Music as therapy
“When we came home from that last trip, everybody was really exhausted… Usually, at the end of a couple of years of being on the road, you blame the music and the band for all of your problems, so you want to get away from it. And I didn’t want to pick up a guitar. I wasn’t feeling creative, or prolific, or inspired. So I just went back to normal, quiet domestic life. After we finished all of that touring, I went through a really weird depressive phase where I got the beard and I had the pyjamas and I didn’t leave the house for weeks. That was at the point that I realised the music wasn’t the thing that was making my life worse – it was actually the thing that always made my life better.”
— Dave Grohl (1)
As you know, creating and listening to music can be therapeutic. Neuropsychologist Dr Julia Jones says that music, “has exceptional and wide-ranging effects on brain responses and structure. A huge volume of research has demonstrated how music can excite neuronal activity and also change the physical structure of connections between neurons. This makes it a super-tool in terms of its use in regulating brain activity and the resulting emotions and behaviours”.
Music therapist Evan Evans adds that it can be cathartic, “Music can provide a physical and emotional release; whether it’s wallowing in a sorrowful piece of music or dancing euphorically to a song that brings positive memories.”
Creating music can be a therapeutic tool, as music therapist Elen Evans explains: “There’s melody in language and vocal responses. There’s rhythm in our pulse and breathing, which, when focused on, can improve wellbeing. Sometimes conveying an essence, (through music) rather than the specific, (through words) is more meaningful and creates a deeper connection with another person and/or the self. Creating different sounds can provide an opportunity to access and explore different parts of the self that perhaps haven’t been experienced in this way before.”
There are numerous studies proving the therapeutic power of making and listening to music. In his 2015 John Peel lecture, Brian Eno said that “children learn through play, but adults play through art’. (2) He went on to explain that artistic pursuits guide us through life by exposing us, “to the joys and freedoms of a false world in order that we might recognise those and locate them in the real world”. (3) He added that art provides a safe space to have extreme and dangerous feelings (rather than acting them out through behaviour). This chimes with research provided by the University of Queensland, which showed that listening to heavy metal reduced feelings of anger in ‘extreme music listeners’, rather than continuing or enhancing the feelings. As the intensity and arousal of the music reflected and matched the intensity and arousal in the body and mind, it lead to a cathartic release of emotions, followed by a calming effect and improved emotional state. For any metalheads out there thinking, ‘no shit!’ – I know you know, but it’s always nice when science catches up.
Back to touring. Some people can write and record music on the road, but a lot of people find it difficult to reach that reflective headspace. You’ve been immersed in the same tracks, often in the same order, night after night – and, you may return and find yourself in a creative lull. In Box 2, neuropsychologist Julia Jones PhD explains what happens in your brain when you create something new.
How your brain creates something new
by Julia Jones PhD.
“Creativity requires multiple brain circuits, in both left and right hemispheres, to work together. It’s now generally acknowledged that three key networks of neurons are particularly influential in this process of generating original ideas. This activity is clearly evident on brain scans. Unlike some other neural activations (e.g. neurons in our motor cortex instructing a skeletal muscle to contract to move a limb) it’s much more difficult to call upon these creative neuronal networks on demand. As all creatives know, simply going to a studio does not guarantee that creativity will magically materialise. However, there are things we can do to increase the likelihood of achieving this creative brain state.
Firstly, you can get to know the brain networks that influence your creativity. Research suggests that individuals who have stronger functional connectivity between these three key networks below tend to be able to produce highly creative and original ideas.
- Your default mode network connects neurons in multiple brain regions. This network, including the hippocampus (your memory boss), is the key player in mind wandering, recalling past experiences, and imagining future novel experiences.
- Your executive control network or neurons features parts of your frontal lobe responsible for deliberate, focused work. Typically, when the control network is activated, the default network (mind wandering mode) is deactivated. However, studies have shown that creative people are perhaps more able to easily co-activate both networks together.
- Your salience network of neurons determines what stimulus you should focus your attention on. It helps you to feel motivated and switch from internal reflection to engaging with the external world. The salience network acts as a switch, filtering information from multiple regions and assisting in the activation of the default network or control network as appropriate.”
