Good Health

Many reports have been produced regarding our health and wellbeing and most reveal the obvious: too many pills, too much stress, and too little employment, food, housing, education, or security. With evidence showing positive results from non-invasive, non-chemical, community-based, and artistically-driven medical remedies, research in science and health supports musicking as a means of improving the quality of our lives.

From research in gamma brain waves and dopamine pathways to studies in bouncing balls and iPod programs, musicking has been shown to produce positive results with not only gait, speech, and memory issues, but also with more serious medical ailments including Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, and fibromyalgia syndrome. Likewise, studies in addiction and mental health have shown that developing social connections through community involvement, group participation, and many other musicking opportunities can have a profound effect on an individual’s ability to manage relationships in today’s society.

Governments are recognizing the benefits of communal creative activity. The United Kingdom, for example, has entered a phase of Social Prescribing recommending that doctors promote arts solutions for ailments such as dementia, psychosis, lung conditions, and mental health issues. Matt Hancock, British Health Secretary, recently spoke about the initiative: “We’ve been fostering a culture that’s popping pills and Prozac, when what we should be doing is more prevention and perspiration. […] Social prescribing can help us combat over-medicalising people.” Recommendations include singing lessons, dance lessons, or simply listening to preferred music playlists.

The British government in 2018 appointed a Minister of Loneliness to address social and health issues caused by social isolation. Similar to stress, extended feelings of loneliness can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, chronic inflammation, and even dementia. Creating programs that promote individual connection through communal activity, including many musicking opportunities, is one of their mandates.

Doctors in Montreal, Canada, are prescribing free (government-funded) tours of Quebec’s Montreal Museum of Fine Arts to address mental health issues. Studies have shown that visits to museums can increase levels of serotonin, a chemical released in the brain that mitigates depression.

The natural release of desirable brain chemicals through prescribed activity is a growing field in music therapy. Dopamine, a “happiness” neurotransmitter, is the chemical released in the brain that is most often associated with pleasure and reward-motivated behaviour, and it is also involved with other functions such as motor control and hormone release. Altered levels of dopamine have been linked to mental health issues, such as schizophrenia, as well as other medical conditions, such as restless legs syndrome and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Researchers at McGill University in Montreal have shown that when subjects are exposed to music they enjoy, levels of dopamine in the brain can increase by nine percent.

Musicking can provide non-invasive, non-chemical, community-based, and artistically-driven medical remedies. Musicking is healthy.

40 Hz Light and Sound

The sweet spot of intra-brain communication is 40 Hz (Gamma waves) and studies have shown that people with certain forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, have decreased brain activity in the 40 Hz area. Research by Professor Lee Bartel et al. has shown that exposure to 40 Hz vibrations can, in as little as six sessions of 30 minutes each, have a significant impact on mental stability, specifically an average gain of 12 per cent on the total Alzheimer’s test.

An interesting article in Scientific American discusses a study that links 40 Hz sound and 40 Hz light to a decrease in the amount of amyloid plaques and tau tangles in mice, both of which are significant markers for Alzheimer’s Disease.

Neuroscientist Dr. Li-Huei Tsai, director at The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, states “This is the first time we’ve seen that this noninvasive stimulation can improve cognitive function. It’s not a drug or an antibody or anything, it’s just light and sound.”

After dissecting “the mice brains afterward, the amount of amyloid plaques and tau tangles in the mice that saw the [40 Hz] light had plummeted. It was the most remarkable thing,” Tsai says. “The light flicker stimulation triggers a tremendous microglia response. These are the brain’s immune cells that clear cell debris and toxic waste including amyloid. They’re impaired in Alzheimer’s disease, but [the light] seems to restore their abilities.”

Classical Improvisation

Musical improvisation today is found extensively in jazz, free form, and rap, but it formerly held a more prominent role during the pre-classical era of music history.

Ernest Ferand states in his book titled Improvisation in Nine Centuries of Western Music that “sections of polyphonic masses were as much subjected to improvisation as opera arias,” and evidence of it is found not only in hymns and dance music, but also in madrigals, chansons, chamber duets, motets, sonatas, sacred concertos, and secular songs. Unfortunately, improvisation became less popular through the eighteenth century, appearing primarily in classical works as free solo cadenzas and in concerts by featured composer-performers.

Authors, such as Derek Bailey, refer to “the petrifying effect of European classical music on improvisation,” calling today’s classical music “formal, precious, self-absorbed, pompous, harbouring rigid conventions and carefully preserved hierarchical distinctions.” From a philosophical perspective, many other authors have joined him in condemning the elitist snobbery that goes hand-in-hand with the reverence for geniuses and timeless masterpieces.

Thomas Turino discusses the presentational-versus-participatory nature of our society today. That is, we tend to do more watching than doing. North American society tends to embrace a Eurocentric view of arts and culture, placing an emphasis on both the quality of
the art and the quality of the performance, which tends to limit enthusiasm for creative participation if the individual feels that he or she is not good enough.

Richard Schechner discusses the tendency of Western culture to separate the entertainment component of performance from the ritual aspect of sharing, again a commentary on the importance of involvement in the arts as not just presentational, but as a communal part of society.

It is possible that a return to our historic roots of improvisation and participation would provide a welcome change to the exclusionary state of the arts in Western society today.

Aesthetic Formalism

It was the philosophical view of what became known as aesthetic formalism by nineteenth and twentieth century authors such as Eduard Hanslick, Guido Adler, and Theodore Adorno, that may have contributed to the demise of musical improvisation in Western society.

Eduard Hanslick (1825-1904) was adamant that the beauty in music should not be conflated with the feelings it awakens. Aesthetic pleasure, he said, is the result of an intellectualized approach to the composer’s and performer’s efforts, and he dismissed the act of improvisation as a “coincidence of creation and performance.” This “uncensored discourse, this reckless abandonment of the self to the grip of a powerful spell” cannot be considered artistic because it is “contentless” and has no theme.

Guido Adler (1855-1941), successor to Hanslick at the University of Vienna and arguably the father of ethnomusicology, was a staunch supporter of the art-as-science model with a strict analytical approach to music that left no room for improvisation in his historical and systematic analysis of musicology.

Theodore Adorno (1903-1969) conflated his contempt for jazz with his view of popular music, which he saw as “pseudo-individualization,” a recurring symptom of the movement toward mass cultural capitalism. He suggests that “even though jazz musicians still improvise in practice, their improvisations have become so ‘normalized’ as to enable a whole terminology to be developed to express the standard devices of individualization.” While respecting what he referred to as actual improvisation, Adorno felt that jazz improvisation fell far short of this standard. Actual improvisation, he says, “would of necessity have to work down into and through the melodic and rhythmic structure itself rather than merely playing, no matter how adventurously, on the surface.”

Adorno died in 1969 and he had dismissed jazz early in his life choosing not to explore the new found improvisational style of bebop. But his views on both classical and jazz improvisation perpetuated the high expectations associated with the act itself.

Improvisation in the post-classical world was no longer a pleasurable experience accessible to the general population but rather a measurable and quantifiable artistic exercise. It is possible that this popular societal view, a component of aesthetic formalism, tended to discourage and impede participatory engagement in not just music, but in all of the arts.