Music as therapy is a powerful force that can transform lives

Music is fun. But if given the opportunity to be used as a means of therapy, be it in healthcare or in prisons, it can improve how society functions too

What’s the first image that comes to mind when you think about music? Perhaps it’s teenagers listening to pop through tinny speakers on a mobile phone, crowds swaying at a festival or Prommers queueing round the Royal Albert Hall. It could be a picture of someone playing records, tapes, CDs or tapping a laptop. If you’re lucky, you might have fond memories of your own music lessons – and possibly less fond recollections of scales practice. You may attribute a particular artist to past events. Some couples have a song that’s “theirs”; others find solace in a break-up soundtrack. For many, auditory stimulation evokes a rainbow of emotions, and the creative process involved in writing and performing music makes it a powerful outlet.

Music therapy is a well-established psychological clinical intervention delivered by specially trained therapists, to support people who are suffering from illness or disability

For this reason, among others, music has been shown to have therapeutic benefits. (Therapeutic in the clinical sense, not dancing on a table to Taylor Swift – although that can be good for wellbeing too.) Music therapy is a well-established psychological clinical intervention, which is delivered by specially trained therapists (registered with the Health and Care Professions Council), to support people who are suffering from illness or disability. While this strand of care is globally recognised, it doesn’t always get the support it deserves. This is counter-productive, when we consider that sensible investment could significantly reduce impact on overstretched health systems.

The UK’s national Arts in Health Conference and Showcase aims to change this by raising awareness of the arts in mainstream healthcare initiatives. The second instalment of the conference takes place on April 19 at Guildhall School of Music & Drama, held in association with that conservatoire and the College of Medicine. Speakers include dancer, presenter and arts advocate Darcey Bussell. The day-long event will also feature music involving home care residents. If you work in health, attendance is worth considering – “cost-effectiveness perspectives” are promised, if senior execs need persuading.

Another area where music is being used with strategic purpose is the prison sector. Despite tabloid depictions of inmates serving their sentences glued to PlayStations, for the majority of prisoners, life behind bars is tough. Incarceration is frequently the culmination of extended periods of abuse, illness, homelessness and lack of support networks. Music workshops – delivered by organisations such as the Irene Taylor Trust (ITT) – are used to help engage with prisoners. And far from being a soft option, research has recognised the long-term positive impact of such work: the skills developed through ITT projects have been shown to help people with negative experiences of formal education to engage in further training opportunities, thus reducing the likelihood of reoffending.

This work has recently been shared internationally. Sara Lee, ITT’s inspiring artistic director, has taken the charity’s workshops stateside, working with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Civic Orchestra musicians to deliver projects with young men in detention. One of the recipients is the Illinois Youth Centre, where 15 to 18-year-olds will be encouraged to write and perform new music.

Music is fun – but, if given the opportunity, it can improve how society functions too.