Creative Strategies 3: Music for Networks and Communities, Semester 1 – ST2: The Music Works

‘Jim gets help with the blues and with social isolation’

‘Jim (not his real name) was an 18-year-old guitarist who was passionate about jazz music but had got stuck and lost confidence in developing his skills. He struggled with anxiety and having dropped out of school and with no prospects of a job or training, was becoming increasingly socially isolated and depressed.

Our music leader, Stuart, worked with Jim through weekly one-hour mentoring sessions over six weeks. Stuart explains that this work is as much about collaborating as musicians, as supporting a vulnerable young person: “He was really into jazz, knew all about the history, was trying to play in that style – but he had nowhere to go with it. He also wanted to do some recording, but again, didn’t know where to start. It was more about jamming with another guitarist and using the skills I’d learned by teaching myself. One thing a lot of guitarists struggle with is improvising, but by teaching myself, I’d found things that would help and I passed them on to him.”

Jim progressed musically, in his confidence, and is beginning to take up opportunities and make connections with people who could support him. He took part in a week-long songwriting and recording course organised by The Music Works (then Gloucestershire Music Makers) and the Prince’s Trust, and has now also volunteered for local organisations.’

Music is an excellent way to strengthen social bonds. This works through increasing contact, coordination and cooperation between individuals, providing a boost in the production of oxytocin, activating areas of the brain that increase empathy, and creating a sense of cultural cohesion.

In the case of Jim, music has aided in providing a direction, an achievable goal, that allowed him the ability to overcome, or at least manage more effectively, his mental health conditions. Stuart, The Music Works’ music leader, provided a safe environment in which Jim was able to gradually develop a bond with him. Because Jim struggled with social exclusion the creation of this initial bond would appear to be the most important step in achieving a more definitive goal. This initial bond also stretched to creating connections between Jim and other musicians, essentially creating a network of supportive peers, of whom Jim could turn to for advice, to jam, to record or simply to hang out with. It is interesting to see how quickly Jim has developed the tools to manage his mental health conditions; having known people with anxiety, depression and social exclusion issues, and being someone affected by them personally, it is uplifting to know that through music the symptoms of these conditions can be alleviated, or at least managed in a way that allows the afflicted to function in a way closer to that which they desire.

It is no secret that depression, anxiety and a whole range of other mental health conditions are caused by an imbalance of hormone production in the body (coupled with social and environmental factors) and research is being conducted into the use of oxytocin as a treatment for such conditions with promising results. In this regard, the natural boost in the production of oxytocin that is stimulated by the creating, listening and experiencing of music is potentially a valid holistic treatment for depression and anxiety. Of course, it would be irresponsible to suggest that all it requires to overcome depression is that you write a song, but the evidence proving the presence of boosted oxytocin can certainly contribute and aid in symptom management if combined with the correct medication.

Stuart, the music leader who mentored Jim, was possibly able to help Jim not only because of his musical expertise, but because music increases brain activity in the areas that control empathy. Stuart was able to empathise and help Jim because of his affinity with music. Jim would also have experienced increased empathy towards others, potentially motivating him to pursue the volunteering work he carried out for a number of local organisations. The activation of empathy centres in the brain can also help to create a sense of social cohesion. Understanding how another person feels and reacting appropriately and constructively, are a vital part of communication and social bonding. A second contributing factor in this sense of social cohesion is that music allowed Jim and Stuart, and then the further connections Jim made, to connect over a common interest.

I wasn’t expecting much when I saw this task, but Jim’s story really resonated with me; it struck a chord, so to speak. As somebody who experiences issues in the same vein as Jim’s, it was cheering to discover that music really can help people like us, and not just in the short term, either. Music has been a part of social rituals for over forty-thousand years, helping us establish cultural identities, aiding in celebrations and strengthening bonds between families and communities. Perhaps the reason we respond so positively to music, on a chemical level, is that we have physically evolved to do so, and as such, we should utilise it even more now than we have in the past to aid in the treatment of mental health condition, the strengthening of cultural identity, the respect and empathy for others and the general togetherness we ought to feel towards one another.

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