Mad In America
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Mad In America

The Lessons of Music: Nurturing Mental Health in Cultures Around the Globe

By Amy Biancolli

Music, essential on the path to well-being, has been a part of human existence since bipeds first flexed their larynxes into song. Long before the advent of complex cultures, our most distant ancestors made sounds akin to song — sounds that varied in pitch and functioned as proto-language, expressing emotion, soothing babies, and forming bonds.

And, almost beyond question, making them feel better.

Those sounds evolved into music. That music shaped social bonds and community, from the Ice Age to today: Bone and ivory flutes, found in the caves of Germany, have been carbon-dated at 35,000 to 43,000 years old. Those social bonds, in turn, spawned all the many cultures that have sung their way down the long and winding road of human history. Our genes and our cultures co-evolved in synchrony, a feedback loop nourished by music.

The end and ongoing result, from antiquity to the modern age: Music is everywhere.

“As far as we know, every documented culture throughout this entire globe has made something we can call music,” said Andy McGraw, an ethnomusicologist at the University of Richmond in Virginia. And while the definitions of music and other scholarly aspects can all be debated, he said, “They’ve all made it. They’ve all engaged in it.”

Andrew McGraw

Because it’s a part of us — because it’s universal — because it’s a formative piece of who we are — it lifts our spirits and informs our identity. To see precisely how, look at the ancient and enduring art form through three clear lenses explored in this MIA series.

The first, explored in the opening article, is the lens of lived experience. Music forms a critical piece of forward-thinking wellness and recovery initiatives, among them Ireland’s 49 North Street and England’s Sing Your Heart Out. Such programs build community as participants make music, relieving isolation and depression through creative group activities and the everyday fellowship that emerges around them.

The is the lens of science. The positive effects on mood, mental health, and cognition have been confirmed by reams of research across manifold disciplines. Music fires off endorphins and dopamine in our brain, lowers cortisol, improves the brain’s neuroplasticity, aids learning, and nurtures well-being at every stage in life.

The third, explored in this piece, is the lens of culture. In many societies around the globe, music is a significant and irreplaceable force in the construction of social ties, yielding a sense of belonging — and with that, wellness — that can carry populations and individuals alike through periods of profound challenge.

Music is good for the self. It’s good for communities. It’s good for cultures built on those communities. But just as not all music is alike, not all cultures are alike: Not all of them prioritize music in the same way, or experience music in the same way, or use it to promote wellness in the same way.

What’s more, wellness itself is defined and affected by the framework of any given society. A communitarian culture that focuses on the common good, for instance, can foster mental health by building bonds and encouraging cooperation. By contrast, a more competitive and individualistic society can cause isolation and fan division, creating gaps in wealth, status, and access to healthcare. Those gaps can become chasms under the medical model of psychiatry, which sets a hard line between patients and caregivers and places the origins of a disorder within the individual.

In that narrative, labels prevail — and people within the system too often feel cast adrift and devalued, their shared human essence supplanted by disease.

Overcoming the idea of being alone

Music tells another story. It connects with our most elemental selves, and in the process, it connects us with each other.

Simply feeling a beat is intrinsic to who we are — perceiving it, moving to it, coordinating with others to sync up and move together. That’s called entrainment, and ethnomusicologists use it to explain, at least in part, why and how humans can clap together rhythmically. Even people who consider themselves unmusical can do this. It’s built-in, a piece of our neurological wiring that’s endured through millions of years of evolution. So is the wiring that connects music with lower stress and greater pleasure.

“Music is so deeply embedded in us as part of our nature of being human that when we engage in music, we’re doing something that’s very natural to us,” said Steven Mithen, an archeologist with the University of Reading, UK, and author of The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body and one of the researchers behind Music as a co-evolved system for social bonding.

“Sitting with a group of individuals, either making music together or listening to music together,” he added, “develops a big sense — a bond — of trust and ‘groupness,’ and overcoming the idea of you as a single individual.”

Given that humans sang before we spoke, doing so just feels right. But what we’re doing, exactly, depends in large part on where we are and which society we call home; from culture to culture, the practice and definition of music vary widely. In 1973, British ethnomusicologist John Blacking called it “humanly organized sound,” a catch-all that some regarded (and still do) as too functionally broad.

The long and short of it: Music is what cultures say music is. It’s defined differently, structured differently, enjoyed differently.

Some cultures emphasize collective music-making; others emphasize solo artists and performance. Many cultures associate music with ritual; many of those rituals incorporate dance and speech. Some languages lack an umbrella term for “music,” only words for specific genres; and some traditions, such as the Islamic call to prayer, sound musical but aren’t defined as such.

Music’s emotional benefits, too, are valued and accentuated in a range of ways across the globe. In a 2020 study based on an online survey, respondents from Finland and India described their affective responses to music. Both groups valued its positive emotional effects, but they valued different positive emotional effects. The Finns felt empowered; the Indians felt peace and transcendence.

