How Music Can Change Your Life ... and the World: A Massive Open Online Course (MOOC)

By Katrina McFerran

As regular readers of this journal will know, VOICES was the first online, open-access journal to publish refereed articles and other papers about music, health and wellbeing. Since being established in 2001 it has published articles by authors from more than 35 countries around the world, and described practices of music and health in more than 58 countries via the Country of the Month series. This diversity of authorship is intentional, both in geography and in representing different disciplines. So is the free access. All are in keeping with VOICES commitment to social justice, to equity of opportunity and to inclusivity. This represents our vision for the journal, and is also a point of difference between this forum for publishing and most other academic journals on music, health and wellbeing.

This special edition of VOICES is dedicated to the publication of position papers that support another open access online forum – the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). It is available via the Coursera platform. MOOCs have a similar vision to VOICES, designed to make the best quality information available to the widest possible audience around the globe. The first MOOC was launched in 2011 by Stanford University and statistics suggest that increasing numbers of people are participating in MOOCs worldwide, on topics from Music to History to Technology and Business.

The MOOC that is connected to this Special Edition of VOICES has been created by the music therapy team at The University of Melbourne on the topic of "How Music Can Change Your Life, and the World." Most people have their own beliefs about why music might be a good basis for therapeutic work, but these ideas are often limited to one or two different ways. Instead of presenting a singular view about how music can lead to change, the purpose of the MOOC is to present at least six different ways of understanding how music works. In Australia, we pride ourselves on offering music therapy training that encompasses a very broad range of perspectives with a "southern view" of how the profession is practiced in Europe, the USA, Asia, South America, the UK, as well as in South Africa and our nearby neighbours, New Zealand. We feel that our unique position "down under" allows us to see a fuller landscape of theories and practices and to consider which approach might suit in each unique situation. Our geographic distance also generates a desire for global connectedness that is represented in the MOOC through the inclusion of expert perspectives from a range of continents. Multiple voices can be heard representing diverse and sometimes contradictory perspectives through interviews, podcasts, on-location footage as well as the position papers presented here in VOICES. The eclectic and varied opinions that are presented in this MOOC are also in keeping with the vision of VOICES, and a determination to transcend the idea that there is one, single way of knowing. When it comes to something as complex as music, people and change, there are multiple and many ways to understand what might be happening.

In addition to geographic diversity, the MOOC also offers interdisciplinary perspectives on the topic of How Music Can Change Your Life. Although drawing heavily on music therapy theory, research and practice, there are also ethnomusicologists, music educators, indigenous artists, music psychologists and music sociologists amongst our expert commentators. The music therapy contributors have also drawn upon a wide range of theoretical perspectives to explain their positions, from neuroscience to psychology, and from psychotherapy to community development. The result is a rich palette of opinion, ideas, beliefs, practices and values shared by contributors (see Table 1 for details of contributors).

Table 1. List of contributors to the MOOC.
Unit How can music.. VOICES Articles Podcasts Interviews
1 influence the body? Imogen Clark& Jeanette Tamplin
Julian O’Kelly
Wendy Magee Patsy Tan
2 motivate the mind? Susan Hallam
Alex Crooke
Daphne Rickson Gary McPherson
3 reflect the psyche? Jinah Kim
Laura Medcalf
Randi Rolvsjord Benedikte Scheiby
4 foster intimacy? Helen Shoemark
Elizabeth McLean
Mercedes Pavlicevic Stephen Malloch
5 enhance connectedness? Elizabeth Scrine
Megan Steele
Andeline dos Santos Gary Ansdell
6 express culture? Carolyn Kenny
Sally Treloyn
Seung-A Kim Richard Frankland

How Can Music Influence the Body?

For Unit 1, we have a position paper available on VOICES that provides an overview on how music has been used in physical rehabilitation (Imogen Clark and Jeanette Tamplin, AUS). There is also an article on findings from neuroscience about music and changes in the brain (Julian O’Kelly, UK). Wendy Magee (USA) then provides a further summary of the research and theory from neuroscience in her podcast about music and the brain, whilst Patsy Tan describes her work in a rehabilitation hospital in Singapore. Tan reflects on how she carefully tailors her use of music to the interests, needs and abilities of each individual patient she meets, and this is reflected in the on-location footage from a rehabilitation hospital in Australia where Tamplin works.

