The Research

Time, Place, Between: Music is not just ‘songs’ or ‘instruments’, or how well you sing in tune. It is not only sounds you might happen to love (or hate). Music is a way of being together, a way of communicating – or perhaps communing. Researchers have shown how all of us are born with basic capacities for being ‘musical’. From the moment an infant and carer engage in rhythmic ‘goo goo/gah gah’ interaction (the syllables vary across cultures but the entrained, togetherness of sound seems to be universal) we should speak of people being ‘musical’ – and look at what happens to us – emotionally, socially – when we are being musical together.

If being musical together helps us at the beginning of life – before words – it can also help after words have left us (through dementia, or general frailty). What matters throughout the whole of life are the unique experiences music brings through its motions and emotions; the associations it makes to our past; the way it organises us individually and in community. 

This is where we begin this project – exploring musical processes in fine-grained detail (while taking great ‘care’ not to intrude – part of the challenge is to find what we have described elsewhere as ‘gentle’ methods and to do so ethically, properly, and in ways that respect, and learn with and from, our research participants). We’re interested in how music ‘works’ in ‘scenes of care’ when facilitated, coaxed, supported and enhanced by ‘careful’ techniques of musical support by music therapists and community musicians.

How music helps in difficult situations can be vital to quality of life near the end. We know how music can quicken the senses, allow people to connect, and be expressive, when other modalities are out of reach. But we do not know enough about exactly how this happens, and what it is about musical processes in real time that make this happen. That is what we need to find out more about…

How we are doing this research

This website is part of the Care for Music Project, funded by the ARHC (Arts and Humanities Research Council)

The subtitle of the project is: An ethnography of music in scenes of care in late and end of life. The method is ethnography, which means ‘ethno’ (folk/people) + ‘graphy’ (detailed description). By ‘scenes of care’ we mean care homes and hospices, but we also note that the term embraces the idea that care can happen in many places outside and between these formal settings – such as people’s homes, neighbourhoods, workplaces and in all the varied settings of daily life.

Our aim is to look very closely at what people in scenes of care do with music, and how they do it, and with what consequences for wellbeing, community, and most generally experience and action.

Research Vignettes: – events, thoughts, new methods

  1. The music stopped, and then it started again

I felt I was singing to myself as I watched some of the residents I knew staring at the TV screen in what looked to me like puzzlement…But then a moment … Saul looked up at the TV, moved his arm upwards with the musical phrase, waited, and as I sang a downwards melody he gradually lowered his conducting arm along with my voice. Musical connection!

2. Disrupted Synchrony: Does it matter?

As we reported in the last Vignette, the Skype sessions at Hill House in the last six months seem to have been – surprisingly – successful. Surprising, that is, for Gary – who feared that the famous ‘latency effect’ [aka sound delay with online synchronous music making] would make musical activity just too difficult between him and the residents. 

3. Latency: what’s the problem?

…as a church organist, Simon routinely dealt with the ‘latency problem’: ‘ you have to plough on… you’re miles away from the congregation and what you hear back from them is miles too late’ is what he said. No doubt there are other forms of latency that we encounter socially – for example at Hill House where many of the residents live with dementia and responses are often, ‘delayed’. No doubt our own responses are sometimes, ‘delayed’ and, indeed, ethnomusicologist Charles Keil argues that, ‘[m]usic to be personally involving and socially valuable must be “out of time” and “out of tune”’ (1987: 275). The question is when this ‘problem’ matters, and to whom, and how, through what cultural means?

4. I take one of the surgical masks out of the box that is placed on a little table in front of Rebecca´s room…. (For the fourth Sunday in Advent)

….Rebecca closes her eyes and I can see that her breathing becomes steadier and deeper. She seems to relax and I almost get the sense that she has fallen asleep, but she opens her eyes and says that she likes the soft and delicate sound of the kantele. I ask her to tell me more about her poems and she tries to recall one of them. She smiles and I can hardly believe that this is the same person that has been introduced in the interdisciplinary team meeting earlier that day….

