This post is in the Musicians category

“Music is the medicine of a troubled mind”
Walter Haddon  (Watson, 1994, p. 10).

The primary implications uncovered by this study for musicians, and for those who seek to understand them, are three-fold. While these points are derived from observations of heightened autistic traits, they may also be extended into the neurotypical music community in terms of the mechanisms for music creation and perception, and into skill development among performers, composers and music technologists.

1. Musical Empathy

Not every musician is moved by listening to music.  As the study finds, it is not necessary to feel affective empathy  with music as a listener in order to appreciate it, and to have the desire and ability to create music that affects others.  Previous accounts have indicated that autistic people may not “use” music in the same ways as neurotypical people (Allen et al., 2009), but this study appears to be the first to explore this from the perspective of a composer.  The relationship between the power of music to fascinate as opposed to move remains fertile territory for exploration, particularly among accousmatic composers, recording engineers and producers whose focus is on its the sonic aspects.  This also suggests that, for some, the development of a love of music as children may include an element of compulsive pleasure seeking that continues into adult life.

On a related note, the apparent ability for the music making process to increase social empathy while the process is occurring, points to ongoing research regarding the role of music in social organisation.  The possible link between oxytocin release in music making, subsequent serotonin retention (Yoshida et al., 2009) and this increased empathic awareness also bears further examination.

2. Expressing emotion

The findings of the autoethnographic study indicate that a person who has difficulty identifying and expressing emotion verbally can do so through music-making, specifically through the composition process. This would suggest that that alexithymia is partially alleviated by the cognitive processes of music making.  To put it another way, music creation processes may open up channels between cognition and emotion that are otherwise restricted.

As a caveat, the concept of alexithymia itself comes into question through this observation.  While the term literally means, “no words for feelings” and in reality means “Difficulties with the cognitive processing of emotion, caused by problems in identifying or describing feelings” (Hill, Berthoz & Frith, 2004), an alexithymic person such as myself appears to have “music for feelings”.  The changed process of identifying internal emotion through, or during, music-making also bears further study.

It is important to note that much of my own experience of “successful” emotive music making has been in combination with the verbal process of meaning-building that goes into directing evocation in theatre or when verbal discussion around emotion takes place in a studio environment. The key here appears to be “talking about feelings” rather than reliance upon an “intuitive” process.  This would suggest that the “calling up” of cognitive processes as well as affect may be of benefit to many other musicians, regardless of autistic tendencies.

3. Local vs central coherence.

Stoetz (2007) discusses an increased local processing in highly trained musicians, and raises the question as to whether this is a cause or an effect. My own findings suggest that local focus of sound in myself is causal, if not to my attraction to music, then to the styles of music that I make and to which I am attracted. However, as a teacher of recording studio arts, I find that many students have to learn to develop local focus – it is not necessarily automatic and appears to be more akin to a developed skill. The separation of objective and subjective descriptions of sonic elements and the use of non-auditory “sensualisation” using visual or tactile imagination is a key I use in my own teaching to assist this.

In addition to the development of local coherence or processing among neurotypical musicians, my research notes that music making forces a cognitive attention to Gestalt and structure in order to achieve collaborative goals, including instances where the audience can be defined as a collaborative actor, for example, audience “demand” for common popular song structures.  This implies that the combination of a special interest activity and an associated requirement for a more structural approach is capable of producing a more balanced cognitive approach.  This has implications for therapeutic use of creative endeavour in autism interventions. These findings support the Enhanced Perceptual Functioning model of autistic functioning (Mottron, Dawson, Soulières, Hubert, & Burack, 2006; Mottron, Peretz, & Ménard, 2000) and suggest that music may be a useful force in learning to countering this imbalance.

Musicians with diagnosed or undiagnosed Asperger’s, HFA or sub-clinical autistic traits can and do achieve well in music, as is indicated by the cases of high profile musicians I have mentioned in this thesis.  The study has been primarily focused on an individual’s relationship with music, however, it points to the great diversity of experience.  It is also clear from the the research however that that diversity may go unrecognised by those whose experience is non-typical, as it is their only experience and they may not have the drive or capacity to imagine the experiences of others.

Comments are closed.