But both groups said they valued the social connections — and, in both, the negative effects cited were minor. In that sense, the study concluded, “Some degree of universality indeed is present in the emotional experiences and psychological functions of music.”

Music, rooted in our past, is ubiquitous in our present. How does it manifest now, in a handful of cultures around the world? What are the lessons to be learned for our mental, emotional, and social wellness, for building community and bringing peace?

What does music do — for us personally, and for societies in general?

Making sure there’s a place for everybody

First: Bali.

These days, many of us experience music in isolation: piping it through our earbuds, maybe, or singing in our bedrooms while strumming a few chords on guitar. This is especially true in contemporary Western society, in which once-widespread communal music-making has given way to a performance-heavy model that puts musicians on a platform — literally — and audiences at a remove. When we experience music together, we’re usually listening from a mosh pit or a hushed hall with uncomfortable seats. Otherwise, most of us experience it alone.

This is, McGraw says, a recent development.

“Typically, for most of human history,” he said, “if you wanted to play music, to make music, it involved doing it with other people, face to face.”

This was true in the West through the 19th century or so. It remains true in indigenous cultures — including those on Bali, the Indonesian island known for its clifftop temples and gamelan orchestras. McGraw has written extensively about Balinese music both contemporary and traditional, and he directs a university gamelan orchestra — playing every instrument. He’s studied both the complex rhythms of the music and the threads of social bonds woven within it.

The music itself is a chiming chorus of mostly percussive, mostly metallic sounds — layers and layers of them, rising and retreating, each with a distinct voice. Tuned metallic instruments similar to xylophones share the air with gongs, drums, and other instruments in dancing textures of rhythm and pitch. Performances feel as seamless as they are complex, reflecting the communal nature of the arts in Balinese culture.

“They organize the activities in such a way that they match the kind of range, and aptitude, and interest” of people in the village, said McGraw. “And that’s different from, say, a Western orchestra, where the composer composes the thing, and this trained, elite class of musician-priests who’ve gone through all this special conservatory training have to just figure out how to put into sound whatever impossible thing this individual put onto paper.”

In Bali, by contrast, the task is less convoluted. “It’s, you know, ‘Can you hit a gong with a big, soft mallet and count to eight?’ Well, most humans can do this, and there’s a place for you, and it goes from there,” he said. “And it’s not like the music’s sound suffers, the music’s structure suffers. . . . It’s just not really structured around a meritocracy. It’s structured around making sure there’s a place for everybody.”

Within a communitarian society, McGraw said, it’s not that the music doesn’t make more strenuous technical demands on some players than on others. It’s not that some people don’t have greater skills or more complex roles to play. It’s that all the roles — complex or simple — matter equally in the context of the group.

Start with the gong — the simplest of instruments, and the easiest to play. But in Balinese music, in Balinese culture, simple and easy don’t mean inessential or less-than. There’s no pecking order based on the intricacy of the music being played or the virtuosity of the player. “The question, ‘Who’s the best?’ isn’t even relevant,” he said. And while some parts are more demanding, requiring better memory or even certain leadership skills, that doesn’t make them more important.

The drummer, for instance, “is a kind of ersatz conductor. But if you ask them: ‘Okay, the drummer must be more important than the gong,’ you get this kind of confused look back.”

They can’t understand why anyone would ask such a question. But when pressed, they’ll say: Nothing would make sense without the gong. “Because it’s the spiritual center of the ensemble. It’s the lowest pitch. It defines the cycle. So while any, like, six-year-old could play it, everyone would notice if it was gone — and it would be very, very bad.”

Calisthenics for good social behavior

All of this fits in within the village life of the indigenous Bali Aga people. The community is all. Well-being is dependent on social ties, acceptance, connection, and participation. And in general, he said, “A lot of these folks seem happier” — in no small part because of those very musical structures that give everyone a platform. Everyone has a place, he said. Everyone has a purpose. And because of those structures, Balinese culture also encourages “inter-cohort” relationships — rare in America — that involve members of different generations in cooperative roles.

Back to that gong, for example. The player is typically very old or very young. Sometimes, at ceremonies running late into the night, “the gong player, who’s elderly, is kind of nodding off, and kind of grabs the kid closest to him,” McGraw said. (Gamelan ensembles are traditionally all male, although more and more are open to women.)

Barely missing a beat, the kid takes over on the gong. As that kid grows up, he may decide to move onto more complicated parts requiring more memorization — maybe all the way to the drum. Then, sometime in his mid-20s, he may decide to retreat a bit and focus on family life. When his kids are older, he may head back. “And so you’ve got, in a typical village ensemble, every age.”

Indigenous Balinese ensembles aren’t the only musical cultures that emphasize such intergenerational cooperation. In Cuba, for instance, rumba ensembles are similarly built to accommodate both virtuosity and simplicity, with the flashy quinto conga drum at one end and the basic wooden clave — two sticks providing a foundational Cuban rhythm — at the other.

