On 12th March, we hosted a panel discussion with MassiveMusic to talk about mental health in the creative industries, and the positive impact that music can have.

As part of a current focus on wellbeing, on Monday 12th March we partnered up with MassiveMusic to discuss the increasing prevalence of mental illness within the creative industries. We were joined by a panel of speakers in the Library at Shoreditch House to chat about the importance of research on the subject and how to tackle these issues in the workplace. We also heard how music can play a powerful and positive role in improving our mental health.

MassiveMusic's Managing Director Paul Reynolds and Music and Mind Researcher Aifric Lennon introduced the session with some scientific background on how music affects the brain, and the ways in which it can be leveraged not only to lift our moods, but also to relieve the symptoms of anxiety and depression.

As they explained it, "Mental illness is something that will affect almost everyone, either directly or indirectly, and this is even more apparent in the creative industry. It is something which is crucial to our health, yet so often gets overlooked due to its intangibility. Knowing the emerging benefits of music to regulate our mood — not to mention its incredible power to lift us and bring people together — we feel that music and mental health are undeniably connected and, as such, need a voice."  

MassiveMusic were joined by Sally-Ann Gross, a lead researcher on the 'Can Music Make You Sick?' study, commissioned by Help Musicians UK. Sally-Ann currently teaches the Music Business Management MA at Westminster University, and has over 20 years experience working in the music industry.

To complete the panel, we welcomed singer-songwriter Stella Talpo who, through her own experiences and journey of self-discovery, has become passionate about discussing and raising awareness of the relationship between mental health and creativity.

Here’s what we learned.

Kicking off was Paul, who shared a video clip accompanied by three different types of music to demonstrate the “power of sound” and its ability to transport us to different mental and emotional spaces. Aifric, who completed an MA in Music, Mind and Brain before joining MassiveMusic, then gave us an insight into the science behind the relationship between music and mental health: “almost every brain region is activated by music”.

Physiological reflexes (have you ever got ‘chills’ from a favourite song?), behavioural responses (singing, dancing) and emotional and psychological responses (music that uplifts, moves, surprises and empowers) are all part of the universal human experience of music, which triggers a release of dopamine in a similar way to addictive drugs like cocaine, chocolate and “being in love”.

“Music is universal. It isn’t bound by culture or race”

Aifric went on to share the alarming statistic that while mental health is the number one cause of missed days of work in the UK, with 20% of work days missed due to anxiety or depression, this figure triples in the music industry, with over 70% of those surveyed (2200 participants in a study by Help Musicians UK) having experienced anxiety and depression.


Although financial instability plays a major part in this epidemic, Sally-Ann proposes two other types of “precarity”. Firstly, the precarity of validation, a common pitfall for creatives whose self-value is tied to work in which they are passionately and emotionally invested. Secondly, the precarity of relationships, of all natures, which become strained by competing pressures.

Such instability poses a threat to the internal rhythms by which we function, as described by Aifric: “rhythm is all around us - it’s in everything we do. There’s rhythm in our speech, in the way that we move. All of us are working on an internal rhythm that changes depending on our mental state.”

Maintaining mental health

When we collectively synchronise these internal rhythms - by dancing or singing together - we experience a shared physiological and emotional response that has been proven to relieve depression, lower heart and breathing rate and reduce blood pressure and cortisol levels. Using music as a mechanism for calm is, as Aifric pointed out, a method for “maintaining mental health” - something that we should all be doing.

Aifric gave the example of group drumming: the “hemispheric synchronisation” (using both sides of your brain) is therapeutic and the general improvement to symptoms of depression are said to last for six weeks.

Having learned about the meditative effects of music, we next heard from Sally-Ann about the origins of the ‘Can Music Make You Sick?’ study, which began as an essay she researched and wrote largely in response to her own experience of mental illness within the music industry: the suicides of three young musicians within six weeks of each other. “As a mother with two sons who are musicians, that was the limit for me. I want to talk about this.”

“Musicians are making sound but not being heard.”

When Sally-Ann was introduced to Help Musicians, together they compiled research and completed the largest survey of its kind on mental illness in the music industry. Significantly, she pointed out, not one of those surveyed considered giving up music, despite the many inevitable pressures and hardships.

It is the enduring passion of artists across creative industries that compels them to persevere, in even the most challenging circumstances. Singer-songwriter Stella described the “chronic state of limbo” in which musicians find themselves, “waiting for someone to validate you, to decide your fate”, “working multiple jobs to maintain a London lifestyle” and investing all her spare time and energy into making music “with no return”.


This feeling of being in “limbo” is a common one, as Aifric agreed. Without formal work structures and routine it is easy to become “isolated”. Confirming this, Stella spoke frankly about the importance of a support system (for her, “my Mum”) in her lowest moments. The emotionally draining nature of creating art, concluded Paul, combined with the enormous pressure of the judgement of others means many musicians leave the industry after three years, disheartened and disillusioned.


The discussion ended on a reflective note, as the panel considered the responsibility of the music industry regarding the issues at hand. While Sally-Ann spoke about the importance of creating music that uplifts, empowers and reflects the period of change that we are witnessing, Stella commented on the danger of linking music to money and success, arguing that creativity cannot be target-driven.

In a saturated market unable to cope with the rapid rate at which music is now made, taking a moment to pause, reflect and enjoy the meditative nature of music and music-making must remain a part of the process.

Photography by David Townhill.

Coming up


See future panels, workshops and roundtables on this topic and more, in the Learning Programme here.