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The Substance of Music:

The Relationship Between Substance Use, Musicians, and Other Artistic Individuals

Abstract

Musicians along with other creative individuals are a population that suffers from a public perception, whether correct or incorrect, of drug use and abuse.  The purpose of this paper is to investigate the relationship between music, creativity, and substance abuse issues, as well as examine possible reasons for its existence and possible implications for counselors.

Relationship Between Substance Use and the Arts

Musicians, painters, poets, and artists of all forms have long been associated with edgy lifestyles, defiance of social norms, free spirited attitudes, and mental abnormalities.  From Vincent Van Gogh to Mozart to Silvia Plath, there have certainly been a fair share of “poster child” artists who have created renowned pieces of art while trapped in relentless minds (Ludwig, 1989).  Often, such instances lead into behaviors of self medication that make situations worse, and affect not only the artist, but also his or her work and the world around them.  As several studies have indicated, substance abuse problems share a close relationship with creative minds (Gronnerod, 2002; Ludwig, 1990; Singer & Mirhej, 2006).  Just why is it that artists seem to have such a propensity towards mental health issues and especially substance abuse problems?

This paper is an attempt to delve into the reasons for the hardships that so many artists go through, and the amazing masterpieces that often emerge from the madness.  Why artists are such an intensely creative and yet troubled population is a topic of importance, not only for the artists themselves, but also to the understanding of mental disorders in general.  Specifically, this paper will examine the possible reasons and implications of musicians and other creative individuals who fall victim to the grasp of addiction to drugs and alcohol.  An examination into this topic will hopefully shed light on why these individuals have an inclination towards addiction, and how they might be helped.  First, a short investigation into the relationship between creativity and substance use will be explored, and how this relationship might affect the artistic mind.  Next, the connections between drugs and music in particular will be examined to find why and how these two separate entities seem to play such an integral part in each other’s evolution.  The relationship between musical preference and drug use as well as the physiological connections that may be present will be considered.  Finally, a discussion of the implications and possible clinical applications of this knowledge in counseling settings will be presented.

Substance and Creativity

Before delving into the specific issue of art and drug use, a broader examination of the relationship between general creativity and substance abuse seems appropriate.  Creative persons such as authors, painters and musicians have long been associated with substance use.  Jazz, for instance, is rooted with connections to such substances as marijuana and heroin (Singer & Mirhej, 2006).  American jazz musicians in the early part of the 19th often lived poor and downtrodden lives, with little or no other income than their music.  Because of this, marijuana use allowed them to play for long hours with little breaks, thus enhancing their income as well as their “artistic imagination” (Singer & Mirhej, 2006).  Record producer Michael Cuscuna summed up the jazz musicians lifestyle in a few words, “Anyone who thinks that it’s easy to go onstage every night, three hundred times a year, and create something new, will never get the toll that it takes to be a jazz musician” (Singer & Mirhej, 2006).

In a study conducted by Ludwig (1990), biographies of 250 creative persons were reviewed.  Of these persons, 34 were chosen to be the subject of investigation into the relationship between alcohol and their own creative experiences.   This sample consisted of 28 writers and poets, 4 musical composers and performers, and 2 visual artists.  The biographies of all artists were carefully reviewed by a number of readers and were subsequently transposed onto data collection forms that concentrated on personal characteristics of the artists’ such as family, demographics, childhood experiences, schooling, professional achievements, and so forth.  This data was then compared, discussed, and agreed upon by the readers (Ludwig, 1990).

Using an innovative approach originally developed by Richards (1981), Ludwig was able to classify possible relationships between substance use and creativity among the subjects of the study.  This method helps to simplify the extremely complex relationships between alcohol use, creativity, and the often volatile lives of the artists.  Classifications for the substance/creativity relationship included: Alcohol intake directly increases creative output; Alcohol intake indirectly increases creative output; Alcohol intake directly decreases creative output; Alcohol intake indirectly decreases creative output; Creative output directly increases alcohol intake; Creative output indirectly increases alcohol intake; Creative output directly decreases alcohol intake; Creative output indirectly decreases alcohol intake; Intervening variables directly affect either creative output (more or less) or alcohol intake (more or less) (Ludwig, 1990).

All 34 artists studied were classified into one or more of the categories listed above.  Contrary to many of the artists’ original assumptions that alcohol increased their creative ability, 76.5% of them were determined to fall into the category of Alcohol intake directly decreases creative output, and only 8.8% had a direct benefit from alcohol use (Ludwig, 1990).  Ludwig found throughout the course of the artists’ lives that drinking at an early stage might have facilitated the creative process, after one or two drinks to “loosen up.”  As the artists became used to this drinking to facilitate work, some began to depend on the effects of substance, not only for their work, but also for their lives, “The detrimental effects of alcohol, as should be apparent, also tend to worsen over time as alcoholism progresses in severity and individuals lose the capacity to separate their drinking from their work” (Ludwig, 1990).