Almost anyone of any age can say: “I just walked in, give me those two sticks, I can play clave,” McGraw noted. But that doesn’t make them any less important. “You need to have the clave. . . . Kids can do it. But it’s essential. And yet, right next to that player, can be an incredibly virtuosic conga player, or guitarist, or singer.”

Older people feel better around younger people, McGraw said. Younger people feel better around older people, building a sense of mentorship and mutual respect. Everyone benefits from the mobility within such groups, and no one specializes obsessively. Unlike, say, an oboe player, who’s specifically trained on a specific instrument to make a specific, difficult-to-produce tone, members of Balinese or Cuban ensembles are more fluid.

Their musical viewpoints are more fluid, too, allowing the players to “metaphorically take on the perspectives of other people,” McGraw said — and allowing themselves to imagine how the music might hear, and feel, from the point of view of another instrument. That, in turn, might help people “reimagine being in a different social position” and boost their capacity for empathy.

None of this happens automatically, McGraw said. But the takeaway is clear: “It could be a kind of calisthenics for good social behavior.” Simply by moving around from instrument to instrument, part to part, the Balinese can comprehend what it means to be someone else — and because of that, he said, “It might help you when a conflict comes up.”

You. Will. All. Perform. — Making music for the forest

For the indigenous Mbendjele people of the Congo, avoidance of conflict is critical for survival. Their 100,000-year-old pygmy culture, located in the equatorial region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), is radically egalitarian in its hunter-gatherer traditions — linking religion, economy, and social bonds in a system dependent on communal music and dance.

They cooperate, performing together in mokondi massana rituals that make the forest happy. When the forest is happy, they eat.

“It wouldn’t work if it weren’t that important for people — because if the music isn’t beautiful, they’re gonna be hungry,” said anthropologist Camille Oloa-Biloa, a French anthropologist based at the National Centre for Scientific Research in Paris. For the Mbendjele, “That’s how music is the glue. If you’re not getting on well together, you can’t make beautiful music.”

Camille Oloa-Biloa (Photo by CNRS — Paris centre)

Oloa-Biloa spent 15 months living with the Mbendjele for her 2017 doctoral thesis for the University of London, The egalitarian body: A study of aesthetic and emotional processes in massana performances among the Mbendjele of the Likouala region. During that time she both observed and participated in their habits and rituals, seeing first-hand the centrality of music and its significance in the wholeness of their lives.

No one piece of that can be removed or relieved of its significance, she said. No one person can be discounted. And it isn’t just about bonding in terms of social connections; it’s important for their political and economic life, and religious systems, their view of their environment, “and the perception they have of each other.”

In that context, she added, “Music is a kind of vehicle to share collective emotions. That’s really what, to me, was the final purpose of music — and what only music could do. Music could make sure that the community was really close. So it’s not the well-being of the individuals, here. It’s the well-being of the community.”

And when that community suffers, everyone suffers. She described the domino effect: “If you’re not behaving with your compatriots, then they’re going to resent you. They’re going to create bad emotions. Then people are going to argue and everything, and they’re not going to make good music — and it’s a vicious circle. So music is kind of a way to check and verify that people are going to behave together. . . and therefore are happy together, and therefore make good music, and therefore everybody’s happy, and they all find food. And it’s good.”

In most other cultures, particularly in the West, people can pick and choose their musical collaborators. “If you’re angry with someone — if there’s someone you can’t stand, and you’re trying to make music together — I can tell you, it’s not going to be so good,” said Oloa-Biloa, who plays the violin. The worst-case scenario is terrible music — or no music at all. But in a community that relies on music as the binder holding everything together, she said, “You. Will. All. Perform. So you have to get on well with everyone. . . . It forces you to be tolerant, to be accepting.”

During her time with the Mbendjele, she often participated in massana performances. They were “intense,” she said. “It’s pitch dark, and you’re all touching each other, and you’re singing together, so your whole body’s encircled by voices — and your whole voice melds into this. And you can’t see a thing.”

The sum effect is “really beautiful. You can really be in a kind of state that’s more than well-being. It’s not ecstatic, really, but you feel profoundly well.”

In her interview, Oloa-Biloa stressed the enormous gulf between capitalist Western nations and egalitarian communities like the Mbendjele’s with almost zero personal property. All anyone is allowed to own: “Your cooking pot, your machete, your clothes.” Sharing happens on demand: If you own two shirts, and someone else needs one, you have to hand it over when they ask. No complaint, no argument.

The Mbendjele people (Photo by Camille Oloa-Biloa)

“Basically that’s the only rule: Share everything.” Folks are allowed to do what they like, so long as they don’t hurt anyone, and it’s unusual when someone does. The murder rate is close to zero. Rapes, violent crimes: rarities.

All of that, Oloa-Biloa said, comes back to the spirit of the forest. In the Mbendjele religious system, it’s a truly sentient being. It can sense sounds, their meaning and their emotions. Children laughing and playing: those are good sounds. Strife: bad sounds.

