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“Music often works when words don’t – and we should shout about how crucial it can be to wellbeing”

Dr Simon Procter is Director of Music Services for music therapy charity Nordoff Robbins. Here, he explains the social value of music…

For many people who face health problems or social exclusion, music can be a crucial means of self-expression, experiencing their abilities and making a positive contribution to society, via meaningful interactions with others.

As the UK’s largest music therapy charity, Nordoff Robbins supports the most vulnerable members of our society with music therapy, including people affected by disability, isolation or life-limiting illness: thus, we are privileged to see the social value of music every day. 

“Skillfully-crafted musical opportunities enable people who may find social interaction highly challenging to flourish alongside others in ways that words don’t permit”, writes Dr Procter

Music therapy can be a life-enhancing intervention in health and care settings, and a growing body of evidence supports its effectiveness in achieving individual health outcomes in neuro-rehabilitation, dementia care, autism and psychiatric services.

Music therapy can facilitate physical and emotional wellbeing, whilst improving cognitive functioning, motor skills, communication and emotional development. The arts therapies are proven to alleviate anxiety, depression and stress while increasing resilience and wellbeing.

But for most of the people we work with, the benefits of music are fundamentally social. Skillfully crafted musical opportunities enable people who may find social interaction highly challenging to flourish alongside others in ways that words don’t permit.

Arts therapies are proven to alleviate anxiety, depression and stress while increasing resilience and wellbeing

This is as true for someone with advanced dementia as it is for a child who has not yet developed language, or for a teenager who finds it difficult to manage their frustrations.

Importantly, this is not about “giving” them therapy – it is about allowing their voices to be heard and affirming their contribution to society. This is skilled work which requires specific training.

Whilst most people in most situations don’t need music therapy, they do need music, because – whether it’s in the form of opportunities for active music-making, participation in musical events, or simply the freedom to listen to their favourite songs – music lends resilience, identity and hope.

The story that music isn’t just something fluffy and inevitable, but something it costs money to develop whilst yielding massive social and economic benefits – the music industry contributed £5.2 billion to the UK economy in 2018 alone – is one that needs continual telling. Some of that economic benefit is clear on the profit line of PLCs, but some of it is rather less tangible. 

If people are using music to help themselves survive emotional crises so that they can continue to go to work, support their families and generally be socially contributory, then that is a social benefit that in the long-term will also yield economic benefit by avoiding costs.

Likewise, if someone avoids the depths of depression thanks to their participation in a choir or by making music with friends, then they are less likely to need costly medical intervention, less likely to get caught in the cycle of antidepressant medication, and more able to support others.

A growing body of evidence supports music’s effectiveness in achieving individual health outcomes in neuro-rehabilitation, dementia care, autism and psychiatric services

And if someone has learned at school or in childhood the skills of making music and a love of making music that means music becomes a means of active self-support at moments of crisis, then they have a scaffolding of resilience to see them through many of the vicissitudes of life.

This social aspect of music should be valued, and we need to shout about just how crucial music is to our health and wellbeing, within our schools and to our adult lives – so that it is recognised not just by government and healthcare organisations, but by the families, the carers, and the people who can benefit from its help the most. 

Find out more about Nordoff Robbins’ work here: https://www.nordoff-robbins.org.uk/


Dr Simon Procter