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Friday, November 18, 2016

On the 'Added Value' of Music

I was at a conference where numerous projects were presented in the domain of 'Arts and the Elderly'. It was good to notice that, where ten years ago activities in this domain were hardly visible and actors hardly met, now this domain has constituted itself as an actual domain with actual key questions and a growing network of people who know how to find each other and appreciate each other.

One of the key questions, a persistent and recurring one, is that of advocacy for and, ultimately, of financing of activities for frail and vulnerable elderly: those with dementia, those in hospitals or in care homes, those living a lonely life at home devoid of meaningful social contacts, et cetera.

The communis opinio is that the arts may contribute to physical and mental health, and to a general sense of well-being and meaningfulness of life. There are many strong examples to show that, and research is carried out both to give 'deep' evidence (through, e.g. ethnography, case studies or action research) as well as 'broad' evidence (through larger scale but more superficial effect measurements). And slowly but surely the knowledge of what the arts contribute to the elderly is building up.

But in the back of my head there is this persisting and recurring question of my own: why do we, suddenly, in the case of the vulnerable older woman, have to explain something that was taken for granted when that same woman was not yet vulnerable and older but just simply living her everyday life. When it comes to music: why do we have to argue that there is something missing in the life of this vulnerable older woman if music has no place in it in the same way as it did before? And why do we have to deliver the 'evidence-base' for the simple, widely accepted notion underpinned by libraries of research that human beings are learning beings, and that therefore life is incomplete without the possibility to be surprised by new music, new images, new movements, and that even the very vulnerable should be given the opportunities to living by learning?

I was in a session on the said conference where we were making an inventory of 'the value of the arts', and where we were talking in terms of 'added value': the arts give you the opportunity to express yourself, to bond socially, et cetera. But the idea of 'added value' gives one the idea that the arts are not part of the basis of life, but form an 'extra' in order to reach specific 'goals'. That may be the case in for example the therapeutic use of the arts, but even arts therapy nowadays is firmly grounded in the idea that it works precisely because the arts are nót an extra in life, but rather an undeniable part of life.

Speaking for music - the only 'art' of which I really know something - I would like to draw your attention to the fact that 99,9% of our population leads an intense and deeply satisfying - and very idio-syncratic, and often not very 'canonical' - musical life on a day-to-day basis. If at an elderly age people get less and less opportunities to continue their musical life, it is very simply part of a human health care system to provide those opportunities. The questions may be who should be doing that (contrary to popular belief in my circles I do not see why 'music professionals' should suddenly take the lead here), how we organize it, and who pays for it.

But the fundamental position should be: music is not an added value. It is a basic value. Music for elderly people should not be judged on the basis of the fact that it is 'fostering well-being', or on any other kind of 'added value' of music. It should be judged on the basis of the fact that human life by definition is musical, and that living the full life till the end means also living the musical life till the end. And if a care system is a 'care' system at all: simply taking care that that happens.

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