But nothing pleases it more than music. Nothing contributes more to its well-being — and the well-being of the community.

“Music is the kind of perfect sound that the forest enjoys. . . so the best way for pleasing the forest is beautiful music, beautiful dancing, and laughing,” Oloa-Biloa said. “Positive emotions.”

The healing impact of the beat

That concept of everything — trees included — having a spirit: Congolese drummer Pline Mounzeo carries that with him everywhere. It is, he says, intrinsic to his beliefs as a musician and native of the Congo — the smaller Republic, just west of the DRC — where music holds a place of peace and focus. As in so many African cultures, it’s also the gravitational pull that brings people together.

“What I believe is everything has a spirit. Everything has a life in it — even a tree. A tree has a life in it. So music — you’re listening to those sounds. But inside, that sound has a life. That sound has a spirit,” he said. “So if you connect yourself, your mind, to that sound, that will definitely impact you, you know, in a positive way. . . There is a life inside that sound.” And that life, that spirit — “that kind of makes people connect with each other.”

Mounzeo was on the phone from Raleigh, North Carolina, which he now calls home after years of drumming and dancing through African and European nations. In the States, he’s taught and performed, bringing his art to universities and music festivals, community centers and camps, and he’s worked with patients through the University of North Carolina’s Door-to-Door Healing Arts Program.

A few years ago, he helped with two studies exploring the mental-health benefits of a modified variation on Ngoma healing ceremonies, which are practiced in central and southern Africa and traditionally used to assist people through difficulty. Filled with drumming and dancing, they’re not intended as a cure; they’re an aid.

The initial study, published in 2015, established the therapeutic potential of the Congolese Zebola ritual for Americans; a randomized 2017 follow-up showed “improvements in depression, anxiety, emotional well-being, and social functioning” equivalent to the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) approach.

Mounzeo, for his part, underscored the difference between the performances he gives regularly and the healing ceremonies themselves. When he plays, he’s simply playing. It’s simply music. But that doesn’t mean that the music can’t be healing unto itself. Indeed, research confirms the mental-health benefits of drumming, and peer groups are incorporating drums on their journey to recovery.

“Music that’s just music, that’s drumming — music can have an impact on that person’s life.” Someone might be going through a rough stretch, he said. “Just being in the presence of the drumming music, that can change your daily life — just being a part of that music.”

In videos of his own performances, the thunder of drums is infectious in its rhythms, almost trance-like in its joy. Asked how he feels when he plays, he answered simply. “I feel great,” he said. “I feel great.”

As a boy, he never thought of the drums as a career. Not at first. But as he grew, he began to recognize the impact and importance of music in his own life — the wellness he felt when he made it. Anytime he has “some issue going on, or I don’t feel well? But if, like, I go play that drum? . . . That drumming music will help me to relieve everything I got in my mind.”

When he performs, he has a message for audiences: Don’t just listen for fun. Dig down into it. Focus. “I always tell people not just to enjoy the drumming, not just to enjoy the music, but to try to listen deeply and connect yourself to the beat.” When they do, he said: “Emotionally, mentally, physically, spiritually — that will have an impact.” The message is especially important when he brings his music to hospital patients. Connect, he tells them. “That’s the time,” he said, “when healing is taking part.”

He makes that same, healing connection as he drums. Music is never really just music, Sound is never really just sound. “That sound has a spirit. That sound has a life in it.” When he’s playing, he listens hard, connecting his mind to his own beat. And when he does, he said, “That turns my spirit.”

Training a person inward

Focusing on the music — and with it, mindfulness — is also the aim of those who play the Chinese guqin, a seven-string zither that was once the domain of an elite cadre of practitioners and is now exploding in popularity across all segments of Chinese society.

Playing it leads to an individual, centered serenity. That’s its purpose.

“The main function of this instrument is training a person inward,” said Haiqiong Deng, a master of Chinese zithers and an ethnomusicologist based in Tallahassee, Florida, who also performs widely. The effect is to “cultivate a sense of mindfulness, peace, and I think maybe harmony — a harmonious state of being.” It is, she said, “a very meditative instrument.”

Haiqiong Deng with a guqin (Courtesy Haiqiong Deng)

Deng’s 2020 Ph.D. dissertation, Making The Intangible Tangible: Rediscovering Music and Wellbeing Through the Guqin Culture of Modern China, explored the well-being aspects of an instrument that once belonged exclusively to a literary class grouped with a small, selective circle known as “Ya Ji” — or “elegant gathering.” Thousands of years old, the guqin (“ancient zither”) is a quiet instrument and a low one, its bottom pitch roughly similar to a cello’s. Its strings are plucked, not bowed, and fretless. They’re tuned on the five-note Chinese scale.

Traditionally, each guqin is engraved with a name. Just as traditionally, the guqin is designed for the pursuit of inner calm.

