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Feeling good: How music helps us heal

Can music help us heal? An increasing body of evidence suggests it can help to promote good health. Malcolm Jack tunes into the latest thinking
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There’s no doubting music’s capacity to affect how we feel – so much so that Spotify is developing technology based on voice-recognition software designed to curate playlists to our emotions. But in the depths of a global health crisis, it seems suitable to wonder – can music and music making actually make us feel quantifiably, scientifically better? Can music literally heal?

I don’t seek to platform quackery, nor am I about to suggest that music is a miraculous cure for Covid-19 or any other serious illness. But there are mainstream medical professionals who advocate for music in time becoming a tiny but established part of the healthcare system, potentially helping to ease pressure on certain areas of the NHS. In a less scientific but similarly well-intentioned spirit meanwhile, there exists a small but growing number of artists interested in music’s sonic potential to help us feel better in mind and, by extension, body.

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At the BBC Proms in 2019, a panel discussion on music and wellbeing with epidemiologist Dr Daisy Fancourt and GP Dr Simon Opher stated the case for what is known as “social prescribing” – a new idea in healthcare which, supplementary to and in some cases even instead of conventional medicines, permits healthcare professionals to refer patients to support in the community and activities such as art, poetry, dance, music-making or singing.

“Dementia sufferers find comfort and meaning in music even in advanced stages of decline.”

Many dedicated social prescribers, who link patients with activities in their local communities, already work in the health service now – pre-pandemic the NHS had aimed to hire more than 1,000 of them by 2021. Lockdowns and social distancing have blunted social prescribers’ tools – choirs can’t meet up and feel the communal glow of participating in mass song, combating malaises such as loneliness and sedentary behaviour; music groups can’t provide the physical stimulation and tension release that can come through banging drums or striking keys. But in time that kind of thing will be possible again, and when it is it will be needed more than ever.

Most of the proven health benefits of music are around mental health – parent-and-baby singing sessions to combat post-natal depression, songwriting workshops to combat low self-esteem – but there is always an intrinsic connection between mental and physical health. There is evidence that cancer sufferers become better able to cope with anxiety and thus treatment through weekly singing sessions. Dementia sufferers find comfort and meaning in music even in advanced stages of decline. A research project by English National Opera and Imperial College London is discovering how the breathing techniques of opera singers can alleviate breathlessness in sufferers of so-called “long Covid”.

Even just listening to music is proven to affect our arousal levels – blood pressure, heart rate and stress hormones can all be augmented, with attendant health benefits. London-based Scottish DJ and producer Brian d’Souza AKA Auntie Flo typically uses music to put people into a euphoric state. But during the first lockdown last year he launched a new project that’s all about using music to contrasting effect: to induce calm, reduce heart rates, lower brainwaves and help bring a sense of meditative relaxation or focus. Originally a livestream from his garden, Ambient Flo now takes the form of a free 24-hour radio station updated monthly with playlists by d’Souza and guest curators, full of instrumental drones, chimes, birdsong and general good vibes.

“Human beings, like everything on this planet, are made up of vibrating molecules,” explains d’Souza on the Ambient Flo website. “Our bodies resonate with everything around us. The relationship between external sound vibrations, our bodies and brains help us make a sense of the world. Music is unique in simultaneously affecting our cognitive, reward/emotion and motor senses, often all at the same time. A piece of music can regulate our mood, adjust our physical state, trigger memories from our childhood and help us connect to people and the world around us.”

“There is evidence that cancer sufferers become better able to cope with anxiety through weekly singing sessions.”

Can good vibes penetrate deeper still? Kelly Lee Owens is a Welsh electronic dream pop musician whose miraculous album Inner Song was one of the most acclaimed releases of 2020. Before becoming a musician, she worked as an auxiliary nurse at a cancer hospital in Manchester, and the experience has never left her. “There’s always a connection between healing and music,” she told Pitchfork in an interview in 2017. She’s an exponent of the therapeutic power of resonant frequencies – the scientifically still very fringe idea that ultrasonic sound waves might in future be used to shatter cancer cells. “The dream,” Owens explained, “is that one day there’ll be this beautifully lit room with wonderful colours where children just play with their toys on a soft carpet – and above them would be these machines they didn’t even know were there, curing their cancer in a non-invasive, non-intrusive way.”

Such utopian treatments remain a distant fantasy, but you can access what some people, doctors included, say is the best medicine – happiness – right now, in audio form, for just the price of a good thought. Perthshire-based musician, artist and designer Tommy Perman’s Positive Interactions is a mellow tonic of an album patched together from samples sent by friends all over the world of the sounds that make them feel happy, from pebbles on beaches to dishwasher bleeps, kids playing and pet squeaks. You can receive a download simply by emailing Perman with a happy thought. “For me this project was a kind of therapy,” he writes, “sat for hours wrapped in comforting layers of sound, warmed with blankets of reverb.” Who couldn’t use a little of that right now?

Listen and subscribe to Ambient Flo at ambientflo.com and find out how to download Positive Interactions at positiveinteractions.space