You are here:

A New Era of Music Therapy: Young People Rely on Lyrics to Aid Wellbeing

Published on


a teenage boy sings into a microphone. the photo is in black and white.
Photo credit: Sound Communities

Over the last few years, the Covid-19 pandemic, political instability, and the cost-of-living crisis have impacted everyone, especially young people. Recent research found that one in six children aged 5-16 are likely to have a mental health problem, an increase of 50% in the last three years. As well as this, over a third of parents of under-fives think their children’s mental wellbeing will be negatively affected long-term as a result of the pandemic. But, with NHS mental health services at breaking point, and funding cuts across education and youth services; how are young people coping?

In 2021, Youth Music’s Self-Expression report evidenced the link between songwriting, self-expression and wellbeing in young people. The qualitative research showed how lyric writing is used to process emotions and events, and as a therapeutic tool for regulating and channelling experiences into something positive.

Throughout history, music has been a powerful vehicle to engage with social issues. It is widely reported that African American spirituals, gospel, and folk music all played an important role in the Civil Rights Movement in the US. Musicians would regularly collaborate with each other to disseminate songs to activists. Meanwhile, in the UK, the punk subculture was a direct rebellion against the social conditions of the 1970s and is largely characterised by its anti-establishment views. These are just a few of the instances where music and lyrics have been used as a powerful form of expression (and, at times, protest) for young voices.

In this current time of turmoil, Youth Music set out to further understand the role of creativity in young people’s wellbeing. With its new research revealing that almost all of those surveyed (93%) said that listening to, reading, or writing lyrics often serves as a therapeutic tool, Youth Music also interviewed creative career starters aged 18-25 from its NextGen community to find out more. Alongside insights from grassroots music projects and academic experts on the power of lyrics on wellbeing in today’s climate.

a young black woman smiles and holds a microphone
Photo credit: The Avenues

The therapeutic power of music and lyrics

The aftermath of the pandemic and the ongoing impact of the cost-of-living crisis is triggering mental health issues amongst young people at a critical period in their lives. For this, young people require coping mechanisms, and Youth Music’s research demonstrated that those aged 16-24 found that listening to, reading, or writing lyrics enables them to process difficult feelings and emotions (73%), and helps to reduce feelings of isolation or loneliness (54%).

Professor Nicola Dibben, science and psychology of music expert at The University of Sheffield, contributed her thoughts on this: “Social-psychological research into music making and listening has highlighted the important psychological functions of performing for adults and young people: the ability to re-experience moods and emotions, recalling memories, finding a connection with music, and with other people through music-making, and feeling as though one is being listened to by a friend.”

The power of music and lyric writing being a vehicle for both processing feelings and connecting with others is something that Welsh musician Rightkeysonly [23] is familiar with, as she claimed that lyric writing, “brought up a lot of personal things and helped me to process it, but also to describe it to other people in a way that they would understand without experiencing the things I had. Lyric writing was that place to be completely authentic or hide as much or show as much as I wanted to. It was that safety net to explore these things.”

Manchester based multidisciplinary artist B!TEZ [23] agreed, saying: “I write lyrics, again as like a love language to myself as for expression purposes and to self-regulate, but also to connect to other people because you're going through the similar emotions.”

Brighton-based poet and DJ, Erin James [26], explains that writing music is a therapeutic outlet, enabling her to process challenging feelings. She said, “writing is a massive vessel to my emotions, how I process my emotions and how I process the world. Where I felt previously that I didn’t have the right tools or I felt a bit powerless to respond to an event, my writing has shifted from a personal processing of emotions to using it to educate other people and myself as well.”

erin james headshot
Pictured: Erin James

Around half of young people living in the UK will have experienced at least one traumatic event or adverse childhood experience. With mental health services stretched and NHS leaders concerned that the “continued lack of resourcing” in the mental health sector has left services overburdened and at breaking point, young people often turn to alternative methods to process trauma.

Youth Music funded partner, Music Fusion, works with young people facing challenging life circumstances. CEO, Jinx Prowse, shared his thoughts on how music and lyric writing can help contribute positively to young people’s wellbeing, commenting that “it's cathartic. It’s often their only release, it's a way of translating their trauma. It helps them realise what they're going through.”

Speaking on the lack of resourcing for mental health services, he continued: “when the NHS try and offer them therapy within moments of trauma, they fail. So, they've given us money, and we do the therapy instead.”

Despite the high prevalence and burden of mental health problems among young people, studies have suggested that they infrequently seek professional help. Rapper JAGO XYEN, aged 23 from Peckham, echoed this, commenting: “In the Black community, we don't have therapy...or have access to it. So, with lyric writing, it is like I’m talking to myself, I’m talking to the page, and I'm allowed to say anything to the page. The page doesn't judge me. The page is like a reflection. It's like a mirror.”