“There is no Chinese equivalent of the English word ‘wellbeing’ per se,” explains Deng in her dissertation, “yet key concepts such as xiu 修 (self-cultivation), qi 氣 (primordial energy), and he 和 (harmony, equilibrium) that are inherent in the guqin tradition may collectively be understood to convey a holistic sense of the intangible qualities of integrity, wholeness, longevity, and closeness to nature that ‘wellbeing’ connotes.”

Closeness to nature is, indeed, a fundamental aspect: In a meditative YouTube video, Deng plays the instrument in the woods, crickets and birds chiming around her. “You feel the space,” she says. “And also the air.”

On the phone, she described her initial lessons with guqin master Youren Lin at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music back in the early 1990s. His teachings opened up “a different aesthetic, a different philosophy, a different way of playing music, or performing music,” she said. He told her to relax. Feel the energy-starting from her head, then her shoulders, then her elbow, then her wrist, then her finger. Only at the end of that session did she play her first note.

She compares the practice of the guqin with Zen meditation — the “embodied experience,” or awareness of mind in fullness with the body. Lately, she’s been bringing that approach to her own students. “Even if they only take one class, and play one note well, they feel that kind of simplicity,” she said. “That simple breath.”

Soft-spoken lessons in mindfulness

In those days, Deng explained, only professional musicians knew anything about the guqin. Only a few places produced it; only a few people taught. It was as unheard by the masses as it was hushed in its sound. “It was such a lonely, quiet, and unknown instrument,” said Deng, also a master of the brighter, louder, 21-string guzheng.

But in the last 15 years or so, the guqin has skyrocketed in popularity around China — part of a wider and ongoing government campaign to promote traditional culture. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the opening ceremony featured a dance set to a guqin performance by master Chen Leiji, driving a massive surge of interest in “the instrument of the sages.”

Schools from the elementary to the university level now have guqins in the classroom, offering lessons for free. Studios, concerts, lectures, and clubs are filled with enthusiasts pursuing the instrument in their spare time. Once difficult to make, hard to obtain, and expensive, the instruments themselves are now being cranked out by factories and sold for the equivalent of a few hundred dollars apiece (the cheap ones, at any rate).

And now, after thousands of years, the well-being benefits that were long available to a chosen few are being accessed by the many. The ancient zither, tucked away and played in quiet for thousands of years, has become a route to well-being for countless Chinese. Its lessons in mindfulness are as soft-spoken as ever, but now they’re widely heard.

In her dissertation, Deng described the Longren Guqin Cultural Village, a destination for enthusiasts and practitioners of varied needs and aspirations. The village is a magnet for scholars and common practitioners, modern literati, and everyday folks from all walks of life.

Its cultural impacts are wide and deep, she said. There she saw firsthand the effects of the guqin. She saw the community built around it and the simplicity and peace in its pursuit. No TV. Not much talking. It was just “a quiet place, a beautiful place” for people making music at different levels, many of them amateurs.

“When I was there, regardless of who the people are — either privileged or underprivileged — when they step into this place, their faces are so radiant,” she said. “All of them are smiling and happy.”

Showering naked together

Happiness: Year after year, Nordic countries ace the global rankings for personal and national well-being. Over eight editions of the World Happiness Report, three of them have perched on top: Finland in 2018, 2019, and 2020; Norway in 2017; and Denmark in 2012, 2013, and 2016. In the latest report, the Danes took a close second.

In various attempts to explain this dominance, including the WHR’s, observers have pointed to the relative wealth of such nations and the clean functioning of their democratic governments, which offer generous social benefits. Crime and poverty are low, incomes are high.

But as the Danes themselves point out, they also sing. A lot. In non-COVID times, together. And as they do, dipping regularly into a longstanding tradition, they build community, a sense of place in the world, and a belief that they’re all in it together. Not coincidentally, Denmark also ranks among the world’s most trusting nations — documented in a 2014 paper that analyzed its rising trust levels over a 30-year span.

Singing, it turns out, both requires and builds trust. “When you sing together, it’s like going to the shower naked together,” said Danish composer and conductor Michael Bojesen. “You can’t do it without trusting the people around you.”

Michael Bojesen (Photo by Mathias Løvgreen)

Bojesen was speaking via Zoom from Denmark, where he chairs the Danish Arts Foundation and conducts various choirs and other ensembles; he also directs the Malmö Opera company in neighboring Sweden. Bojesen has worked with community choruses over the years, and his views, like his compositions, reflect the importance of song in the mindset and music of the nation.

At the core of both is the Højskolesangbogen, or Folk High School Songbook, which sprang from the 19th-century schools for adults spearheaded by Danish pastor and philosopher N.F.S. Grundtvig. The 19th edition contains 672 songs (“We have ten times more than that,” Bojesen said) and covers a range of subjects. Some of them, psalms included, are religious. Some are seasonal. Many are songs of freedom, democracy, and philosophic reflection.