Word to the wise: if you rely on illicit substances to help your mind wander, as described in point one, they may prevent you from gaining the benefits of point three – which is crucial for getting your creative project off the ground. Researchers found that certain strains of cannabis (i.e. ‘skunk’) which were high in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), and low in cannabidiol (CBD) reduced the functional connectivity between your default mode and salience network. (5) This negatively impacts your ability to focus your attention and maintain motivation. Again, no shit – right?
The ideas below from musician coaches Sheryl Garratt and Nick Bottini can help your mind (and brain!) get back into a creative headspace, naturally. (6) (But of course, you don’t need to be in a creative role for them to be of benefit.)
- Re-engage activities you can’t do on the road
“Do something different. Go see an art show, to the theatre. Take a new class. Paint, write, make pots, bake, do some gardening. Go to some talks, listen to some podcasts, or explore a genre of music you’ve never delved into before. Try a new form of exercise. Go for long walks, people-watching; or in nature, taking in the beauty. Meet up with interesting, creative friends (from other fields), and ask them what they’ve been exploring. Get curious, and give yourself full permission to explore for a while. This will more quickly bring you back to your creative self.” (SG)
Troy Jamerson (Pharoahe Monch) found that collecting Marvel action figures became a source of strength, “it really centred me in those inner stories of the characters that I would go back to and kind of create. It would allow me to look around in the quiet space and begin to write from there and create from that space.” (7)
- Be playful, curious, and non-judgmental
“Art is rarely created in a void. It comes from having a life, from making new connections between old ideas. If you need to start making new music again, allow time for play and exploration first. You’ll find it much easier to access your creativity when you need it.” (8) (SG).
- Loosen perfectionism
“There’s a pervasive idea that you need to be in the ‘perfect’ inspired frame of mind to be creatively effective and, even then, only certain ideas are valid. In practice, however, it just doesn’t seem to work that way—certainly not in the earliest stages of song writing or composing. The fewer rules, expectations and criteria you create for yourself the easier it will be to get started, and to keep yourself immersed in (and enjoying) the creative process. The very fact that you can have a psychological experience of the world means that you have an innate ability to imagine and create. The issue isn’t that creativity has stopped, it’s that it’s being used against itself.” (NB)
- Be accepting
“What ultimately appears to be foundational in overcoming ‘writers block’ is (self-) acceptance. As you learn to notice and welcome all thoughts, feelings and perceptions that may arise, the experience shifts from a pass-or-fail frame back to one of child-like curiosity, wonder and play”.(NB)
- Identify your inner critic (9)
“Learn to distinguish the critical voice(s) in your head from that much quieter voice underneath that is your true guide (or authentic self). This takes time and practice. Our doubts and fears tend to be harsh, loud and cruel, berating you in a way you’d be ashamed to talk to others. And they often speak in absolutes: You always mess up. You’ve never been able to write. Everyone thinks you’re a loser. They’re all laughing at you. Your inner guide will be quieter, warmer, kinder, and more encouraging even when it’s advising that improvements are needed: “This isn’t quite there yet. How about trying something different in the bridge?” Try thanking your inner critic for trying to keep you safe, but tell them you’ve got this. Or write down everything the hostile voices say, then examine whether they’re really making sense. Do you always mess up? Doubtful, since you’ve just finished a tour. Have you ever been able to write? Most likely. Are there any people who believe in you and don’t think you’re a loser?” (10) (SG)
- Embrace messiness
“Ed Sheeran famously spoke of the creative process being like turning on a dirty tap that just needs to be allowed to run dirty water for some time before the clean water finally flows. There’s certainly something to be said for embracing the initial messiness and trusting the creative process itself to come up with the goods in the long run.” (NB)
I’d also add: focus on the process, not the outcome. Focusing too keenly on the end result can get in the way of ideas freely flowing. Try not to think about pleasing your audience, A&Rs, managers, or even the people you’re working with in the studio – it can get in the way of your ideas taking shape. As Keith Jarrett says, you’ve got to let go, “if I do not surrender to it, nothing happens”. (11)
Returning to the studio
Studio engineer Dom Morley (Amy Winehouse, Adele, The Verve) says it’s not unusual for artists to go straight from a tour to the studio. “The longer the tour the more common it is,” he says. “There will be a need for a new release after such a long promotional period, and you’ll be in a really strong position to get new material to a swelling fanbase.”
