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Performers as therapists

Can a musical performer be a psychological therapist? I guess that’s the question I’m asking myself as I make my application for further studies, and start work on my fourth album.

To answer the question, we have to read what academics say to get some context. There’s been some pretty cool, pretty recent research on the subject, including a study by Swarbrick et al (2019) on “How Live Music Moves Us” and in particular, the differences in head movement in audiences between live versus recorded music.

The paper references a bunch of interesting bits and bobs about the concept of “entrainment” (which is all about bopping to music together – importantly, in time). What the researchers note is that this may have deep evolutionary roots in humans. For example, babies don’t coordinate their movements exactly (entrained) to a musical beat, but they do move faster to music with a faster compared to slower tempo.

What is really fascinating, however, is that if a child as young as 14 months is bounced to music synchronously with the movements of another adult, he or she is more likely to help that adult (eg. to pick up “accidentally” dropped objects needed to complete a task) compared to if the same child is bounced asynchronously with the adult. This altruistic behaviour was also extended to friends of the adult who bounced with them.

Babies. I mean, that’s pretty interesting. Or at least I think so.

What does this mean? Firstly, it could answer the question of the performer as a psychologist. And secondly, it could signal music as a way of helping others help others. In other words, a band or performer using music in the right way can make you feel better about the world so you make the world a better place for the people around you.

There’s a sign outside the theatre at the school where my wife now teaches in Malaysia. It reads: “Art is not a mirror to hold up to society, but a hammer with which to knock it into shape.”

Some might disagree, but there’s a strong and supported train of thought that artists and their art carve out a path for society to journey on. And everything else follows after.

I’ve probably written about this before, but it was something that stood out for me regarding Shaun Ellis, a man who integrated himself into a pack of wolves.

It was Chris Darimont who said: “Progress that has been made in science over the last century and more comes from the mavericks or the people who think a little differently.”

A similar train of thought was followed by an American sports scientist trying to understand the best endurance athletes. Instead of studying them in the lab, the research followed what was instinctively known by athletes already – polarised training, 80/20 principle and other age-old tricks that the best have always known intuitively.

My intuition about music is that some of the best musicians, bands and performers are actually a form of practising psychological therapist. They themselves probably wouldn’t call themselves that, but it’s essentially what they do.

We’ll see how my hypothesis turns out.

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