Jinx reiterated this, reflecting on his experience witnessing young people process emotions in this way. He shared: “When you dare to write what you're feeling on a bit of paper and read that back just in your mind, you’ve externalised that thought, you've put it on a bit of paper, and you can look at it rather than it going around in your head. Now, if you dare to say that lyric out loud, you've named the issue, you've actually done it. You've set it out into the world. It's become real.”

When asked about how listening to and writing music can support wellbeing, Professor Dibben said: “In the context of music, lyrics (words) have a particularly interesting position: it’s well established that music is a very effective means for young people to self-regulate mood, and a sonic context can add a useful non-discursive environment in which it can be possible to say things there that may feel too difficult to express in other contexts.”

a collage of photos: one young man sings and another plays the keyboard
Photo credit: Mantra Music

To some artists, the form of therapy through music can be almost meditative, as B!TEZ described: “Creating music is so therapeutic, because you really have time to meditate. To me writing is meditation, because you're focusing in on certain things and you're letting everything else go to the wayside.”

Professor Dibben provided further insight on this, highlighting: “Some people, when engaged in creative acts like song-writing, report experiencing it as totally absorbing. This state of ‘flow’, as termed by psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, is a state of consciousness in which an individual is so positively absorbed in the activity that they become unaware of their surroundings. In addition to providing distraction from unpleasant or unhelpful thoughts, this experience in itself can be a powerful and positive one for human flourishing.”

Building bonds

Music not only helps individuals to feel less alone, but can also help them to connect with others around them and build bonds within communities. Youth Music’s research found that those aged 16-24 were over twice as likely than older generations to find listening to, reading or writing lyrics help to reduce feelings of isolation (54% vs 22% for over 55s).

Collaborative lyric writing in particular has benefited the young people interviewed by providing an environment where creatives can bounce ideas off each other and discuss emotional topics within a group setting.

Erin James reflected on writing a poem on the power of chosen family with a friend and how that will connect them forever, further establishing their friendship: “Writing something so important together was very special and bonding. I think that piece of writing will eternally connect us, which is a nice thing.”

Lyric writing can also be used as a tool to bring vulnerable communities together and provide a way to collectively process traumatic events and social injustices. Erin facilitates workshops with young people and commented on how inspirational this process has been for those she supports: “When I enter that space for just half an hour to an hour, [the young people] can just become writers and not be teenagers who have so much weight on their shoulders. By me sharing my own stuff in workshops, more people want to share their stuff. It’s nice to see that level of vulnerability and openness.”

Louise Godfrey, Executive Director of Readipop, a Youth Music funded partner that uses music and arts to enrich lives, communities and the cultural landscape of Reading and the Thames Valley, says that writing together in groups brings a lot out of the young people she works with: “If one of them is feeling vulnerable and writing in that way then the others feel safer to do so. We help each other to be vulnerable sometimes.”

jago xyen rubs his hands together and looks into the distance.
Pictured: JAGO XYEN

JAGO XYEN regularly attends a group dedicated to creating conscious rap, a subgenre characterised by content that addresses society issues and calls for political and or social action. Based in South Londonwhere there’s not a lot of funding, there’s housing issues [and] all of these socio-economic issues”, the group writes lyrics and rap on topics surrounding youth violence and the socio-economic issues that affect them. “As a writer, you might feel blocked, so when somebody in the group is excited about a topic, we can bounce off each other,” JAGO XYEN said. “We're all kind of sharing our thoughts and how we're going to make a change to these issues.”

Music Fusion works with many young people affected by gang violence. Jinx spoke about an album that the group is recording, featuring young people from rival postcodes: “These kids are literally trying to kill each other out there but when we put them on the same track, turns out half of them want to jump onto the next track.”

Having a shared task and goal can be key to forming social bonds and a shared identity. Professor Dibben further highlights the idea that collaborative and community lyric writing can help groups to collectively process issues and form bonds: “There is copious evidence from controlled psychological studies that music making facilitates the formation of social bonds, in some cases even more quickly than other kinds of activity.”

Censorship in music and lyrics

The complicated and thorny relationship between rap music and censorship is a well-documented one. More recently, we’ve seen artistic content developed by young people being used as evidence by police and prosecutors in the criminal justice system in the UK and beyond.

