Music for the mind

This week has been Mental Health Awareness Week across the University. As many of you are aware, Cambridge University runs a week every year promoting well-being. There is usually a stunning range of short courses, leisure activities, and tours available; it’s a very well thought out programme.

Over the last few years the Music team has taken part in art tours at Addenbrookes, a fascinating tour of Madingley Hall and gardens, ballet workouts, art appreciation through dance at the Fitzwilliam Museum, nature tours, yoga and mindfulness sessions, and more.

The team behind the Festival of Wellbeing work really hard, and it’s much appreciated by the staff. It gives us an opportunity to try different activities that promote well-being, and to see if they could be of use to us, both in our personal and professional lives. This year, of course, has been rather different, with everything taking place remotely.

Mental Health Awareness Week has made me think about the part that music plays in our mental health, not least because my own music making has been rather remote since the start of lockdown.

Music making for staff and their families at the UL and the Pendlebury have been affected by lockdown, as it has for our readers. Some members of staff have been grappling with remote choir practice, and the issues that arise around this. Some are having instrumental lessons via Zoom or MS Teams, or are giving instrumental lessons. Either way, the lessons can sometimes be “interesting”. Time lag can be a particular problem, as can sound quality. At least one teacher has had to leap up and down like Zebedee of Magic Roundabout fame, before their pupil realised that they were signalling to them to stop. That most vital part of music, listening, becomes more difficult when music making becomes remote.

For some, group music making has been suspended altogether. As staff, we’ve had fun working on a joint recording, which will be receiving its World Premiere on next week’s MusiCB3 – watch this space. Staff, along with their family and friends, have sung and played across the UK, and forwarded on their tracks to me, currently locked down in the Wirral, where I’ve been editing them together. Music still continues to unite and provide enjoyment, even if it isn’t quite the same, as being in the same room as your fellow musicians.

Performing at a distance? No problem…

In normal circumstances, we forget about the wonder of the synchronicity of music performance. We might know (or at least guess) that joining a choir or an orchestra, is a good way of making friends; and, this is confirmed by research: see The ice-breaker effect: singing mediates fast social bonding by Eiluned Pearce, Jacques Launay, and Robin I.M. Dunbar (Royal Society Open Science, Volume 2. Issue 10. 1 October 2015); but we forget how melded together we are as a body of musicians:

As a coordinated and often synchronous activity, for example, in terms of breath and heart rhythms, as well as timing and pitch, it is unsurprising that singing has also been linked with elevated β-endorphin levels.

In addition to the apparent endorphin effect, an expanding body of the literature has consistently shown that synchronous activity increases subsequent prosocial behaviour and feelings of affiliation. Furthermore, synchrony is interpreted by observers as a marker of high group cohesion and entitativity, suggesting that the association between synchrony and group unity is particularly strong

When we’re in a choir, an orchestra, or a band, we are more than we are when we’re performing music alone. At its best, we become part of a synchronous group, who through listening to each other (and a lot of work in rehearsals), are able to meld together perfectly. We listen to each other when performing music far more than we realise, and it’s only when you’re in an odd situation, such as the current lockdown, that you realise how different this is to normal.

Also related to our mental well-being, we would probably not be too surprised to learn that singing, playing, or indeed listening to your favourite music, produces dopamine in the brain (for more information on this see Dopamine modulates the reward experiences elicited by music, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, February 26, 2019). Indeed, other evidence suggests that the music you like the most, will make your brain produce more dopamine. This is one of the factors that makes people feel so strongly about music. Enjoying a “Slow moment with Haydn”? That will be your brain reacting with a dopamine release.

As science starts to unravel more of the mysteries behind music, some things still remain unknown – why does one person love Bach, and another Country and Western? Doubtless, some likes and dislikes are down to differences in life history, lifestyle, memories, or even opportunities or prejudice, but the wide range of reactions to music remain areas that are still open to research.

What is clear from the research that has been done is that music and music-making can be vitally important for mental health and well-being. So spend some time in lockdown with your favourite music, listen, watch, and, if you can, join in.

Classic FM has a regularly updated page of lockdown classical events from free concerts to opera and dance across the world. If you want to make music yourself at a distance, there’s helpful advice on the Making Music page, whether you want to work with your own choir or band, or join a larger organisation.

For those with Raven log-ins, don’t forget the Music LibGuide which has information on various music resources, including Naxos Music online, Naxos Video Library, and the Berlin Philharmonic’s Concert Hall.

For more information on well-being in the university, especially around mental health issues, see Well-being initiatives and Activities for well-being.


About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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