How Can Music Motivate the Mind?

For Unit 2, Susan Hallam provides a summary of her meta-analyses on research about the power of music, with particular emphasis on cognitive and academic improvements. The second position paper on VOICES then offers a critique of research about music in schools by Alex Crooke, a social scientist from Australia who has been interested in how researchers construct their ideas and evidence about intrinsic and extrinsic benefits from music participation. In his interview, Gary McPherson (AUS) reflects on what makes music exciting for children and explains what his research has shown about the importance of playful practising in the early years. Daphne Rickson (NZ) also describes the benefits of music participation in schools, focusing on the rights of all children to be able to access music and the musical, interpersonal and wellbeing benefits that it can afford. This is clearly visible in the on-location footage of a joy filled arts program (The Song Room) run in Australian primary schools by teaching artists in collaboration with classroom teachers.

How Can Music Reflect the Psyche?

In Unit 3 we move more firmly into the arena of mental health. In her position paper for VOICES, Jinah Kim (Korea) provides an overview of the different theories that have influenced music therapy thinking about using music in ways that acknowledges the power of the unconscious. Laura Medcalf (AUS) then writes about how intimate such musical encounters can be, and contemplates whether the psychotherapeutic notion of boundaries is sufficient when we make music with others for personal growth and development. Randi Rolvsjord (NOR) provides a more extensive critique of conventional psychodynamic thinking, questioning many of the assumptions about how music works in psychotherapy and advocating for the right of clients to draw on their own musical resources as a part of therapy. Benedikte Scheiby (DEN/USA) then describes the tradition of music psychotherapy as it developed from the thinking of Freud through the work of Mary Priestley in Europe and the UK. A group of music therapy students in Australia have also provided video material illustrating how psychodynamic thinking is used in therapy group work to process emotions and relationship issues during their training.

How Can Music Foster Intimacy?

Unit 4 continues to emphasise the intimate context of shared music making using the framework of communicative musicality. Helen Shoemark (AUS/USA) provides a position paper for VOICES that describes the fundamentals of this theoretical framework and how it emerged through studies of musical mother-infant encounters. Elizabeth McLean (AUS) then emphasises parental perspectives, drawing on her work and research as a music therapist with parents and premature babies on a neonatal unit. The co-creator of communicative musicality theory, Stephen Malloch (AUS), then provides more insights into the research behind his work with Colwyn Trevarthen and describes how he now offers authentic experiences of being heard and reflected as part of his current practice as a therapist. This is further developed in Mercedes Pavlicevic’s (UK) podcast about the particular affordances of music and the ways that music therapists use improvisation with clients to achieve deep levels of musical connectedness. The on-location footage for this unit is of an Italian mother and her baby as they sing, hum, play, pat, laugh, sleep and cry in ways that express their musicality and their growing relationship to one another.

How Can Music Enhance Connectedness?

Unit 5 is then moves away from music and individuals to consider the ways that music can be used to promote community building. Megan Steele (AUS) provides an overview of community music therapy theory in her position paper of VOICES and Gary Ansdell (UK) describes his research and practice as one of the original writers in the community music therapy discourse, along with Mercedes Pavlicevic and Brynjulf Stige. He describes the importance of following where music and people lead, a notion that is clearly represented in the on-location footage of a rock band in Norway. This group of men met and worked with a music therapist whilst in prison, and now continue to play together after being released, including the music therapist. Andeline dos Santos offers a powerful and critical perspective in her podcast, based on her experiences of living and working with young people in South Africa. She emphasises the importance of true collaboration and partnership when working with communities rather than in communities, particularly highlighting how many people from the dominant culture might unintentionally adopt a charitable attitude when trying to help with music, rather than offering solidarity that requires input and participation from both sides. Elizabeth Scrine (AUS) is similarly critical about the ways that people might use music in her position paper on VOICES. She focuses on the ways that people may unintentionally reinforce oppressive stereotypes since many forms of music are strongly gendered. This leads nicely into the consideration of music and culture, particularly the acknowledgement of how one race might appropriate the musical cultures of another without sharing the benefits of that appropriation, as powerfully described by Jesse Williams at the BEST awards in America during June this year.

How Can Music Express Culture?

