Singing Workshops for Wellbeing

At the end of this month, I will be launching a series of workshops for students, in collaboration with the Counselling and Psychological Wellbeing Service at the University of Sheffield. Details about the first sessions are available here

Wellbeing Flyer



If You Can Talk You Can Sing

Many people have heard of the Zimbabwean proverb: “If you can walk, you can dance; if you can talk, you can sing”. But is it true? Well, I’m no expert on the first half of that proverb, but there is some evidence that the second half is true.

At the recent Sounds Human Conference at Leeds College of Music, we were treated to a very moving demonstration of the close relationship between speech and song. John McHugh presented his composition, Hidden Voice, a multimedia piece based on interviews with people with dementia, their families and carers.

In his programme notes, John notes that the project ‘gives voice to people living with dementia though the beautiful melodies of their speech’.  By recording and repeating phrases from the interviews, the inherent melodic features of the conversations were revealed. Some of the most striking phrases were transformed into hypnotic musical passages, which were the inspiration for the sensitively composed instrumental accompaniment. The innate musicality of everyday speech was clearly exposed and the interviewees were an integral part of the composition process, providing the lyrics and tonal patterns for the main themes.

Audio-visual extracts from the interviews are a key feature of the performance, so this process has enabled all the participants to leave a lasting and impactful musical legacy, regardless of whether or not they would have regarded themselves as ‘musical’ in any way. An example of some of the music is in the link below. This is emotionally very powerful, so make sure you have some tissues handy!

One of the main reasons that this composition was possible is due to the existence of prosody. This is the melodic and rhythmic content of spoken language, which includes variations in pitch, length of syllables and the spaces between them, and the amount of emphasis placed on particular syllables. The ‘speech to song illusion’, as exemplified in John McHugh’s composition, was first illustrated by the Music Psychologist, Diana Deutsch. When polishing her own recorded commentary for a CD on Musical Illusions and Paradoxes, she noticed that, after a number of repetitions, the spoken phrases started to sound like singing. This is demonstrated in the following video, in which the audience response is a joy:

This strikingly demonstrates the strong relationships between speech and music, and I hope that it will be encouraging for anyone who thinks that they are not musical. We all have musical capabilities, and we demonstrate this every day in the rhythms and tonal variations in our speech. The difference between a ‘singer’ and a ‘non-singer’ is not as great as might be imagined, and most of us have the capacity to develop our natural vocal skills – even if some of us might need a little more help than others! In over 35 years of teaching singing, I have never encountered anyone who cannot improve their singing once they have had some training.

Admittedly, there is a very small minority of individuals who may genuinely struggle to develop these skills. These people may have a very rare condition, known as ‘congenital amusia’. This is so rare that it can be challenging to find sufficient participants for research projects on the subject, so if you really have ‘amusia’ you are very special indeed! Estimates of the prevalence of ‘amusia’ vary from 1.5% to 5% of the population, depending on the diagnostic methods and definition of the condition. This is somewhat similar to the varying estimates of the proportion of people who are transgendered, again depending on the definition of the term. I have definitely worked with the voices of far more transgendered people than individuals who are undoubtedly ‘tone deaf’.

As a little inspiration for reluctant or less confident singers, here are two musical arrangements of the words of the Zimbabwean proverb. The unaccompanied arrangement is by Linda Hirschhorn, and the composition with a piano accompaniment is by Elizabeth Alexander. Both versions are great fun, so I hope they get you singing loud and proud!

Further Resources:

Deutsch, D. Musical Illusions and Paradoxes, 1995, La Jolla: Philomel Records

Deutsch, D., Lapidis, R., and Henthorn, T. The speech-to-song illusion. Invited Lay language paper presented at the 156th meeting of the Acoustical Society of America. Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 2008, November, Miami.[Laylanguage version]

Peretz, I. (2013). The biological foundations of music: insights from congenital amusia. In The Psychology of Music (Third Edition) (pp. 551-564).

Welcome to Music for Wellbeing

A warm welcome to my new blog linking music making with music psychology, health and wellbeing.

This blog is intended to be helpful to anyone who is interested in the processes and practicalities of teaching, learning and performing music. It is partly inspired by my own experience of enjoying musical performance, developing practical musicianship, and adopting a broad spectrum of teaching strategies. It is also partly led by my interest in the real-world applications of the psychology of music, and using music-making to enhance physical, psychological and social wellbeing.

Music psychology is a relatively new discipline, which began to gain prominence towards the middle of the last century. The first well-known writer on this subject was Carl Seashore, who published his book (simply entitled Psychology of Music) in 1938. Since then, there has been a rapidly growing number of researchers in this field, and an ever-increasing potential for applying our findings in real-life music-making.

Whenever I mention music psychology, someone usually expresses surprise that such a thing exists, and they immediately want to know what on earth it could be.  The most straightforward answer is that music psychology helps us to study musical behaviour and experiences. It helps us to explore the connections between what is going on inside our heads and what is happening in the music when we are participating in musical activities, whether as a listener, audience member, learner or performer.

The areas covered by music psychology include musical development, which explores the origins of human musicality and how we acquire musical skills; music in everyday life, which examines how we use music to influence our mood and environment; and performance psychology, which investigates phenomena such as music performance anxiety or ‘stage fright’.

There is also a burgeoning interest in the related field of music and wellbeing. Virtually every month there is new research-based evidence demonstrating the effects of musical participation upon physical, psychological and social wellbeing.  In this blog, I will highlight some of the research into music psychology, and music and wellbeing; to record some of my own relevant experiences; and to suggest some practical applications of the emerging body of literature in this area.

I hope that anyone who happens to read this blog will find some useful information, some thought-provoking anecdotes, and some helpful ideas about teaching, learning and making music. Enjoy!