The healing power of music

This weekend I sang in a memorial concert with Sydney Philharmonia Choirs for a long term chorister and friend who recently died after a six year illness.  She was an inspiring woman and a dear friend to many.  In lieu of a public funeral she organised her own musical memorial concert comprising a handful of her favourite choral pieces.  The event was very special and extremely moving.  We laughed and we cried.  What is it about music that is so powerful?

One of the reasons listening to music is so healing for us is due to the power of musical interval.  A musical interval is created when one note is played with another note. The interval can be created by playing two notes together, or one note after the other.  When two notes are played together the interval is likely to have a stronger effect on us.  The frequencies of the two notes of the interval create a mathematical ratio that affects the body in different ways.  Similarly, the key has a profound impact.  Put simplistically, when a melody is in a major key it is more likely to sound happy.  A sad song is more likely to have been composed in a minor key.  Then, there is the influence of memory.  Music evokes feelings and memories even when we don’t realise we are processing this information.  I think everyone would have had the unexpected experience of hearing a familiar tune and being transported back to a particular time and place. Or perhaps just experiencing being in a new mood state because the mind wanders in response to the mood evoked by the music.

In a number of recent evaluation projects I have explored the extent to which arts-based initiatives have had a positive impacts on their communities.  In some cases the initiatives were designed following natural disasters;  in others they were rolled out in regional Australia with the intention of revitalising or strengthening a regional area.  Typically, these initiatives comprise projects using a number of art forms, including visual arts, performing arts, literature, poetry, multi media and film.  Music is often the medium that people tell me has the most powerful effect on them.  Measuring the impact of music on a community is a challenge.  Music can have an impact on the listener, but also on those who participate in creating it. Music is an abstract art form and its impact on individuals is often intangible. But what can be measured is how people’s lives have changed from their interaction with music through these initiatives.  Here are a few examples of how music has has a healing or transformative impact on individuals and their communities.

Following the Black Saturday Bushfires in Victoria in 2009,  a local member of the community successfully applied for disaster relief funding to start a local music group of steel pan band players. People learned new skills including how to follow music and the technique of playing a steel pan in collaboration with others.  Unexpectedly, they also built their confidence to learn to manage other more difficult areas of their lives, like sorting out their affairs following the bushfires. The group also provided social support and their memories and feelings of frustration and joy were expressed through their music making.  Now called Pans on Fire, this group still exists today and play gigs around Victoria.

After the natural disasters in Queensland in 2011 a number of new local choirs were formed in the disaster-affected regions. For the choristers, being part of a choir has been as important to them as dealing with the daily challenges of rebuilding their lives after the disasters.  Singing with others provides the challenge of collaboration and technique, it allows them to express themselves and helps them reflect and reframe their lives by connecting with others creatively.

The Choir of Hard Knocks was created specifically for people experiencing homelessness and disadvantage. Now called the Choir of Hope and Inspiration, it uses music and collective singing as way for people to connect, feel valued and work towards a common goal.

The thing that all of these projects have in common is their collaborative nature.  Yet the impact of the music on those participating or on those listening is different for everyone. It is personal and it is subjective.

It is no wonder music can have such a powerful emotional pull on people the way it did this weekend at my friend’s memorial concert. Many people I spoke with after the concert said that each song evoked a personal memory for them. Everyone had their own experience, reaction and memory, yet we were all there for the common purpose of remembering our friend. That is the power of music. Rest in peace, Helen Pedersen.

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