Unit 6 then goes further, exploring different perspectives on the ways that music can express culture. An extraordinary interview with Richard Frankland delivers a tale of how music has been a way of expressing his own individual journey as well as the story of his people. He describes the plight of indigenous Australians and how music can lead to change in the world. Carolyn Kenny (USA) also draws on her indigenous heritage to share stories about the relationship between music and culture, as it is understood by ancient cultures, through her position paper on VOICES. On the other side of the same country, Kim (USA/Korea) provides another perspective, reflecting on her use of music in culturally diverse music therapy groups and providing provocative examples of why music does and doesn’t sound familiar. Sally Treloyn (AUS) takes us from the multicultural to the intercultural study of music in her position paper, emphasising the importance of reflexivity, particularly when considering who should investigate music cultures, and how. She shares insights from her partnerships with people from the oldest living population on the planet, Indigenous Australians.

Although these six units provide a wealth of perspectives on the ways music can lead to personal, interpersonal, community and global change, many other topics could have been included, such as music and emotions, or music, death and dying. However, these six seemed most likely to connect with different types of MOOC learners and VOICES readers who might be interested in understanding how music can be used for change. In my experience as a lecturer and public speaker these are the topics that have been most consistently requested by particular groups.

Another interesting dimension to the six perspectives is that they often suggest different forms of research to determine whether the uses of music have been helpful. Determining whether using music is more likely to improve your fitness than other strategies requires a different type of investigation to understanding whether music use has gone any way towards emancipating people who have been oppressed. Along with the methodologies most often used in different fields, professionals often adopt the belief system that is congruent with these strategies, or indeed, may have become interested in a field because the preferred methodologies match their beliefs about knowledge. For example, those who find proving generalisable facts more convincing than conveying individual stories are expressing a preference for objective evidence over subjective experiences.

For the purposes of this series, it may be useful to recognise that different worldviews often dominate particular contexts of practice, and that these worldviews often suggest beliefs about what kind of knowledge is most important and what ways that kind of knowledge should be investigated. For example, in educational contexts where learning is the focus, research is often expected to measure observable differences between one approach and another. The fact that each individual may learn differently is accepted to some degree, but the system requires progressive, developmental achievements and research often aims to provide evidence about what strategies are most likely to be of benefit. In contrast, many professionals in the field of psychotherapy seek to understand the individual’s unique story and to consider an array of disguised and unconscious dynamics that may be influencing her/his mental health. Case studies have therefore been a popular method of increasing understanding in this field because one therapist’s interpretation of a particular client’s journey may inspire other therapists to be aware of new possibilities. These contrasting preferences illustrate why there is not one way of investigating whether music has been used to support changes, but rather, there are many possibilities.

Although particular worldviews might dominate a field, this does not suggest that all people subscribe to that position, or that other forms of research have not been conducted. Table 2 provides a matrix that highlights what I understand to be the dominant form of knowledge preferred in different contexts, and how these correspond to the six topics covered by the MOOC. I suggest that people in medical contexts who are interested in how music might be used to influence the body are likely to prefer objective evidence from controlled trials. Artists and advocates working with people from diverse cultures might be more inclined to seek demonstrations of justice and equity for the persons involved. The purpose of the matrix is to tangibly illustrate the diverse possibilities that exist and not to suggest that only one form of knowledge is acceptable in each field, or for each topic. For example, there is a large body of action research in the field of education where the preferred output from knowledge generation is changes in practice, which will most likely occur if community members have been actively engaged. Although the matrix suggests that participatory research is preferred in community and development contexts (through community members being actively engaged), this does not mean that it is limited to this field.