According to research by the University of Manchester conducted by Eithne Quinn, Professor of Cultural Studies and lead on the Prosecuting Rap project; at least 240 people in the UK were charged in cases in which rap music was sought to be used as evidence over the past three years It has been identified that the misuse of rap and drill music in particular can perpetuate harmful racial stereotypes and risk causing miscarriages of justice.

Eithne commented: “When police interpret rap in court proceedings, they tend to discount and deny all the valuable things that music opens for young artists. Creative value, therapeutic value, artistic value, commercial value: all of these things are stripped away in police evidence. Instead, they impose a criminological lens used to infer guilt.”

Last week, Art Not Evidence - a group of lawyers, academics and music industry professionals who are calling for law reform to stop the criminalisation of rap and drill music, and creative expression more broadly - released an open letter, backed by MPs and artists.

This is a hugely important campaign - not least to prevent art being used as evidence and perpetuating racial injustice - but also to protect the creative expression of artists and shift attitudinal perceptions towards certain genres like rap and drill.

London based rapper, and winner of the Lyricist Award at this year’s Youth Music Awards, TL [18] shared his thoughts on drill’s perception: “Depending on the genre of music, it can really have an effect on people’s perspective of music and lyrics. For example, drill is not [widely accepted] by society – there’s some drill music that has really good lyrics, but no one takes it in because of the genre of music.”

TL accepts his youth music award
Lyricist Award sponsored by PRS for Music winner TL on stage at the Youth Music Awards 2023 / Photo: Nic Serpell-Rand

B!TEZ shared similar sentiments around the censorship of drill: “I feel like it's major censorship, there's a song called 'Political Drillin' [by a rapper called Drillminister] and he explores the contradictions of how MPs will say really vile stuff to each other in Parliament, and they'll say stuff that if a normal person said it, it would sound almost like a threat. If we're being honest, [the artists and genres] being targeted are heavily related to blackness and poverty.”

The creation of music – especially genres like rap or drill – has long been about documenting real-life struggles. But music is also often about performativity. Artists use personas and different creative identities to discuss issues and topics that may not always directly relate to them. Therefore making it arguably difficult to determine which lyrics are fabricated and which ones are truthful based on our own interpretations.

Rightkeysonly reflected on this: “As a listener, you're going to perceive things completely different to the artist… You're only perceiving what you want to perceive, and so I think sometimes people make a prejudgment that's not fully accurate for the artist.”

Rightkeysonly highlighted the importance of being able to freely communicate as an artist: “It's that one place where I'm accepted to communicate in the way that I prefer.” But also reflected, “I was taught in university that as soon as you've written something, it's not yours anymore as you've gifted it to someone else to interpret.”

Over the years, the ‘demonisation’ of music genres has been well documented: from rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s, heavy metal in the 1980s, to grime in the early 2000s and, most recently, drill. As time has passed, genres like jazz that were once vilified are now welcomed and celebrated. The demonisation of certain music genres can be attributed to racism, classism, and respectability politics, which particularly affects Black and working-class young people.

rightkeysonly smiles
Pictured: Rightkeysonly

Professor Eithne Quinn concluded: “Too often, the state frames these kids in terms of risk that needs containing or punishing; instead, the state should be tuning into what they need and how to help them grow and thrive. What these lyrics are about, what they really show, is vulnerability and creative ways of handling vulnerability - developing voice in conditions of heightened insecurity. It's hard to be young given all the social policy failures in this country. Young Black lives are particularly impacted. They are processing so much and there is often trauma. Rap offers vital spaces to express that as well as to reject the state's punitive and biased typecasting of them.”

“Young people need far more investment, care and to be supported in the development of their creative expression and social identities.”

If music is demonised and used in criminal proceedings, and young people aren’t given the freedom to safely process difficult emotions and trauma through writing and listening to lyrics, we could see a decline in the use of music as a form of expression and therapy.

In conclusion

The power of music and lyric writing as a therapeutic outlet for young people is undeniable. In this piece, we’ve heard first-hand from young creatives and music projects about the benefits of lyric writing on their wellbeing in today’s climate. In fact, Youth Music’s research found that young people are almost three times more likely than older generations to use listening to, reading, or writing lyrics as a therapeutic outlet (16-24: 66% vs 55+: 23%).

Matt Griffiths, CEO of Youth Music, said: “The last few years have been a difficult time for many, but particularly for young people who have experienced significant upheaval and instability in such a short space of time, during such pivotal points in their lives. The impact of which is weighing heavily on their mental health. And it’s getting tougher for young people – especially those facing barriers in their lives – to access support.  

“This new evidence shows that creativity continues to provide an important outlet for young people in times like these. Which is why it’s crucial we ensure the projects providing the space for this invaluable work are able to survive and thrive, in these challenging economic circumstances.