Nigel Osborne - "Music Can Make Sound Pleasurable Instead of Frightening"

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Apr 24, 2014
by Alex Jackson
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Nigel Osborne - "Music Can Make Sound Pleasurable Instead of Frightening"

Professor, composer and would-be therapist talks about how the sound of music can help children overcome the noise of war Nigel Osborne discusses the proposed arts projects with fellow session participants.

Nigel Osborne remains a hidden gem of British composing and music. His formidable talents marked him as one of the best composers of the late 20th century. Through his early works, such as I Am Goya, and a Glyndebourne commission, The Electrification of the Soviet Union, Osborne had readily established himself as an innovative and exciting composer by the time Bosnian conflict erupted. It is from here that his musical history takes a very different path from the establishment. In pushing the agenda on Bosnia through the European Council Summit held in Edinburgh in 1992, Osborne quickly discovered a new role in which he could use music to engage and tackle the crisis.

“My work in this particular area in terms of trying to support children suffering from consequences of conflict goes back to the early 1990s. I had worked in this general area for half a century, but the specific conflict area from that time and it started in Bosnia where by chance we almost stumbled on some methods and approaches that seemed to be very helpful for children. We were given encouragement from the Ministry for Health and we developed those into a series of more focussed methods,” he explains in an interview during the session Conflict Transformation Through Culture: Peace Building and the Arts, held at Schloss Leopoldskron by Salzburg Global Seminar in April.

Pioneering this new form of musical therapy, Osborne, now a professor of music at Edinburgh University, harnesses the power of music to help children overcome conflict through self-expression. Of course, this is not a traditional career progression, and Osborne looks at his composer past with mixed sentiments. His eclectic contributions to different genres of music has granted him artistic liberty and malleability to adapt music to different situations and problems, but his way of shaping this music has certainly raised some eyebrows along the way.

“What helped me most of all is having had a very varied music background...I am a classical musician in part by training but have had a rock’n’roll musician, jazz musician and folk musician and have also explored a number of different world cultures and studied African music, Indian music, South East Asian music. You pick up things through immersing yourself into the world; you discover new things that are going to be helpful for kids in certain situations. It pulls together in an interesting way, a fascinating way. So the most useful thing for my background is its plurality. I don’t think it’s helped me in anything else, I think it’s been a hindrance in a professional way, because people have not been able to bracket me in the way they would like to,” he muses.

His approach may be somewhat anti-establishment, but there is certainly a great deal of support for what Osborne is achieving from many in the medical profession, really standing as a testament to the collaborative power of the arts in healing traumas, post-conflict.

“I think the aid work and the humanitarian area were the most skeptical in term of the work. Of course it might be a threat to standard ways of proceeding with psycho-socio work so we certainly had to deal with skepticism. We never had to deal with skepticism from the medical profession; they recognized the value from the beginning. Doctors are pragmatic people and they latched onto it," Osbourne explains.

“We have a very strong bedrock of evidence that helps. Music therapy is perhaps the most evidenced of the creative arts therapies at various levels, so that helps. The higher up, the further up bureaucracies you go, the more resistance you meet. The closer you get to the grassroots and the coal face the more welcoming the situation.”

Unsurprisingly, what might be initially considered an unusual method of healing has caught on with many locals. While the music provides entertainment and welcome distraction in post-war periods, the benefits go far beyond simple amusement purposes. In addressing issues of memory, music is able to provide a way to work through sound associations and build trust relationships.

“One of the first things that music can do is get children back into being happy and back into playing together and back into trusting others," says Osbourne.

“Music has a trust concentration focus and acts as a social awareness building exercise. Of course there are many things beyond the social. Music is full of transferrable skills from that point of view. Learning to remember and understand music structures is a very pure way of building gestalt in the brain and ways of dealing with more abstract material. Music has the distinct advantage of being both very abstract and concrete.

“Of course there is the issue of memory, linked to very important things in the education process, creativity. We are able to help through these; we encourage children the whole time to compose and create, so we are nurturing creativity through the education process. We based a lot of our work in schools where we did a hybrid of education on therapeutic work and then had a music therapy department.”

Osborne is all too aware of the sensitive nature of his work in these conflict torn areas. For many, music can have negative associations too and there is a considerable fear amongst children, who instantly connect loud noises with sounds of warfare. By giving the children the means by which to produce their own sounds, there is an encouraging number of students who overcome these phobias.

“The area we can help most is often in fear conditioning and so on. So very often children who have been exposed to the sounds of blasts have great exaggerated responses to acoustic shock, to the extent of making them very anxious sometimes and we can help with that. By working with children and sounds where they control the sounds, there are simple exercises that allow a child to experiment with the frontier of sounds that they find tolerable or not and we have had a lot of success working in that way.

“Music is very much processed sight. So music can be reprocessed into sounds in a way that is pleasurable and much more stimulating rather than frightening.”

However, these are far from the only reasons for people to be celebrating musical therapy. Communities have noticed significant health improvements by participating in regular musical activity, which is encouraging in reconnecting children with their society and their community. Young people feel much more engaged and active.

“We now know there are very direct neuro-physiological issues addressed by trauma, such as raised heart rate, disturbed movement repertoires, irregular breathing and endocrine regulation that can have a regulating effect so there are often some quite quick results, but we had to be careful not to go for that quick reward alone. Because there are very quick rewards and we can relieve things very quickly, parents see that and respond very well. We have great enthusiasm for music therapy programs.

“I think the other thing is that people don’t always see it as clinical; they see it as what kids should be doing. If we had a better world and no war, what would we like our children to be doing? Maybe learning music. So it is a normal life aspect if you think about it that the parents like.”

Moreover, the positive use of music in post conflict is that it can act as a beacon of tolerance. Instead of hearing chants and songs of rebel groups and opposing forces, music from other centres of culture around the world are appropriated to give children who are otherwise isolated a taste of different traditions and arts around the world. This further builds the children’s repertoire and understanding of both their own culture and where that fits in the world.

“Human beings have created different kinds of music around the world that tend to address different aspects of our common selves. This is why a lot of Europeans can find West African music exciting, Arabic music hypnotic, Indian music fascinating. There are different musics to represent different emotions and so in the therapeutic process we may need those things. I cannot find, for example, anything as strong and full of rhythm as West African and even East African music. So I use it and the kids love it and will combine it with their own rhythmic works.

“There are two ways of using this, it helps us look beyond the culture, but it is very important that we are still in the culture because there is another element very often the reverse of music being disturbing, music can be reassuring and can be associated with identity and so that can reinforce a person’s identity.”

The creativity and dynamism this affords is something that excites Osborne greatly. More than just reintegrating into society, musical expressionism has found a place that not only gives children a voice, but affords them a powerful instrument, by which they produce pieces beyond their years. “They can be producing distinguished work themselves: when there is a first rate product from children themselves, we need not look any further than the source for the story.”


Nigel Osborne was a session speaker at the Salzburg Global Seminar session "Conflict Transformation Through Culture: Peace Building and the Arts", which was sponsored by the Edward T Cone Foundation and Robert Bosch Stiftung. You can read interviews with a number of the other speakers and participants of the session on the webpage: www.salzburgglobal.org/go/532