Music and Mental Health. How do they work together? Does music have a positive or a negative impact on humans’ Mental Health? These are questions that I want to address in this post.
My daughter plays a violin, so no surprise that she likes to watch the YouTube channel 2SetViolin, where two young Australian violinists, originally from Taiwan, talk in a funny way about all things violin & music. As they say, they are “making classical music relevant to the modern generation through fun, humour and simplicity”. Once in a while I check their channel too, although I definitely don’t belong to the target group of their more than 3 million subscribers. I just want to be sure that the daughter is getting the right message.
Watching the 2SetViolin guys Brett and Eddy in their recent YouTube video Opening Up About Our Mental Health made me think about how negative can be the extreme effort to become a musician.
Extreme stress, burnout, anxiety, social phobia, tinnitus, drugs abuse, but also a cut-throat competition and struggle for a constant perfection – these are issues that they talk about in the video and with which they have personal experience themselves, or are familiar with from their life as professional musicians. They cite a research finding, that over 30% of Australian professional musicians experience a clinical level of social phobia.
Particularly impactful is Eddy’s personal story. He talks how due to the extreme stress while preparing for music competitions and auditions, and the subsequent burnout, he experienced so much physical pain, that he ended up incapacitated in a wheelchair for two months. He has been lucky as he has recovered and continues in his career. But apparently too many talented musicians are just forced to finish their careers due to their mental health issues.
They become musicians to share their music and talent – and then, because of these health issues caused by music(?) they cannot share it anymore.
Watching Eddy talking about his struggles made me realize, that there is something fundamentally flawed in how music works in this modern era. Especially for professional musicians, those who aspire to become professional, but also many others. My main idea is, this:
Music wouldn’t survive throughout the human evolution to this time, if its impact on its creators would have been so damaging.
So what has gone wrong?
These self-destroying efforts of (not only) professional musicians cannot be ‘in line’ with the evolutionary reason why we have music … definitely not as one of the tools for the self-preservation. Music as such would have disappeared a long time ago. Or the Homo Sapiens would just go extinct because of music!
Even the Charles Darwin’s theory of music being used as a means for attracting sexual partners, cannot be applied in this modern era. Underpaid, overworked, physically and mentally challenged people, as too many musicians seem to be, are not the best for keeping the human kind evolving and replicating.
Digging deeper into this topic, I’ve found an interesting scientific report titled The effects of playing music on mental health outcomes published in the scientific journal Nature. It brings outcomes of a research, where scientists “tested whether musical engagement predicts a diagnosis of depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar or stress-related disorders based on nationwide patient registers or self-reported depressive, burnout and schizotypal symptoms in 10,776 Swedish twins.” It also mentions a recent survey among 2,211 British self-identified professional musicians, which found musicians to be up to three times more likely to report depressive problems than individuals in the general population.
Such findings suggest that creativity and musicianship may be risk factors for mental health problems.
But is that true?
Because there are many studies that report positive relationships between musical engagement and mental health, thus suggesting the opposite, namely that engagement in music could be protective against psychiatric problems. The article mentions many of such studies as well. And we can add beneficial effects of the music therapy here as well.
What seems to be an important factor is the type of that musical engagement. The article makes this quite clear – “… it seems that differentiating between active amateur and professional musicians might explain the discrepancy between, on the one hand research reporting beneficial effects of music in everyday life on mental health, and on the other hand the high rate of depression and suicides among professional musicians.”
So what is the result of the Swedish twins research? Simply – it didn’t confirm the negative effect of playing music. Factors that may have influenced both musicianship and mental health problems seem to be ‘genetic and environmental’.
That means, as I understand it, that what may have a negative impact on the mental health is the immediate environment of musicians – their family, school, relationships, society, … and their profession.
The Swedish research results are similar for professionals together and amateur musicians. But as I know the current music world, there are too many amateur musicians, who aspire to become professionals. They just cannot make enough money from their music making, thus consider themselves amateurs. But the stress they expose themselves to is often similar, if not even worse.
So here comes a question, that I have been struggling with for quite a while:
Hasn’t music become a means of abuse of musicians on one side, and the audience on the other – all for the benefit of those, who really make money in this scenario … the music industry?
According to the industry data, in the U.S. musicians take home only 12% of the total music industry revenue
People who are the core of the entire business participate by only 12% on the money the audience pays?
And another fact is, that the majority of this 12% goes to established successful artists. So what is the chance to become a succesful music artist? Apparently that chance is close to zero. Or to be more precise, somewhere around 0.000002%. That is 2 (two) successful musicians from 100,000,000 (one hundred million)! (I will focus on the dealings of the music industry (… Ponzi scheme?) in some of my next posts.)
So here we have on one side creators/musicians willing to sacrifice their health, and sometimes their lives, for the mostly unattainable dream of success, fame, and wealth. On the other side are ‘the middlemen’ who hold the power and reap most of the benefits.
When looking at this my impression is, that music in its current evolution is running in a wrong direction on a dead-end street. Because it is only a matter of shorter time and the industry will figure out how to exclude musicians from the equation completely – and replace them by computers and the Artificial Intelligence. I am affraid, that when that point will be reached, the average audience will not even recognize the difference, based on the “quality” of a majority of the commercially produced music.
If you asked me, what to do in this grimm looking situation, I would suggest two things:
– In the short term, to those musicians, who feel that they may have a mental health issue – the first step is to find someone to talk about it. As the 2SetViolin guys acknowledged, this problem has been worsened by the fact, that nobody had been talking about it. Fortunately, that seems to be slowly changing.
– In the long term, my view is, that our relationship with music will need to change. If we don’t want machines to fill our air with sound combinations produced by the artificial intelligence, we better get into making music ourselves. The same way our ancestors used to do it. If everyone is musical, then everyone can play and make music. Everyone is ‘music-able’! If we break the music industry with its “Ponzi scheme”, there could be way more sustainable jobs for professional musicians as well. Much less stress from performing music and way more good relationships between professional musicians and the active audience while making music, or musicking together.
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