That national collection is now a central piece of Danish education and culture, with schoolchildren — and often adults — starting their days with a song. The traditional morning singalong, morgensang, is so popular, and so important to the country’s sense of well-being, that a fifth of the population tuned into virtual sessions during last spring’s COVID lockdown. In a video posted earlier this month, a spliced-together gallery of happy-looking Danes sang along from their homes as leader Phillip Faber accompanied remotely on his piano.

The song was “Joanna,” a tune by the late Danish singer-songwriter Kim Larsen. The words, translated into English, speak of swimming, and soaring, and dreams:

Take me along to your dreamland Where you can dream And take me along to the noise of the world Where you can make noise

“When you sing, you know, it’s so connected to the inside of yourself,” Bojesen said. “It’s so connected to your soul, to your heart, to your feelings. And it does something when you sing.”

Borders disappear when you’re singing

Last spring, rallying fellow Danes during COVID lockdown, prime minister Mette Frederiksen urged them to embody samfundssind, a compound of “society” and “mind” that translates roughly to “community spirit.” That civic-mindedness starts with the individual, Bojesen said — “but we all have to sacrifice. We all have to suffer to get through this. And the singing was a fantastic example of people in a very positive way standing together and feeling bonded, saying, ‘We are together in this.’”

The sense of togetherness means that anyone and everyone should feel a part of it, no matter their skill or schooling. “This is not a question of ‘it should be beautiful music as a result.” Every bird has a song to sing, he said. That’s the whole idea: “That we all — all of us — join.”

He recalled a formal event, broadcast on television, that marked the opening of a concert hall back in 2009. The audience was dressed to the nines. Wanting to loosen the vibe, he warmed up all assembled with singing exercises. “And in five minutes, by singing together, it created the most relaxed and warm atmosphere — because, you know, suddenly” — that metaphor again — “you’ve been showering together naked.” At another concert for Alzheimer’s patients, many were nervous, noisy, even screaming, he said.

But once the music started — a tranquil work for choir — “it just became silent.” On a traditional Danish song, they all joined in. These were people who might not have known what to do with a spoon or a toothbrush, he said. “But they remembered ten verses of a song.”

Denmark is far from the only culture that sings together — listen to the Italians who sang from their balconies last year — nor is it alone in stressing the links with well-being, both personal and broad. In Israel, for instance, the Koolulum initiative was created to “strengthen the fabric of society.” And in the late 1980s, mass choruses sprang up across Estonia and other Baltic states in the nonviolent, music-fueled “Singing Revolution” that reestablished independence from the Soviet Union. Protestors sang patriotic songs, using music as a weapon against oppression.

During World War II, the Danes sang through the German occupation. “It was not obvious that this was against the Germans, against the enemy — but of course it was a way to stand together and show that ‘We are Danes, we have our liberty,’” Bojesen said. “And they used the singing together as weapons — these old national songs, national hymns.”

Mass singing was less popular during the 1960s and ’70s, when opposition to authority made many Danes skeptical of the tradition. But then in the last 15 or 20 years, interest in it has once again surged, perhaps in response to the melting borders of a globally minded age — and the sense that “we have to know our own culture.” The flip side of that — “the dark side,” the “tricky side” — is the exploitation of nationalistic impulses as a culture gathers to sing and cement their identity. Again, look to Nazi Germany. Or look to the right-wing movements now stamping across Western nations.

You have to find a balance, Bojesen said. “But I think — I really believe, I really believe — that as human beings, it’s a very, very natural thing to sing.” Singing “is a way for us to express very strong feelings. And the human voice is the direct channel to the heart.”

This is the Danish way; this is the culture.

“That border between people,” he said. “It disappears when you’re singing.”

A nuclear-grade power equal to the sun

From his lookout on humanity half a world away, Los Angeles-based composer-conductor Derrick Spiva, Jr., sees music in much the same way: lifting people, bringing people together, connecting them with their humanity and one other. And at the same time, he sees its dark side.

Derrick Spiva, Jr. (Courtesy Derrick Spiva, Jr.)

“Music, just like art, is a massive superpower that can be used for great things or for horrendous things,” said Spiva. Think of it as analogous to the discovery of nuclear energy — something else that can be used for good or for ill. “It’s the kind of original nuclear power, or fusion equal to the sun. Except, for humanity, as a cultural battery.” The question: How it’s being used. “Is it being used to oppress, or is it being used to lift up?”

In the context of history, consider slavery and the role played by spirituals — and their musical offspring, gospel music — in conveying both the dark agonies of enslavement and the glue, once again, that held Black people together and lent them hope. That music, carried from Africa on the same ships that stole their ancestors, found a home in places like New Orleans’ Congo Square, where they played on drums similar to Mounzeo’s. (Centuries later, Mounzeo played there, too.) It evolved as African-American culture evolved, becoming blues, jazz, funk, soul, hip-hop, bearing them through segregation, systemic racism, and its battles past and present.

