Music and addiction recovery
Updated: Jul 8
One of our volunteers and the brains behind our 2.6 Challenge social media comms, Imogen Smalley, reflects on her Masters research exploring how group music-making can help those in addiction recovery, and the importance of these services in prisons.
Photo: Malte Wingen
In a bid to ‘protect the NHS and save lives’ both adult and child prisoners have been confined to their cells for an average of 23 hours a day. All prison visits have been postponed since 24 March 2020, with almost no therapy or face-to-face education going ahead. Sing Inside visits have of course been put on pause, although over 200 CDs for in-cell music learning have now been sent by the charity into prisons across England and Wales to support in-cell learning and wellbeing.
Sing Inside does not work with addiction recovery services per se. However, given the current situation in prisons, combined with the insight that I gained during my Master’s degree in Musicology, I have been reflecting on how singing or musical projects might relate to addiction rehabilitation.
It is now – I believe and hope – no secret that music engagement can afford substantial therapeutic benefits. However, the impact of music engagement on addiction recovery is less well known, with collective music experiences being particularly helpful.
Owing to music’s inherent association with the social – formed through mediations such as where the individual first heard the track – the art form has a strong ability to be fused in the listener’s mind with a certain culture. Subsequently, musical encounters have the power to call to attention not only memories of these associated cultures, but the social constructs we believe formulated these experiences, and, in turn, the role or ‘self’ we perceive ourselves to have played within them.
As a result, the medium becomes entwined with our understanding of our ‘social self’, and subsequently has the ability to conjure up the phenomenon of what one understands ‘togetherness’ – and their role within it – to be. 
Yet for those on the path to recovery, having one’s former sense of identity pulled into the present moment can be difficult. This is particularly the case owing to addictions manifesting themselves not simply as a compulsion towards a particular substance or behaviour, but as a way of relating to the world. However, through an active engagement with music – in the way that Sing Inside workshops and CDs offer – it becomes possible to develop the musically-instigated notion of the social self, so as to move beyond past sensations repeatedly being called into play on encountering the medium.
Collective music making is particularly useful for developing one’s relationship with their social existence owing to the context in which the identity work is being carried out. The setting inevitably elicits a stronger sense of ‘togetherness’ (in comparison with that of private practice), which subsequently creates an impression that has more power to jostle with previous notions of the addicted self that may come into play on future encounters with music.
Furthermore, the process of converting one’s understanding of their social identity from a phenomenon that exists in the mind (for example during private practise or listening) into an entity that is being engaged with and put into motion can be reassuring, in the sense that personal progression is evidentially being made.
Fundamentally, through the act of music making the ‘timeline’ of one’s social self that music inherently conjures up has been ‘updated’. Sensations attached to the former addicted way of encountering the world are therefore less likely to have the power to take hold once again, meaning that the chance of relapse being triggered by musically-instigated memories is diminished.
Considering that there are twice as many prison residents developing drug problems within jail as five years ago, and with psychological dislocation increasing the likelihood of vulnerability to addictive tendencies, collective music making and creative activity is crucially important.
 Ministry of Justice Press Release: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/prison-visits-cancelled
 The charity Howard League for Penal Reform reported that one child was provided with a Maths and English sheet that took a mere 25 minutes to complete: https://howardleague.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Children-in-prison-during-covid-19.pdf
 In August 2017, I had the privilege of experiencing music’s ability to revoke memory in Alzheimer patients through the Inspire workshops run by Opera Holland Park. Individuals who had otherwise been unable to speak for months found an ability to sing along to melodies. Refer to the bibliography for research on music and dementia, music and cancer treatment, and music as a method of alleviating anxiety and depression.
 See Georgina Born’s Music and the Materialization of Identities in the Journal of Musical Culture, Volume 16(4), (2011).
 See Chapter 3 of Tia DeNora’s Music In Everyday Life (2000); and Michael Bull’s No Dead Air! The iPod and the Culture of Mobile Listening. In Leisure Studies, Volume 24(5), 2005.
 The correlation between private music listening and addiction relapse remains an alarmingly under-researched topic. See music therapist Tvsia Horesh’s Dangerous Music: Working with the Destructive and Healing Powers of Popular Music in the Treatment of Substance Abusers, in Music and Altered States: Consciousness, Transcendence, Therapy and Addictions (2006); and Influence of Music on Emotions and Cravings in Clients in Addiction Treatment: A Study of Two Clinical Samples, in The Arts of Psychotherapy, Volume 45, (2015) by G.A. Dingle, P.J. Kelly, L.M. Flynn, and F.A. Baker.
For support with addiction problems (or support for those whose loved ones are caught in addictive tendencies) please see Adfam’s list of useful organisations:
For further reading on music and constructions of the ‘self’ and addiction, do get in touch and imogen is happy to provide some further references.