5. Why do we sing? The hospice choir via zoom

“It is a wonderful thing to be able to look forward to each week. To know that there is no pressure and that I will be with people who have been through or experienced similar situations to myself, with who there is an immediate bond. I have made many friends, which has been invaluable in building my new way of life alone.

6. Wandering Free?

Conducting seems to be, and all at once, a virtual form of movement, a kind of dancing or rhythmic gesture, physical exercise, a kind of musical composing (choosing what, sound-wise, is going to happen next and how – the creative shaping of a musical future in dialogue and collaboration with someone else), a chance to connect in split second time, an opportunity to exercise creative control, a form of pleasure. 

7. The other way around – do disabilities acquire people?

Flexible Identities: A man whose ability to speak consists of just three words – and yet is recognised by his friends and family as a ‘very powerful speaker in conversation’…A composer who rose from being heard as ‘strange’, ‘striving’ and ‘bizarre’, to being the premier musical figure of his day – and into the future…The difficulty of ‘telling the difference’ between people with, and without dementia… The idea that, within cultural spaces, ‘disabilities’ acquire people ‘rather than the other way around’… The idea that ‘learning’ is, simultaneously, ‘adapting’ and ‘creating’, and therefore rather like, a frog plunging, ‘into the sound of water’.

8. Stitches in Time – Weaving together music, stories, and identities

Shared musical reminiscence places music between all participants as a common object of interest and care and therefore strengthens the social fabric between participants…

9. Improvised music, musical events, and wellbeing: A personal example of the ‘pathways’ concept …

The Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra project on music and wellbeing has published its first paper in Frontiers in Psychology. Tia reflects on what it’s meant to her being part of GIO and how she sees it being linked to Care for Music….

10. It don’t mean a thing (if it ain’t got that swing)! 

We’ve talked before in this blog about coping with, and even creatively using, sound latency within online music. But Gary found himself actively creating further discrepancies of musical timing during some songs during Skype music therapy sessions at Hill House recently. That is, he found himself ‘swinging’ some of the songs. Why? What’s the use of swing? Does it mean a thing? 


11. ‘In other words, hold my hand’ – intimacy in and with music

In Care for Music, we’ve seen different forms of intimacy spring up in(seemingly) unlikely places and between what we might have thought of as unlikely partners. We think that, like water, intimacy adjusts its shape and size to fit the spaces where it flows. And we’ve seen how music sculpts those spaces. We’ve been observing how, within our fieldwork settings, intimacy flows, takes shape, and is tapped by different people in different ways. We think there might be quite a lot to learn about how, even in extremis, there is care for intimacy- fostered through care for music. 

12. Along the line – music as a legacy resource for lifelong learning

Arts education, and the informal learning early on of songs, can offer a legacy resource further down the line and a resource that can brighten a moment, or a day but that also can do much more. Tia reflects on the recently published Special Issue of Nordic Journal of Art & Research. How might involvement with the arts in early life be helpful and important down the line?

13. Even Ruud on Rhizomes & Resonant Moments 

Tia’s extended essay on Even Ruud’s Toward A Sociology of Music Therapy: Musicking as a Cultural Immunogen(Barcelona Publishers, 2020) has just been published in Contemporary Sociology, the American Sociological Association’s bi-monthly book review journal. Ruud’s book deals brilliantly with the notion that health and wellbeing are rhizomatic, that is, capable of taking shape in multiple directions and in relation to things and practices in the surrounding environment. Rereading the review essay one year after it was submitted, we find connections between our analyses of the music sessions in Hill House and Ruud’s focus on the importance, and sociological situation, of ‘moments’ of intense connection (resonance) and wellbeing. We describe some of those connections on the Care for Music blog page, along with a reflection on the power of small things, and short moments and if you want to you can read it here, and the review essay here 

14. A Christmas Carol

December 2021 and the pandemic is back in force. We reflect on this time last year in Hill House and find comfort in how we can still reach out and be ‘together’, perhaps especially when music is near.

