some evidence" of music’s clinical effectiveness; and "More research is needed" into cost effectiveness: I hear the sound of action being kicked into the long grass. Maybe you’re waiting for that more research? But one bunch of researchers is dissing the research other researchers have already carried out (and those other researchers are moaning about the first researchers). It’s probably money, isn’t it? But what if music making was shown to be cost effective as an intervention – try old friends of mine Healing Arts.

So I wonder if all this talk of research and evidence and gold-standard RCTs is a bit of a side issue, and is setting the bar for arts work unhelpfully high. Am I right that much in the way of other interventions in care settings, in health environments generally, happen with or without such proof beyond reasonable doubt? In which case, perhaps the real issue is that you’re unsure about what making music would mean in your setting. That’s reasonable – how could we help you there?

Here are a few ideas. A community musician who’d do a taster session for you. Or boost your own confidence in music making by leading a staff choir. Arrange a go and see to a setting that uses music making, so you could learn experientially what music is good for. Or suggest some videos to watch (not as good as experiencing the work in the flesh, but a good start). Or … well, your turn to make the suggestions.