It is hard to imagine how drugs could facilitate creativity, especially in debilitating dosages, but Ludwig found a common element in the 8.8% of artists who were classified under alcohol intake directly increases creative output. Where alcohol and other substances might show actual improvements in artists’ ability to work is in cases of other ailments that he or she may face.  For instance, if an individual suffers from mental issues such as depression or physical issues such as chronic pain, alcohol might alleviate this and allow the artist to continue work.  After time, the substance of choice creates a dependence and is needed to ward off its own symptoms of withdrawal. The substance acts as a mechanism for alleviating personal ailments that prevent the artist from functioning on a physical, mental, and artistic level.   Of course, this self medicating process is detrimental to the overall health of the individual, and often leads to even more severe problems than the initial cause for using the drug (Ludwig, 1990).

Music and Substance Use

Musical Preference and Drug Use.

Several studies have been conducted to observe the relationships between substance use and personal preference in listening to or playing music. (Chen, Miller, Grube, & Waiters, 1995; Chesky, Hipple, & Ho, 1998).  Using the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test, Chen and colleagues tested several research questions regarding the consumption of liquor and the listening habits of individuals from 15-25 of rap music in particular.  One of these questions focused on whether or not alcohol and drug use was associated with preference for music.  The study found that listening to certain genres including heavy metal, punk, rap, R&B, reggae, rock, and techno was significantly and positively related to the use of alcohol (Chen et al., 1995).  The authors add caution to their findings, however, indicating that no causal relationship was present.  While a significant relationship existed between musical preference and substance use, the propensity towards using the substance might have encouraged the inclination to the particular type of music, or vice-versa.  Either way, some connection was established, and further investigation was encouraged.

Another similar study by Forsyth, Barnard, and McKeganey (1997) investigated the association between musical preference and adolescent drug use in Scotland.   Through survey research, respondents answered questions pertaining to favorite styles of music, prior use of illegal substances, and other demographical information.  The data from the study confirmed the belief that a significant relationship existed between musical preference and drug use.  In this case, the genre most associated with the practice of using illegal substances was rave music, which includes techno, jungle, house, trance, and a variety of other sub-genres.  In fact, 64.3% of children in the study who had ever experimented with any form of illegal substance had indicated that their favorite choice of music was rave (p < .01) (Forsyth et al., 1997).

At the time of this study, a political debate regarding pop-culture was emerging as two prominent musicians of the popular bands Oasis and East 17 made several statements deemed “pro-drug.” The assumption was that youth might imitate the attitudes of the popular musicians towards drugs and that substance use among adolescents would rise.  Contrary to that belief, however, the data from this study did not support a positive relationship with drug use and preference for popular music. Although, as with the previous study, a causal relationship cannot be established with these results, a relationship most certainly exists, and the reasons for the existence seem to reach further than simply thwarting to an issue of popular culture gone wrong (Forsyth et al., 1997).

According to Markert (2001), “critical attention to lyrical content is typically based on one of two intellectual traditions: (1) music is popular because it reflects the values and beliefs of those who consume it, or (2) music is didactic and acts as a socializing agent by teaching behavior” (Markert, 2001).  Whether music reflects the beliefs of a society or acts as an outlet for teaching popular behavior, the fact that substance use has and continues to permeate music makes the medium an interesting focus of study into the attitudes of a culture towards legal and illegal mind-altering drugs.  Due to the results of Forsyth et. al., along with the documented tendency of musicians to use drugs and other substances at a higher percentage than the general population (Ludwig, 1990; Chesky, Hipple, & Ho, 1998; Gronnerod, 2002), it seems that underlying factors other than just pop-culture might contribute to substance abuse among creative individuals.

Physiological relationship between drug use and music.

Although the link between certain types of music and substance abuse has been studied and relationships have been discovered, the actual causes for this relationship have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint.  Without venturing inside the human mind, finding the reasons for why drugs and music are so closely tied remains a mystery.  In 2006, Fachner attempted to delve further into this topic by examining the actual effects that drugs paired with musical stimulus have on the brain.  Due to the advent of the EEG (Electroencephalograph), changes over time in the brain can be precisely measured, and can be related to stimulus or events that cause those physiological changes.

