Dimensions of Music Care Part 5: Music Technology

by Sarah Pearson

Smart phones and social media have changed the way people engage with art. In many ways, technology has enabled its users to become confident artists.

Thanks to easy Instagram filters, more people feel like confident photographers. Thanks to free recording apps like GarageBand, more folks can run a home recording studio. Thanks to blogging platforms like Wordpress and Blogspot, becoming a self-published writer has never been easier. Thanks to playlist apps Songza, more folks feel confident DJing background music for an event.

These digital tools are empowering, and for people with access to computers, tablets and the Internet, they make art and media accessible.

Digital accessibility has a cost, of course. In a climate where a simple Spotify subscription gets you unlimited digital music, vinyl is making a huge comeback. While digital recording software is cheaper and more effective than ever, many artists opt to record onto analogue tape in costly studios. I won’t be surprised if we soon find community-based dark rooms popping up in response to a resurgence of film photography.

For those of us using music in care, technology can be our best friend and our worst enemy.

This list of apps, compiled by music therapist John Mews, is a wonderful resource for people looking to enhance their use of music with apps. This list is long and diverse – just reading the app-names alone is inspiring and even a bit overwhelming. (John is one of our featured speakers for the 2017-18 Music Care Webinar series.)

The music care approach is always, by necessity, rooted in the caring relationship. Apps are wonderful resources when they can support this relationship. Apps cannot substitute human relationships. They cannot respond to subtle emotional cues. Apps can provide activities and sound. They cannot provide empathy.

Some of the easiest-to-use music technology programs are streaming services. These range from free playlist programs like Songza, advertisement-based streaming apps like Youtube and Vimeo, to subscription-based services like GooglePlay, Apple Music and Spotify.

The fact that we can hear almost any piece of music ever recorded, for free or for a small fee, with a simple click of a mouse, is truly remarkable. There are amazing consequences for caregiving. There are also challenges.

For example, with playlist programs like Songza, we risk using a one-size-fits-all approach to music care. Songza is a playlist app with hundreds of customized music programs for endless occasions. The titles you can pick from are specific and quirky: “afternoon nap,” “cocktail party,” “power yoga,” or “American campfire” are just some examples. There are limitations to the app – you can’t scroll through the songs in the same way you would on a personalized playlist.

Songza is an easy way to access thematic music that’s been pre-screened for a certain mood, ambiance, or audience. It’s a quick way to introduce some background music into a context.

However, it’s not personalized. Someone else has done the music-picking for you. There is no one-size-fits-all music playlist for anyone or any situation. With a randomized playlist picked by someone else, you lose the opportunity to make a personalized impact with song choices.

Furthermore, a randomized playlist can create contrary aims. I’ve experienced this in both care settings, where the mood of a playlist ended up triggering clients with songs they were not expecting. I’ve stopped attending a particular yoga class because the instructor always played Songza playlists that were “yoga themed,” but that I found totally incongruous to the poses we were doing, to the point that it distracted me from the practice.

When picking a playlist for a care setting, it’s helpful to reflect on how the music might pull people in different places. The more the music can align with our overall goals of care, the better. Playlists are powerful tools for supporting caring relationships, and we lose that power by resorting to an app-based music program.

A final thought on digital music: is important to know that, even with paid services like Spotify or Apple Music, artists barely get paid peanuts. The only way you can ensure that an artist is getting compensated for their music properly is to buy albums directly from them, or at least through a third-party like iTunes or Bandcamp. Recording music is expensive, laborious, and consuming, and the results of this hard work shouldn’t be given away for free.

So, let’s keep finding ways to make technology work for us and with us, while always keeping relationships at the centre of our music care.

Sarah Pearson is a music therapist working in oncology and palliative care in Kitchener, ON. She is the Program Development Lead for the Room 217 Foundation and Lead Facilitator of the Music Care Training program.