“What kind of music do you like?”
This is a question that I ask and certain of getting more than a grunt from a young person.
I work with teenagers who are struggling and who are admitted in an inpatient facility. It is often not easy to engage with them, neither is it easy for them to engage with us and the therapeutic services that are part of their recovery during their hospital admission.
However, working as a music therapist and having conducted a recent PhD study in this facility, I have been pleasantly surprised by the young people’s enthusiastic responses to attend group music sessions and to participate in my study.
For the last 4 years, I have studied these young people’s daily engagement with their own music listening by asking them to tell me the “what, how, when, where, and why” of their preferred music engagement, which also includes their attendance in music therapy during their hospital admission.
It was the first doctoral study that examined how young people with mental illness listened to their music, in various conditions and contexts.
Those of you who work with struggling teenagers would agree that many of them lack the textual language to express their emotions. For example, they would use a single word like “sad” to describe how they have been feeling just prior to a suicide attempt or they would be descriptive about events leading up to it. The vocabulary for emotions can be somewhat limited. But their interviews for my PhD study and their attendance in Tune Your Mood – group music listening sessions that I run, reveal a different story. Yes – one that speaks and presents their emotions in a way that is authentic to them as young people.
The young people told me that their preferred music was a way for them to identify with and manage their emotions on an everyday basis.
No wonder so many have said that music was a way to “express who I am”. Their music preferences were songs that they “can relate to”, in particular choosing music to relate to their mood. In doing so, it was a way to “tell your story”.
In my work and research, many young people have also told me that listening to music helped them to wake up in the morning, “study better”, “pump me up” and relax themselves at the end of the day soo it is not surprising that for many, music was “the first thing” they would turn to when they wanted to “take my mind off things” or “help me make a solution”, and found it “comforting” when they were troubled.
Even though music listening can be transformative to help them cope with their troubled lives, the reality was that it was not always helpful. In fact it fluctuated and could also exacerbate their conditions.
Research does tell us that music consumption is the highest among teenagers and appears to be young people’s natural coping strategy. Certainly both my work and PhD study support that.
Preferred music can speak volumes and soothe many troubled teens. But for those who have emotional and mental health struggles, we do need to promote healthy music listening and engagement so that it can be more powerful and empowering for these young people in their journey of recovery.
To this end, I have made it a mission to work with different youth services and schools to develop and promote positive youth engagement through music.
Since 2011, Project Tune Your Mood (TYM) has been conducted as a youth health promotion, in conjunction with Tune In Not Out, a multi-media youth health portal, to promote healthy music engagement and help-seeking.
This year TYM will run from April 28-May 16.
Written by Carmen Cheong-Clinch, Project Creator, Project Tune Your Mood.
Carmen Cheong-Clinch is music therapist who recently completed her PhD on how young people with a mental illness engage with their music. This study was based on her work at the Adolescent Unit at Logan Hospital.