Using a sample of four individuals, Fachner measured brain activity under normal conditions and under the influence of cannabis (Fachner, 2006).  While playing three selections of music, all participants showed lower activity with perception of high frequencies and significant increases in activity (p <.025) with slower frequency sounds.  More activity was found in the midbrain, which is responsible for emotions, memory, and selection, when under the influence of cannabis. Also intensified were patterns present of the parietal alpha band, which may indicate heightened attention to the perception of acoustics (Fachner, 2006). Although these results cannot be widely generalized due to the small sample of the study, the implications for further research and the possibilities to understanding the link between music and substance use are promising.

Performance and Abuse

In order to acquire a further understanding of just why music and substance use shares such an integral part in each one’s existence, it is important to look at the relationships with and the mindsets towards drug use among practicing musicians.

Perceptions of drug use among musicians.

In 1998, a study by Chesky, Hipple, and Ho examined the perceptions that musicians have towards alcohol and substance use in general.  Providing an online format of the UNT Musician Health Survey (UNT-MHS), the researchers were able to reach a large sample of musicians with various backgrounds from all over the United States.  This survey is divided into five sections which include demographical information, musculoskeletal problems of musicians, non-musculoskeletal problems, lifestyle and environment issues, and a section for comments and feedback.  As for the issue of the perception of drug use among musicians, the following question was posed, “In your opinion, is there widespread drug use among musicians?” (Chesky et al., 1998).

In response to the above question, 29% of the total sample of 2,773 musicians responded “yes.”  Of these musicians, with personal backgrounds ranging from classical music to popular genres, approximately 1 in 3 felt that widespread drug use is apparent among musicians.  Furthermore, 58.2% of male respondents age 20-29 answered “yes,” as well as 42.1% of female respondents of the same age group (Chesky, et al., 1998).  The researchers caution the reliability of this data, alluding to the limitations of internet surveys and the fact that the respondents could not be monitored in a clinical setting.  Even so, the fact that such a high percentage of musicians perceive widespread drug use among their peers as a reality is striking.  With its limitations, such a study warrants further investigation into why this is the case, and why musicians view their own community as one in which drug use is so common.

The role of drugs in the lives of musicians.

The famous adage of “Drugs, Sex, and Rock and Roll” illuminates the very apparent ties between the life of a musician and the social expectations that he or she faces.  Classic images of the rock star relaxing with guitar in hand, cigarette butt hanging from mouth and women by his side is in stark contrast with the reality of life on the road.  In 2002, Gronnerod investigated the role of illegal and legal substances in amateur rock bands.  Through interviews with 32 musicians aged 18-30, Gronnerod found several telling signs affirming that this tie to drugs is still very real and often plays out with musicians who may never achieve the status of glorified rock star (Gronnerod, 2002).

Many of the musicians whom Gronnerod interviewed had found themselves in situations where alcohol and drug use was accepted or even encouraged.  Due to the fact that many musicians play in bars, restaurants, and other licensed premises, the consumption of alcohol is often a usual occurrence.  A large amount of the musicians who were interviewed saw their gigs as celebrations rather than work, and even if their primary income is music, the blur between work and play becomes more apparent, and “there are no clear lines of demarcation marked with alcohol between celebration, playing as work, or an ordinary weekend in many musicians’ lives” (Gronnerod, 2002).

In the 1920s, as the genre of jazz began to emerge, musicians utilized substances just to get through their daily rituals (Singer & Mirhej, 2006).  Even today, it is not uncommon for musicians to face poor living conditions for weeks or even months at a time, little money for food, little sleep, and little more than a far off dream to keep sane.  Drugs and alcohol to the musician, then, are unfortunately addictions of necessity rather than excess (Gronnerod, 2002).  One musician, after returning home from a tour, stated that his daily drinking habits on the road continued after he was back, and expressed the difficulty of regressing to a normal home life.

After time, addictions and other substances including “hard drugs” often find their way into the mix.  According to one artist, “there really are guys who think they play better rock because they shoot heroin” (Gronnerod, 2002).  Heavy drinking is accepted in settings such as bars or concert venues, and the loss of self control can and sometimes does lead to alcoholism and other dependence problems.  Discussing the looming threat of alcoholism, a 27 year old drummer in Gronnerod’s study confessed, “It scares me, I feel it [the threat of becoming an alcoholic] is sitting right there behind my back” (Gronnerod, 2002).  The difficulty in dealing with this along with poor living conditions and constant performance expectations can make substance abuse a foreseeable problem in the field of popular performance music.

