NiTRO + Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Gentle transgressions: Embracing uncertainty in music and health research

By Dr Charulatha Mani — Regardless of whether an individual makes a conscious effort to understand why or how music operates the way it does in their life, music continues to permeate the life-course. A visit to the gym or a café; a long car ride; or the wedding of a loved one – these occurrences, vibrant or mundane, are often accompanied by music.

Music could serve to distract from the weight of everyday stressors, lift our mood, and provide relaxation. Put simply, the speciality of music lies in the fact that it invariably conflates three key drivers of health wellbeing, namely, culture, creativity, and community (Sonke et al., 2019), rendering it inherently interdisciplinary.

The varied contexts across which music operates contribute to the heightened interests in the socio-cultural and political dimensions of music perception, consumption and impact in research and practice today. It is in the realm of research context that inter- and- transdisciplinarity assumes the role of a powerful tool for provoking change. An interdisciplinary model that holds out the promise of rendering visible the intrinsic value of the arts, especially in a disciplinarily plural discourse, is highly desirable yet rarely witnessed in practice. For instance, in the context of health and wellbeing research involving music, the biological, physiological, psychological, social, and emotional dimensions of musical impact are oftentimes over-emphasised so much so that the music itself recedes into a faceless blur. The challenge in interdisciplinary music research lies in staying committed to dismantling such hegemony. Today we are in a position to rethink arts-driven health research as a kaleidoscope wherein divergences in creativities, practices, materials, and human labour are valued in and of themselves (Mani, 2022).

The enmeshing of science with art that the disciplinary interface of arts and health exemplifies is today a site of great interest, and I for one am currently enamoured by it. Its ability to produce tangible change in human lives captures my focus. My childhood struggles as a chronic stutterer were overcome by the power of singing and these memories continue to reinforce my belief in the health benefits of music. As a researcher-educator working in this space, I feel the frequent need, however, to remind myself to underscore the inherent capacity of the arts to provoke, inspire, awe, and heal all at once, especially in a health context. I feel that I should remember to accept that healing in a musical context could happen without deliberate design. For instance, a congregational singing of “alleluia” in a mother’s singing group that I was researching with gave rise to the release of tightly held tension in a very troubled and depressed woman. I witnessed this mother let go and allow herself to completely breakdown, all in span on 20 seconds, comforted by other mothers around her. As she found kinship, support, and social bonding during those moments of vulnerability, I could well imagine the levels of endorphins and oxytocin in her body (Perkins et al., 2022). A careful embedding of music in health research renders it less happenstance and affords a space where such transformative moments can play out. The boundaries at play in these complex spaces of music, hope, and healing are not only those that lie between the disciplinary silos of music and health but also those that separate those events which we might consider “deliberate” and those that occur “organically” in life.

To fully appreciate the dual positions of regulating and planning on the one hand, and bearing witness and relinquishing control on the other, I invite a consideration of the interdisciplinary nature of artistic and health research through the lens of what Brynjulf Stige (2002, p. 211) terms “health musicking”. This model was developed for music therapy by Stige, however, it derives from broader philosophical ideas on semiotics, performativity, and music sociology theories. It looks to Wittgenstein’s (1953/1967) perspective that meaning-making through words is purely contextual and never absolute, and turns to DeNora’s (2000, 2007) discussions that the affordances of music are shaped in response to the appropriation of varied possibilities across settings. Taking inspiration also from Small’s (1998) well-known concept of “musicking”, Stige’s model integrates five factors: agents, artefacts, agendas, activities, and arenas in a way that I believe pertains not only to health research involving music but also music research that holds health implications. It allows us room to extend the plasticity of boundaries, affording gentle transgressions.

A safe space where participants and researchers can lean into discomfiture as they negotiate their complex identities, expectations, and roles is important in both health research and in artistic research. For, it is this space that can foster dialogue while offsetting some of the inequities prevalent in dominant constructs around individual and public health, especially in minoritised populations (Garry et al., 2021). In individuals and communities, artmaking is a right, not a privilege just as good health and wellbeing is a necessity, not a luxury. Both these require not just safe but brave spaces.

When the intrinsic value of music is championed, this position of strength allows for fresh and equitable perspectives on arts-in-health research to emerge. It dares us to imagine artistic citizenship as a valuable outcome in healthcare models involving artmaking. I have witnessed artistic activities that begin as health “interventions” morph into lifelong leisure pathways or even full-time occupations for some participants. One of the mothers involved in the songwriting in Sing to Connect (Mani, 2021) now sings in a community choir and has begun performing her own songs professionally. Just as music yields health outcomes, health musicking can lead to thriving artistic practices. The porosity of boundaries between the arts and health invites us to renegotiate limitations and possibilities, especially in the light of lived human experiences.


DeNora, T. (2000). Music in everyday life. Cambridge University Press.

DeNora, T. (2007). Health and music in everyday life–A theory of practice. Psyke & Logos, 28(1), 271–87.

Garry, F., Tighe, S.M., MacFarlane, A., & Phelan, H. (2020) The use of music as an arts-based method in migrant health research: a scoping review protocol. HRB Open Research, 3.

Mani, C. (2021). Sing2Connect: Wellbeing for multicultural mums. Sing2connect.

Mani, C. (2022). The ‘becomings’: singing and songwriting with mothers and midwives at South-East Queensland, Health Promotion International, 37 (Issue Supplement_1), i37-i48,

Perkins, R., Mason-Bertrand, A., Tymoszuk, U., Spiro, N., Gee, K., & Williamon, A. (2021). Arts engagement supports social connectedness in adulthood: findings from the HEartS Survey. BMC public health21(1), 1-15

Small, C. (1998). Musicking. The Meanings of Performing and Listening. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press.

Sonke, J., Golden, T., Francois, S., Hand, J., Chandra, A., Clemmons, L., Fakunle, D., Jackson, M.R., Magsamen, S., Rubin, V., Sams, K., Springs, S. (2019). Creating Healthy Communities through Cross-Sector Collaboration [White paper]. University of Florida Center for Arts in Medicine / ArtPlace America.

Stige, B. (2002). Culture-Centered Music Therapy. Gilsum, NH: Barcelona Publishers.

Wittgenstein, L. (1953/1967). Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Blackwell.

Dr Charulatha “Charu” Mani is an award-winning Karnatik vocal performer of international repute. She gained a PhD in historical musicology on ‘Hybridising Karnatik Music and Early Opera: Voice, Word, and Gesture’ from the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University in August 2019. Currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the School of Music, University of Queensland, she conducts research, performs, lectures, and publishes widely. Her research explores decolonising perspectives to analyse the global history of western music. Through her ongoing work with marginalised communities, her concerted efforts and strong leadership are evidenced through flagship projects such as Sing to Connect, linking music, health and wellbeing in a perinatal context involving refugee women in Logan, Queensland. She is an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.

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