Different ways of understanding whether uses of music have been helpful
Table 2: Different ways of understanding whether uses of music have been helpful
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Both the diversity and the dominance of particular worldviews are intentionally demonstrated in the articles solicited for this special edition of VOICES. In Unit 1, O’Kelly’s position paper is firmly rooted in neuroscience, where research is just emerging with the advent of new technologies and therefore understandings about the application of music for change are being newly theorised. In contrast, Clark and Tamplin have adopted a traditional medical view and quote findings from trials that carefully compare two groups of people who have been randomly assigned to different interventions in order to determine whether music was more helpful than the control condition. In Unit 2, Hallam’s paper provides a meta-synthesis of objective evidence gathered from studies where there were measurable improvements. Crooke then critiques the same evidence, highlighting a number of reasons this kind of research may be unhelpful in his paper. In Unit 3, Kim has chosen to use case illustrations to validate the theory she presents rather than quoting rigorous studies, although a number of objective studies have been conducted in the field. In Unit 4, Shoemark’s paper describes the basic research that has been conducted by carefully observing and documenting the musical ways that mothers and infants interact. McLean then explains how this knowledge is applied in a hospital context and uses research interviews with a father of a premature son, and a mother of premature twins to authenticate her points. In Unit 5, context-sensitive forms of research are suggested by Steele’s overview, where she describes academic texts that rely on reflexive reporting about work in and with particular community groups to generate knowledge. Scrine’s paper then offers a critical perspective on any research that assumes music will always have a positive influence, given that music can also reinforce stereotypes and underpin oppression of non-dominant groups. This leads into Unit 6, where both position papers draw heavily on tales of music uses within indigenous cultures, with Kenny particularly focusing on Native Americans. Treloyn describes how her applied ethnographic research has focused on the repatriating musics of different aboriginal communities in Australia. She emphasises the perspectives of her collaborators by sharing how they have described why engaging in this form of research has gone some way towards bringing traditional music back to their community.

Although it is possible to separate ways of understanding how music can be used to bring about positive changes, it is also interesting to contemplate what possibilities can be perceived if a more integrated perspective is adopted. Many writers, researchers and practitioners align with a particular way of understanding, others advocate for an inclusive approach where one is not privileged over the other. Music therapists do this regularly when they work with people using music in a range of contexts. In my experience, there are times where unconscious dynamics seem to be at play, whether I am working in a school, a hospital, or a community program. In those moments I will try to focus on those dynamics and draw on our therapeutic relationship as a framework for supporting the exploration. If I am working in mental health, the client and I might do this very actively and consciously, perhaps using a method such as improvisation. But if I am working in a school I might gently suggest what I have noticed and ask whether it would be helpful to explore if further by writing some lyrics for a song to express something about the issue that has come up. In either case, it will the people I am musicking with that will decide how far they are willing to go, and what insights will be generated. If I meet someone in the community or in rehabilitation who wants to improve some aspect of their physical functioning, such as reducing their pain following treatment or surgery, I will likely offer more practical suggestions about how music may help. We will consider how the motivating power of rhythm could be utilised in our musicking together, and although there may be emotional material to process, I will prioritise the physical goals that this person has nominated as important, unless they suggest otherwise. Trained music therapists often move between the different perspectives in this way, directed by the people we meet and the needs and desires they have. At the same time, we acknowledge that the people we meet are responding to what we are perceived to offer. Music can provide mutually empowering conditions in this way, since sharing music is an interpersonal experience that can allow opportunities for freedom and control if all parties are willing.

However music is not always helpful. It does not work like a drug and it cannot be reliably prescribed to fix a problem. It is a complex phenomenon and that complexity is shared between two or more persons, each of whom contributes their own strengths and limitations. My own research with teenagers has shown that there are times when music can be used to make ourselves feel better, but we might end up feeling worse. There are also times when we rely on music to do something to us, but fail to recognise that music requires our impetus to lead to change. Like any kind of growth and development, it cannot happen without our effort as individuals, groups and communities. This has been powerfully described in our final two units, where expert commentators remind us about how music has been used to oppress and to stereotype, as well as to share love and peace.

When music therapists train to work professionally using music to bring about change, they spend several years in intensive learning at the university level. This involves in-depth exploration of the topics touched upon here, as well as practical experiences that are supervised by professionals who are already working as music therapists. The MOOC attached to this Special Edition of VOICES does not attempt to replace that training. It is in no way sufficient for that task. Instead, the MOOC offers some insights into some of the things that experts in music studies, and particularly music therapy, have learned. Knowledge changes over time and across borders, so this is a temporary view. But it is a rich one, and there is much to learn and grow excited about in the position papers in VOICES and the associated material in the MOOC. Indeed, since music is a public resource that is widely available and used by many people, sharing the knowledge from music studies may be useful to support ways that people are already including music in their own personal development and in their work with others.

I welcome you to explore the theory, the research, the practice, and to attempt the weekly learning tasks in the MOOC where you have the opportunity to explore these changes for yourself. These pages contain the beginnings of what could be a life long journey if you choose it. In my experience, it is a life well lived when it involves sharing music with others in a mutually empowering way.