Discussion

While the use of alcohol and drugs within the artistic community is a widespread concern, the aforementioned investigations into the relationship between illegal and legal substances and the creative mind have shed some light on the matter.  As indicated in the studies of Ludwig, the intake of substances while participating in the creative process is not particularly beneficial, and can even lead to problems in a majority of artists involved.  Yet, a relationship between musical preference and drug use persists (Chen et al., 1995; Forsyth et al., 1997) as does the perception that musicians actively partake in drug use at a greater extent than the general population (Chesky et al., 1998).  Furthermore, physiological changes that seem to heighten awareness of musical perception could account for the link between cannabis and music (Fachner, 2006). Jazz musicians for many years have utilized the effects of drugs for the practical purposes of staying awake for extended periods of time and increasing awareness of musical ideas in their improvised performances (Singer & Mirhej, 2006).  This, however, can lead to dependency issues that affect not only the musician, but also the audience and the culture in which the musician takes part (Gronnerod, 2002; Singer & Mirhej, 2006; Markert, 2001).  Herein lies the struggle of the creative mind that feeds off of a constant need for innovation while under great pressures to produce the elusive masterpiece.

Acknowledgement of the issue is the first step towards helping the individuals who are struggling to cope with it.  Musicians caught in the grasp of alcoholism and other drug addictions are a population at risk, but because the perception of drug use among their community is one of acceptance, help is not always easy to find.  Counselor professionals need to closely examine the connections between drug abuse and creative individuals, (including, but not limited to musicians), in order to help them cope with the dangers of their addictions and the consequences of a difficult lifestyle.

Several organizations have been formed to address this need, some of which include MusiCares and Musician’s Assistance Program.  MusiCares, as part of the Recording Academy and the Grammy Foundation, is an organization that focuses on helping struggling musicians in times of need.  While the program helps artists with issues ranging from financial to personal emergencies, a central focus of MusiCares is to aid individuals within the music community who suffer from addiction and substance abuse issues.  Several programs fall under the direction of the MusiCares organization, including the Safe Harbor Room for artists at various awards ceremonies, addiction recovery and support groups, and the MusiCares MAP fund, named for the Musician’s Assistance Program.  The Musician’s Assistance Program, which until 2004 worked as a separate entity, has joined forces with MusiCares and has created a strong base for support (MusiCares, 2005).

Although structures are in place to help struggling musicians, the reasons for the connection between music and drug abuse are still difficult to identify.  Studies regarding the physiological aspects of the link help to explain how the two actually coincide, but the lack of decent sample sizes and the difficulty to obtain information on illegal drug use while maintaining ethical standards is of great concern (Fachner, 2006).  Research into the social aspects of how musicians and other creative artists begin using drugs is also of importance.  If counselors are able to reach this population before they fall to methods of self-medication, artistic individuals would have a greater chance of learning coping strategies that would keep them from becoming addicted.  While no one method to prevent drug use and addiction is fool proof, the process of targeting help towards this population in need is one step closer to reducing the number of artists who use drugs.  Our lives are all affected by music, and we owe it to musicians to help them deal with the hardships that come along with the intense desire to create.

References

Chen, M. J., Miller, B., Grube, J.W., & Waiters, E.D. (1995). Music, substance use, and aggression. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 67(3), 373-381.

Chesky, K. S., Hipple, J., & Ho, K. (1998). Perceptions of widespread drug use among musicians. Texas, USA: University of North Texas, Texas Music Education Research.

Fachner, J. (2006). Set and setting in an electrophysiological research paradigm on music perception under the influence of cannabis and correlated brain function. Music Therapy Today, 7(2), 333-357.

Forsyth, A. J. M., Barnard, M., & McKeganey, N. P. (1997). Musical preference as an indicator of adolescent drug use. Addiction, 92(10), 1317-1325.

Gronnerod, J. S. (2002).  Te use of alcohol and cannabis in non-professional rock bands in Finland. Contemporary Drug Problems, 29(summer), 417-443.

Ludwig, A. M. (1989). Reflections on creativity and madness. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 43(1), 4-14

Ludwig, A. M. (1990). Alcohol input and creative output. British Journal of Addiction, 85, 953-963.

Markert, J. (2001). Sing a song of drug use-abuse: Four decades of drug lyrics in popular music – from the sixties through the nineties. Sociological Inquiry, 71(2), 194-220.

MusiCares. (2005). Community Services Report. Retrieved April 22, 2007, from http://www.grammy.com/PDFs/CSR_MC.pdf.

Richards, R. L. (1981). Relationships between creativity and psychopathology: an evaluation and interpretation of the evidence. Genetic Psychology Monographs, 103, 261-324.

Singer, M. & Mirhej, G. (2006). High notes: The role of drugs in the making of jazz. Journal of Ethnicity in Substance Abuse, 5(4), 1-38.

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