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Musicking, identity and mental health.

The recent blogs have been exploring the cliché of ‘sex, drugs and rock n roll’ and how the occupational environment can potentially amplify this hedonism. In this week’s writing I am going to consider how this hedonistic identity ties in with being a professional musician and the potential for this impact our mental health.

The psychotherapist and musician, Mary Butterton, states how ‘music is about the self-alive’, for me, this encapsulates the very essence of how I view my musicking. It is everything, a core part of me. My own position as an integrative psychotherapist also suggests that personal and social identity construction are core components of mental health. This blog looks at how mental health, musicking, self-esteem and identity converge and impact each other. In humanistic psychology, some suggest that not being our ‘true’ selves and constantly bending to meet the needs of others can negatively impact mental health. The notion of authenticity and ‘real self’ is complex! For example, how much of our ‘real selves’ are we when performing or meeting record company expectations? It’s a big question.

When it comes to defining the term identity it’s a challenging task due to the dynamic and autobiographical nature of what it means to different people. In my doctoral thesis I define identity as ‘the process in which musicians relate to the cultural and sociological domains of their ongoing sense of self, and self-meaning frameworks evoked from musical experiences and musicking communities’. It’s quite long winded, isn’t it? Perhaps a bit dry, but academics like that kind of stuff. What I really mean is…how we view our identity within the different contexts we find ourselves in as musicians.

Some academics suggest that identity falls into two categories: being ourselves as musicians and the identities we derive from our music listening habits when we want to portray a certain cultural identity to others. Both of these perspectives have the potential to impact a sense of self and thus mental health significantly. In some studies, psychologists have even suggested how popular musicians identify with the belief that they are different to non-musicians, with a stronger need to remain outside of external control. This belief is supposed to accentuate the destructive creativity or rock star myth, prompting a self-fulfilling prophecy, and internalising the belief that a rock star should live fast, burn out, and die young. I might add…this is not what I found in my research, perhaps it takes one to know one?

Linked to this projection, another huge difficulty in the commercial music environment is the media perspective and the subsequent identity that is used to sell us, or our own music. This can be both a good and bad thing. For example, if we derive all of our self-esteem and confidence from our record sales and kudos in the industry, we might find ourselves coming unstuck when things start to slow down. We can’t all be the Rolling Stones and both the research and personal experience tells us (me) that most of us who have success will find this to dwindle at some point! In a recent interview on Tonic Music, this was described as ‘swimming too far from the shore’ by Dolan Hewison.

It happens, and if we have emotional wounds, it will hurt even more. I feel that the most important thing for anyone entering the music industry is to know ourselves and at least do some psychological work around this with a trusted professional. We could also join a Tonic Rider - Peer Support Group to hear and have reflected the experience of others.


Adam Ficek hosts a monthly show 'Tonic Music' on Totally Wired Radio, where he talks to various guests about music and mental health. You can listen again to any of the previous show on the Tonic Music Mixcloud page.


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