In a chapter from his 1903 masterwork The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois calls them “The Sorrow Songs,” — spirituals borne of Africa that seeded generations of music for the enslaved and their descendants. “They that walked in darkness sang songs in the olden days — Sorrow Songs — for they were weary at heart . . . Their hearts were human,” he writes, “and their singing stirred men with a mighty power.” This is, he says, “the voice of exile.”

And it sings still.

Mahalia Jackson, the “Queen of Gospel,” in 1961

“Music in the Black community literally serves as one of the huge backbones — giving people the energy to continue, moving forward in life, to be able to survive the things that people have survived,” Spiva said.

He compares those songs to the Southern cuisine, also rooted in Africa, and all the dishes that gave sustenance through the centuries. “Besides food, music was the other source of energy, the other source of that positive momentum that they would have to conjure up, out of the darkness, to give them some strength to keep moving,” he said. Music “also serves that purpose of nourishing the cultural soul of the community. It gives the positive reinforcement that they needed to live through what they were living through.”

That piece of Black history — traumatic and formative — captures “what people experienced,” he said, “and how people can be carried through some of the worst things with a song. It is pretty incredible, and powerful, and impactful, and I think really speaks to the reason why we need it now more than ever.”

His own ancestry spans Ghanaian, Nigerian, Native American, British and Irish heritage; his own music spans Indian classical, Persian classical, Eastern European music, Indonesian and other influences. Film was one musical “access point” for him, he said. Black music was another.

Growing up in California’s Central Valley, he and his family attended churches all over the place — tagging along with his dad, Derrick Spiva, Sr., an Africana Studies scholar who played piano and organ for various congregations. As a result, his son said, “I kind of had a round-robin experience.”

At the Pentecostal and Baptist churches especially, he loved how free-flowing and improvisational the music was. He listened to the words not for their meaning but their music: “What I really loved was how they said the words when they would speak.”

The words would get into a rhythm, turn into a groove, as speech morphed gradually into song. Musicians would run to their instruments, noodling around in search of the key, then start playing along — “speak-playing” riffs off the speaker’s rhythms. Congregants joined in with amen s as the groove grew and changed and rose and fell.

And Spiva, listening to the music from his pew — “I would just be in heaven.”

Speech just doesn’t do the trick

Take the song “Amazing Grace,” the 18th-century hymn penned by John Newton, an Anglican clergyman who became an abolitionist after years in the slave trade. It’s been sung in countless ways, in countless settings, by countless preachers and performers. Recently, Yo-Yo Ma spliced it into a medley as part of the presidential inaugural concert; earlier in the day, Garth Brooks invited everyone to sing along:

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found,

Was blind but now I see.

Spiva’s own favorite rendition is Aretha Franklin’s off her 1972 album of the same name. It’s epic in all ways: 16 minutes and 11 seconds of sweeping, swooping, gradually building gospel rapture, complete with whoops from the crowd.

That’s how Spiva remembers hearing it in church as a kid. Someone would start singing it without a “pulse” — without a specific beat, flowing like water. “It would just bring tears to your eyes: a song that so many know, but then the way it is done is just so powerful.”

Think of that moment, in June of 2015, when then-president Barack Obama broke into “Amazing Grace” at Emanuel A.M.E. Church after the shooting there. In his eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, he spoke with breadth and depth and emotion of Black history, Black struggles, Black churches — “our beating heart,” he called them.

But there comes a point, Spiva said, when “speech just doesn’t do the trick — and you feel that something else needs to be done.” Something musical. “And he felt that. And he started singing ‘Amazing Grace’ out of nowhere, and everybody just stood to their feet — and they all knew what it meant.”

Speech just doesn’t do the trick. This is part of the evolutionary argument for music: It helps us express and understand emotion and, as it does, it brings us together, whether we’re rising in church to sing along or collaborating virtually across the miles. In those moments, no one is alone.

Spiva, for one, is big on making those connections — on opening doors, pushing boundaries, and lowering barriers in an age when so much music is available to so many people. His Bridge to Everywhere collective embodies his quest for cultural diversity and social healing, as do his own compositions. His two-part “American Mirror” string quartet, in the words of his website, reflects on the “many generations and descendants of refugees, immigrants, and slaves, and how intercultural collaborations are essential to the well-being of American society.”

Classical ensembles should do more to connect with the communities they reside in, Spiva said. And everyone, at this fraught stage of American history, should be grappling with race and “the social fabric.”

Black music is a big piece of that fabric, now as ever. As Du Bois says in The Souls of Black Folk: “The Negro folk-song — the rhythmic cry of the slave — stands to-day not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas . . . . It still remains as the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people.”

In these songs, he says, “the slave spoke to the world.”

In his own remarks on music as a force for change, Spiva dwelled once more on its powers for good and its abilities to lift a person, a community, or a populace.

“I think music reminds us that we can have an effect, beyond any physical object, on the universe. And we’re in it. Because it’s us.” For him, he said, “That’s it. It’s quite profound. . . . I think that’s powerful, to be able to have that kind of an opportunity — and everybody has that. That’s the amazing thing. Everybody has the opportunity to make music, and to be music.”