Below are tips from Dom on returning to writing and recording. (12)
- Be playful
“You’ve probably been bashing out the same songs night after night and it’s started to feel a bit like a job at times. The repetition can be creatively draining, and you need a reset. Get together as a band and play covers like you’re teenagers in your dad’s garage.” (13)
- Take it easy
“This is not the time to be putting in long hours. You’ll be used to working in the evening, so carry on with that as long as you still feel productive at that time of day – but if you are finishing late then start late. See as much daylight as you can. Obviously, this is easier at certain times of year, but get outside and get some sunlight on you!” (14)
“There’s a book called ‘Daily Rituals’ by Mason Currey which gives some fascinating accounts of the creative processes of famous writers, painters, composers etc. What I find remarkable is the number who included a daily walk in their schedule. Often quite a long one, for an hour or more, and almost always after lunch. There are digestive benefits to a post-prandial wander, but it also reduces stress levels and helps you sleep – all of which helps your mindset when you hit the studio. It’s a great opportunity to mull over the songs that you’re working on or lyric ideas without distraction or interruption. Top tip: silence your phone or leave it at home while you’re walking.”
“This is a huge part of many artists’ creative process, so it’s definitely worth incorporating into yours – particularly if you’re worn out and feeling uninspired. As Picasso famously said: ‘Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.’ I know from personal experience that some of the world’s biggest bands and artists don’t step into a studio and produce genius with every strike of a chord or beat of a drum. But they do find it eventually, and they have a work ethic that keeps them at it until the good stuff comes. Sometimes it just means coming back the next day and starting again, but it’s doing that with no loss of enthusiasm for the process that separates the good from the great.”
- Try every idea
“When you’re in a positive, creative state of mind you know this already. You try every suggestion as it’s only in the execution that you find out if something is really working or not. When you’re tired you can get irritable and impatient, and a lack of energy can make you more reluctant to try something that on the surface seems like a non-starter (to you, anyway). Set out a rule early on that every suggestion must be tried, no matter how crazy, and be patient with the process. That’s the only way to get to the gold.”.
- Engage with something greater than yourself
“Absorb as many different art forms as possible – anything that inspires you. Art galleries, books, film, and of course, music. While you are engrossed in a project it is easy to forget to enjoy other art and artists as you would normally do. This is your fuel – don’t underestimate its importance.”
Dom’s last point speaks of ‘positive awe’. Research by the Greater Good Science Centre (UCB) found that experiences of positive awe promoted psychological resilience, alongside numerous other benefits. These include:
- Increased pro-social behavior (e.g., kindness, generosity).
- Improved mood and feelings of well-being.
- Increased sense of connection to others.
- Increased life satisfaction.
- Increased transformative experiences.
As Katie Melua explains, “music is the greatest healer and has the capability of reducing anxiety, reducing stress. It seems to have a very strong effect on me, where I just feel so at home making music. I am filled with awe and wonder when I look at musicians around me working and creating what they create.” ‘Positive awe’ can be experienced through:
- Art and Beauty
- Music, Dance, Poetry, Literature (“Collective Effervescence”)
- Acts of Moral Goodness and Courage
- Transcendent/ Mystical Experiences
- Life and Death (17)
Producer Mike Exeter (Black Sabbath, Judas Priest) offered some advice for getting the most out of working with a producer. (18)
- Connect with your producer ahead of time
Have a face-to-face conversation with your producer early on in a chilled space (maybe your home, garden, or music room). Once you get to the recording stage – it can’t be stressed enough how important the environment is to the creative process and how it can make or break a creative session.
- Use the tour as inspiration
Your touring experiences may have exposed you to different cultures, life-affirming experiences and novel ideas – all of which can be a source of inspiration for you in the studio. Talk to your producer about the amazing things you’ve witnessed and places you have visited. Figure out what you have learnt about yourself and the world along the way.
- Remember where you started
It is vitally important to remember that your fans connected with the music with ZERO prejudice in the first place. It was your inner creative soul that produced the amazing music before the fans made it their own.
- Reconnect with your reason for writing and performing.
Talk about your roots and influences. Revisit your old records to get a boost in feelings of worth. Explore your old demos and ideas – free of judgement – to take the pressure off. Many times artists dismiss or even forget about old material because it maybe doesn’t fit with what external feedback has said, but it could be the essence of who that person is and a catalyst for creating some wonderful new songs. (20)
- Keep Influencers at bay
In the creative ‘inner sanctum’ of writing and recording it’s important to establish the role of management and other band members. Keep the influencers at bay (however well meaning) before you have some nuggets to play to them. This will allow the free exchange of ideas in the early stages and bring more confidence. You need to feel that you can still ‘do it’.
