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Sound in mind and body

Can rhythm and melody help the traumatised to heal? Composer and educationalist Nigel Osborne, who pioneered music therapy for war-affected children, has spent a lifetime proving they can. Elizabeth Buie reports

Can rhythm and melody help the traumatised to heal? Composer and educationalist Nigel Osborne, who pioneered music therapy for war-affected children, has spent a lifetime proving they can. Elizabeth Buie reports

It is not that Professor Nigel Osborne is a prophet without honour in his own land. His achievements as a humanitarian, an expert in learning and the brain, and a composer and music therapist have been recognised over the years within the musical and educational establishments in Britain.

But it is abroad where he is truly feted, particularly in countries that have been torn apart by conflict, where he has used his gifts as a music therapist to help traumatised children put their lives back together again.

His humanitarian work with children began in Sarajevo two decades ago, when the city was under siege. As a young man, he had come to know the Balkans well, so when war broke out in the region he volunteered to help one group, Action for Bosnia, and co-founded another, Scottish Action for Bosnia. Struck by the plight of children in Sarajevo, he suggested to his artist friends in the besieged city that together they could set up a diversionary project.

"In the city at that time, early 1993, there was random shelling, sniping at every street corner, virtually, and in order to get water you had to go to an artesian well. You had to risk your life even to get water," Osborne says.

He set up various creative initiatives - songwriting, poetry-writing, small performances - in safe places. Entering the city by tunnel, he would pack a selection of small percussion instruments for the children in his rucksack. A year into the project, the city's ministry of health visited and declared huge admiration for its "therapeutic" effects. It was, Osborne says, the first time his work had been described as therapeutic. He had hitherto thought of it purely as a distraction for children from the horrors around them.

Since then, Osborne has been involved in helping child victims of war in Kosovo, Chechnya, Israel and Palestine. He has also worked with child soldiers in East Africa, and has been an adviser to rehabilitation projects in South America, principally in Colombia, working with children who have escaped the clutches of drug cartels. He is currently supporting a group that is involved in a similar project with Syrian refugees in camps on the Jordanian border.

Osborne's interventions, however, have not always been supported by international opinion-makers. Initially, he and his friends in Bosnia were derided as "luvvies" for making music while Sarajevo burned. But he says that the people of the city insisted they would rather have their souls fed with creativity than with "lousy food that makes us sick".

Prelude to healing

Osborne argues that children who have been traumatised often find being with other people difficult. What music does is bring them together in a safe place. "When children are making music, they are distracted from their social discomfort and they are also engaged in an activity that is, by its nature, socially binding," he says.

Traumatised children often lose their self-confidence and self-esteem. But when they have a shared creative experience, this can restore their sense of worth. Psychologically, the creative arts are good for building trust, Osborne explains.

"If somebody comes to sing to you, or with you, they are unlikely to mean you harm - every human knows that. So just singing with someone is an engine of trust and helps to build it, and then empathy comes behind that," he says.

Music also has an impact at a physiological level. The average person dealing with chronic post-traumatic stress will have their heartbeat raised by about seven beats a minute. Music can help to regulate heart rate.

Traumatised children tend to be at one extreme of movement or another, Osborne says. They are either hyperactive or they are sluggish and unable to move or communicate. He gets hyperactive children to perform energetic East African drumming so that they can direct their energy and learn to control it. With those at the other end of the spectrum, he slowly leads them step by step from gentle to more vigorous movement.

Music and singing also affect breathing. Only one activity exercises the lungs 100 per cent, and that is singing, Osborne says. Sitting, we use only 15 per cent of lung capacity, he adds - even athletes use less lung capacity than singers and certain instrumentalists. Music has been found to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and helps to rebalance the disruption to a traumatised child's nervous system.

A strong body of evidence has grown up around the pathology of trauma, and how music affects the body, but there is not much scientific proof that music can repair the damage of trauma, mainly because researchers are reluctant to test out their theories on subjects.

That evidence is, however, slowly being gathered. When it has been, it will be "hugely important for the whole creative arts health education agenda", Osborne predicts.

There are also much wider implications for this kind of work, he believes. In the US, many people working with soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress are using the creative arts. Osborne plans to explore the benefits of music therapy for British soldiers in the UK; he is disappointed that he has so far failed to convince trauma experts in the armed forces of the merits of his case. "I don't think the army has prepared itself intellectually to take this on yet," he says.

Despite this resistance to Osborne's ideas in Britain, among his greatest success stories is in Scotland, where he has helped children defined as having additional support needs (ASN), and complex and profound needs. He is one of the directors of the Tapestry Partnership, an education body largely sustained by government and local authority funding. One of the partnership's programmes was supported by innovation-promoting charity Nesta over two years.

With research backing from the University of Edinburgh, Osborne oversaw the creation of a new musical instrument for children with ASN. The skoog, as it was christened, differs from previous forms of sound-making technology in that it is not "switch-based" and has the ability to reproduce the minute subtleties of sounds made by a normal instrument.

The skoog is a spongy cube that a child can press with any part of the body, allowing even those with a limited amount of movement to express themselves. It has given some children the confidence to use their voice, an effect noted in particular at a special educational needs project in the Indian city of Chennai, where an organisation called Vidya Sagar has recorded amazing results. But, as Osborne explains, the skoog offers something else. "It's called hope," he says.

Osborne is currently exploring another area of technology, with the working name of the X-System. This highly sophisticated technology can categorise music according to its emotional impact on the brain and the autonomic nervous system. A team of Scottish researchers is developing a wristband sensor to work with the product. The company behind the technology, X-System Ltd - whose chief executive is Robert Ashcroft, former head of Sony in Europe - has signed a contract with a business that provides music to mobile phones across the world. But commercial interests aside, it hopes to support the healthcare sector by, for example, helping patients to relax before an operation through playing the right music. Osborne's motivation is simple: he wants the technology to make a lot of money to support his humanitarian and educational work. He is, he says, "tired of the begging bowl".

Despite being an avowed stalwart of the Left, Osborne also acts as a cultural adviser to the World Economic Forum in Davos. It is a position that sits uncomfortably with his politics, he admits, but he feels that this is an important arena in which to advocate the case for creativity in a changing society.

Closer to home, he argues that Scotland, with its interdisciplinary Curriculum for Excellence, is in a much better position to give the creative arts their rightful place. England, on the other hand, has been guilty of "an almost thuggish destruction" of arts education, largely through the expansion of its quasi-independent academies. Arts education, he believes, should help people to be reflective and grow.

Economically, the creative industries are among the fastest-growing in the world. In the US, they account for 11 per cent of GDP. In the UK, the civil service puts the figure at 2 per cent, although other economic analysts put it higher, at 6 per cent. There is, however, consensus that the sector provides 10.1 per cent of UK exports. In India, the creative industries are growing faster than the rest of its economy, while Brazil and China are also investing heavily. The UK's erstwhile prowess in the arts was based on years of investment through arts councils and private sponsors, but creativity, "the flower in the garden", is being left to wither, Osborne warns.

"I see nothing but erosion (of the arts) and a lemming-like rush to self- destruct by UK policymakers," he says. It is worth listening to him.

The Right Note

Professor: Nigel Osborne

Born: Manchester, England, 1948


  • Composer, music therapist, humanitarian
  • Fellow of the Royal College of Music
  • Director of the Tapestry Partnership in Scotland
  • Appointed MBE for his work with children traumatised by war
  • Retired from the Reid Chair of Music at the University of Edinburgh in June 2012
  • Operas performed in London, Berlin, Wales, Paris, the Balkans and Glasgow; orchestral works performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Moscow Symphony Orchestra and others.

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