If resilience is the question, is music the answer?

We reap the benefits when we engage with music. Ed Yourdon

What role does music play in your life?

Music surrounds us, in shops, at work, on television, and at the movies. We program our own personal soundtracks effortlessly via iPods and similar devices. With new technologies, listening to music has moved from being an active activity to a passive one in a generation.

We all “do music” – but to really reap the benefits we need to engage with music. Going through life with a passive backing track is not enough.

A growing body of research from a number of diverse fields point to the benefits gained by actively making music. The most obvious field is music therapy. A relatively new therapy with its formal origins in the years following the second world war, music therapy is a complex and diverse field.

Not surprisingly, music therapists use music to form their therapeutic relationship and provide group and individual interventions in diverse settings including schools, prisons and hospitals.

Helping adolescents cope with risky, stressful treatments

Research by US researchers published last month points to improved positive health outcomes using music therapy.

The research, conducted with adolescents and young adults undergoing high-risk stem-cell treatment for cancer, used music therapy to target their resilience.

Stem-cell therapy is risky, painful, and causes high levels of distress in patients. This distress can have a heavy impact on the treatment outcomes – which are affected by the patient’s ability to cope with the illness and treatment, and their relationships with other people.

What the researchers did was design an intervention that targeted the patient’s resilience.

As with many resilience interventions, this intervention was “strengths based”, aiming to build on known protective factors for resilience and minimise risk. They found the individuals in the active music therapy group were able to cope better with the treatment, and had better relationships with their family and others. The effects of the music therapy intervention were still obvious 100 days after the intervention.

Resilience is an important characteristic often referred to as an umbrella trait. It does not remove problems – but it provides shelter and protection while people make choices about how they will deal with what they are facing.

It does this by pitting protective factors of resilience against the risk factors. A person exhibiting more protective factors than risk factors is resilient. A person who exhibits more risk factors is “at risk”.

The protective and risk factors are flip sides of the same coin. The three most prominent factors – self-regulation, initiative and relationships with other people – are the factors targeted in the US study. That’s why the music therapy intervention, which strengthened all of these, was particularly effective.

Frans Persoon

Music psychology and kids

My own research – you’ll get an idea here – examines the effect of active engagement in music on the development of resilience in preschool-aged children. I look at the ways that active involvement with music influences normal kids on any given day. The role of music in development is what drives my research.

I follow nearly 200 children each week as they undertake music lessons, examining the same factors of resilience: self-regulation, initiative, and their relationships with other people. I talk to the children, their parents and their teachers. I test their cognitive abilities and their resilience.

The preschool years are very important. The children’s brains are undergoing massive reorganisation and restructuring. Importantly, children are just starting to engage with formal schooling, breaking away from their families and forming new relationships with their peers.

Would education be more effective if resilience was fostered and developed from the earliest years, and what role does music play?

Active engagement with music has a number of intrinsic properties that mirror and enhance the protective factors of self-regulation, initiative and relationships with others. Resilience supports learning in other areas in the same way that it supported better health outcomes in the music therapy study.

Whether these skills translate for normal children on a normal day is yet to be seen.

What is understood is that 60% of people are naturally resilient. Even children who suffer horrendous abuse generally sort their lives out by the time they are 40. How different would the life trajectories of “at risk” children be if they were given the tools of resilience from the earliest ages?

How different would our schools be if we built on children’s strengths and gave all children tools for self-regulation, initiative and building better relationships with other people from the start of their education rather than applying remediation and punishment once problems occur?

What if the solution is engaging with music?