The lessons of music: changing welfare into spirit

Making music, being music: From cultures around the world, the lessons for well-being abound. It’s an ancient and omnipresent tool for wellness, a carrier of peace for individuals, and a bonding agent for communities throughout history.

The takeaways are many and unmistakable.

Music is glue. It connects people with each other and their environments, requiring comity and cooperation. It gives everyone a role, no matter what instrument they play or how well they play it. It gives generations a chance to mix and learn. It promotes a sense of self. It brings inward and outward calm and joy. It girds us through pain, prompts hope through oppression, and inspires change — even revolution — among populations in need. It helps us speak to the world and alter the universe.

At the same time, at a granular, practical level, music is a therapeutic force for people in need. Around the world, mental health initiatives are utilizing communal music-making to help service users on the path to recovery and others on the quest toward wellness. Research shows, again and again, that engaging in music actively and even listening to it alone can improve mood, alleviate depression, positively affect cognition, and aid people as they age.

Yet more research shows the benefits, culture to culture. Yet more appeals are being made to broaden fixed understandings of what wellness means and how to get there, step by step. Yet more insights point to the narrowness of the medical model and the breadth of possibility in embracing what makes us human, what makes us happy, what makes us feel part of a whole.

“There is much to be gained from attempting to translate into words the crucial relationship that exists between music and health improvements,” write Raymond MacDonald, Gunter Kreutz, and Laura Mitchell in their 2012 roundup of essays and research, Music, Health, and Wellbeing. Especially in times of socio-economic turmoil, they continue, it’s worth exploring more human and humane avenues to wellness. “We believe there is a clear need to bring back more culture and humanity into medical systems.”

Their book delves into everything: music and emotions, music and community, music and learning, music and children, music and aging, music and the brain, music and recovery from chronic illness, music and pain management, music across societies and social groups. One chapter looks at community music therapy, an emerging approach that takes cultural, institutional and social factors into account. Still evolving, it works from the assumption that people in need — like music itself — don’t exist in a vacuum.

Our struggles aren’t formed in solitary. Our wellness isn’t a lone-wolf expedition — that’s the ultimate lesson of music, for societies and health systems both. To sing in harmony, we need each other. We trust each other. Revisiting Bojesen’s metaphor, we strip down and bare our most vulnerable selves.

On the phone from Denmark, he spoke of the Scandinavian conception of social benefits and, along with them, what it means to be human. In the “welfare society” model, healthcare is a governmental priority — along with the understanding that a whole person requires more than the fulfillment of concrete needs to be truly healthy.

There’s a saying, he said -”changing welfare into spirit.” As he explained in an email, the Danish word for “spirit” is ånd. The Danish word for breathing is ånde. “If you don’t have the spirit — in the meaning of mental health — you actually don’t breathe/live.” Art, music, singing — all of that nourishes the spirit.

“You have to have something deep inside you. . . . We believe that you are not an entire human being if you don’t have the art and the music together,” he said.

And that holds them together, too.

Consider, once again, those prehistoric flutes unearthed in Germany.

Replica of a bone flute from the Upper Paleolithic era discovered in Geissenklösterle. (Photo by José-Manuel Benito)

In his 2009 paper The Music Instinct, archaeologist Mithen focuses on one of them, an ivory relic discovered in the Geissenklösterle cave. He ponders its significance. What do such ancient instruments mean in the arc of human history? What adaptive role did they play? If our ancestors made music together, why? In asking and answering such questions, he writes, “I do not think that we should minimize the sheer enjoyment that music-making provides today,” he writes, “and would surely have done so during those long, dark winter nights of the Ice Age.”

This is something researchers across fields of discipline have repeatedly, emphatically stressed: the power of music to help us through the darkest stretch. Our most distant forebears huddled together and lifted flutes to their lips, exhaling sounds of hope into the caves and the cosmos beyond. Eons before healthcare and hospitals, diagnoses and disease paradigms, they survived the freeze with music — and each other.

Their song echoes today, the lessons loud and clear for anyone who listens. Music heals.

This is the last in a three-part series about the healing powers of music. Read part one and part two.

MIA Reports are supported, in part, by a grant from the Open Society Foundations

Amy Biancolli

Amy Biancolli is a staff reporter for Mad in America. A journalist with decades of experience writing about the arts, culture, film and other topics for the Albany Times Union, the Houston Chronicle and Hearst Newspapers, she’s also the author of three books — two of them memoirs of loss and grief. Her most recent, 2014’s Figuring Shit Out: Love, Laughter, Suicide, and Survival (2014, Behler Publications), is an account of the year following the suicide of her husband, author Christopher D. Ringwald. She’s a graduate of Hamilton College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Originally published at on February 14, 2021.



Mad in America’s mission is to serve as a catalyst for rethinking psychiatric care globally. We believe that the current drug-focused paradigm of care has failed our society, and that a more humane and science-based model of treatment is called for.

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