- Chat freely to break deadlocks and roadblocks. A band may need to be reintegrated after spending a lot of time on the road together ‘drifting apart’. As soon as the main creative has juices flowing it should be encouraged (but not insisted upon) to get the others in to instil a feeling of belonging and collaboration. Most established bands made their debut records having formed a tight unit and working those ideas and performances out in rehearsal rooms and horrendous gigs – remember this is what the fans ‘bought into’ in the first place. That is the authentic ‘real’ artist. Keep things light and un-pressured for as long as possible. Once the first few ideas and songs start to flow then the rest becomes easy (relatively!)
1) Carter, E., 2017. Foo fighters: How Dave Grohl got his groove back. Kerrang! Available at: https://www.kerrang.com/foo-fighters-how-dave-grohl-got-his-groove-back [Accessed January 16, 2022].
2) BBC.co.uk. 2015. BBC Radio 6 Music – The John Peel Lecture, Brian Eno’s BBC Music John Peel Lecture 2015. [online] Available at: <https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p033smwp> [Accessed 31 January 2021].
3) Can you tell I’m a massive Brian Eno fan?
4) Sharman, L. and Dingle, G., 2015. Extreme Metal Music and Anger Processing. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9.
5) Wall, M.B. et al., 2019. Dissociable effects of cannabis with and without cannabidiol on the human brain’s resting-state functional connectivity. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 33(7), pp.822–830.
6) Tamsin Embleton interview with Sheryl Garratt, 19th October 2021, and Nick Bottini, 30th July 2021.
7) Tamsin Embleton interview with Troy Jamerson (Pharoahe Monch), 18th August 2021.
8) “If your idea of fun right now is making Lego houses with (or even without) your six-year-old, why not? If you decide to try your hand at watercolours or tai chi and you make a runny mess or you fall over, that’s the whole point. Play is messy. It’s meant to be silly.” (SG)
9) Identifying different internal parts is a self-awareness strategy from Richard Schwartz’s popular internal family systems model. Becoming more curious and mindful of parts inside, such as your inner critic, can help you to learn why it’s there and how it functions. Schwartz suggests asking that part of you what it’s there to do. You will likely discover it is trying to protect you from humiliation or motivate you to do better (though it often does the opposite as it shames and criticises you in the process). Your inner critic was born out of difficult experiences that may need to be understood and healed.
10) Schwartz, R.C. & Sweezy, M., 2020. Internal Family Systems therapy, New York: The Guilford Press.
11) Lange, A., 1984. The Keith Jarrett Interview. DownBeat // ECM // Keith Jarrett. Available at: https://downbeat.com/microsites/ecm-jarrett/post_2-jarrectt-interview.html?fbclid=IwAR2uX4jpQFBF04lVhoCfwzVFaIp-Cs1MT4xH6jCTCw3Sw-P6E4DkeHcb_cg [Accessed January 16, 2022].
12) Tamsin Embleton interview with Dom Morley, 23rd December 2020.
13) Maisel, E. & Raeburn, S., 2008. Creative recovery: A complete addiction treatment program that uses your natural creativity, Boston, MA: Trumpeter.
14) What Dom says here correlates with what psychotherapists Susan Raeburn PhD and Eric Maisel PhD’s suggestion of finding an appropriately sized project for those newly in recovery. In their book Creative Recovery they advise to start small and build. Don’t get too grandiose to begin with.
15) Currey, M., 2018. Daily Rituals, London: Macmillan.
16) Katie Melua interview, 26th October 2020.
17) Raeburn, S., 2021. Promoting Performer Resilience through Connection and Positive Awe.
18) Tamsin Embleton interview with Mike Exeter, 7th January 2021.
19) The self-help author and spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle says that “the modalities of awakened doing are acceptance, enjoyment, and enthusiasm. Each one represents a certain vibrational frequency of consciousness. You need to be vigilant to make sure that one of them operates whenever you are engaged in doing anything at all – from the most simple task to the complex” (2006, p.178)
20) Tolle, E., 2006. In Awakening to your life’s purpose. Penguin, pp. 177–178.