15 Participatory Research

In this blog Gary and Wolfgang are in dialogue about methods of inclusion, using artistic techniques, holding on to the ‘whole’ person and involving others in making sense of things.

16. “Do you think they sang at the Last Supper?” Easter at Hill House

It’s just before Easter. Ruth waits for an opportunity to speak at the end of the music therapy session. “Do you think they sang at the last supper?” she asks. 

In this blog Gary writes about music and spirituality in care and end of life settings. 

17. “And the lynxes purred with pleasure” – thinking about the kantele and ‘her’ personality in a Nordic hospice setting

Last month, Tia visited Wolfgang to follow him and his kantele as they made their rounds at the hospice. It is obvious that Wolfgang’s kantele does a lot of beautiful work. Now Wolfgang and Tia (and, in fact, the kantele) are writing an article about that work. What properties for soothing and healing might this type of plucked, very resonant instrument have, for whom, played how and where, by whom, and why?

Background Publications

Ansdell, Gary. 2014. How Music Helps. London: Routledge.

Ansdell, Gary and Tia DeNora. 2016 Musical Pathways in Recovery. London: Routledge.

DeNora, Tia. 2012. Resounding the Great Divide. Mortality.

DeNora, Tia. 2013. Music Asylums. London: Routledge.

DeNora, Tia & Ansdell, Gary (2017). Music in action: tinkering, tracing, and testing over time. Qualitative Research 17(2) 231–245. DOI: 10.1177/1468794116682824

DeNora, T. & Ansdell, G (2014). ‘What can’t music do? Shedding different kinds of light on music and health enquiries’. Psychology of Well-Being: Theory, Research and Practice 2014, 4:23

Edwards, Heather (2018). Music Mirrors: Practice-based reflections on the development and uses of audio biographical cues to support people living with dementia and other long-term conditions. Music & Arts in Action, vol.6 (3). 

Hartley, Nigel (2013). End of Life Care: A guide for therapists, artists and arts therapists. London: Jessica Kingsley Publications. 

Rolvsjord, Randi. 2010. Resource-Oriented Music Therapy in Mental Health Care. New Hampshire: Barcelona Press.

Rolvsjord, Randi. Musikkterapi og like handlemuligheter: med rettighetsperspektiv på agendaen [Music therapy and equal possibilities for action: with rights perspectives on the agenda], p. 79-94. In K. Stensæth, G. Trondalen & Ø. Varkøy (eds). Musikk, handlinger, muligheter. Festskrift til Even Ruud. Oslo: NMH publikasjoner. Skriftserie fra senter for forskning i musikk og helse (CREAMAH),vol 10.

Rolvsjord, R. 2014. The competent client and the complexity of dis-ability. In Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy 14(3).

Schmid, Wolfgang and Hessenberg, C. 2012. Children in a home for the elderly – a cross-generational music therapy project with people with dementia and children and adolescents in psychiatric care, Musiktherapeutische Umschau 33(2), 141-149

Schmid, Wolfgang. 2017. Being together – Exploring the modulation of affect in improvisational music therapy with a man in a persistent vegetative state – a qualitative single case study. Health Psychology Report, 5(2). Schmid, Wolfgang.

Schmid, Wolfgang. 2013. A penguin on the moon: Self- organizational processes in improvisational music therapy in neurological rehabilitation, Nordic Journal of Music Therapy

Simpson, Fraser (2000). ‘Creative Music Therapy: A last resort?’ In D. Aldridge (ed), Music Therapy in Dementia Care. London: Jessica Kingsley.

 Simpson, F. (2000). Speaking with Clients: Perspectives from Creative Music Therapy. British Journal of Music Therapy14(2), 83–92.

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