In early April the Canadian Opera Company (COC) opened its production of Hercules. The play — written in 500 BC and adapted by George Frideric Handel in 1745 — tells the story of a soldier’s struggles after returning home from war. Kip Pegley (School of Music) was invited to an advance performance of Hercules and gave a talk about war veterans, music and rehabilitation at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs as part of a symposium organized by the COC and the Faculty of Music, University of Toronto.
Dr. Pegley sat down with Rosie Hales, Communications Officer, to discuss her research into music as a rehabilitation technique for war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and how she hopes her research will help soldiers and veterans in the future.
Rosie Hales: Your research centres on music and veteran health. Why did you decide to choose this as a research focus?
Kip Pegley: I believe that the research we choose to undertake says a lot about us. For example, my father was a Korean War veteran and served in the Canadian Navy for 35 years. He was an emotionally reserved man; to learn more about him, I joined the Naval Reserves as a teenager. However, as I got older I realized that the best way to know him was through music – it was the one place he really opened up emotionally. Music was entwined with his sense of duty and his career in the Navy.
Since 2002, when Canada officially deployed our military to Afghanistan, I’ve been interested in learning more about what music means to this generation of soldiers. With so many soldiers returning with PTSD, I was also curious to seek out ways that music might help them while they are deployed as well as in post-deployment.
RH: How has the role of music for deployed soldiers changed since your father’s work in the Navy?
KP: When my father was deployed he was listening to big band and other music that was played over the radio with his fellow soldiers. Now, soldiers use different technologies, like iPods and CDs, to pump music through the tanks or listen in their bunks alone at night. For my father, music was more of a shared event but soldiers today have the option to make it a more personalized and individual experience.
RH: So, what kind of music do soldiers listen to when they’re going into war?
KP: The music soldiers blare in the tanks when they’re going into combat isn’t the music you might initially suspect: Popular culture today is saturated with “militainment,” a genre that conflates entertainment with war. Watching “militainment” movies or playing video games like Call of Duty or American Army might make us believe that soldiers listen to heavy metal and rap music to get them pumped up for combat. It might surprise some to know that a Canadian veteran I interviewed was going into combat in a tank with 10 other men singing along to Deep Blue Something’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” The female tank driver, meanwhile, listened to hymns her grandmother sang to her as a child through her iPod headphones. This same female tank driver used music as a way to bond with the women living in her barracks – she played the Dirty Dancing soundtrack and that got everyone up and moving. Music provided them a safe opportunity to sing, dance and lower their hyper vigilance for a little while.
RH: How can music help soldiers once they’re home from war, or if they’re suffering from PTSD?
KP: Music gets people, veterans or not, talking. Music therapy can be anything from a group singing country songs to a drumming circle. Music is an important portal for veterans to access a range of feelings-- ̶love and loss, fear and guilt. Sometimes they can sing what they cannot ̶ and would not ever ̶̶ say.
My upcoming research will involve studying how neural feedback can help war veterans cope with their PTSD. In neurofeedback, the subject puts on a headset and listens to music with electrodes wired up to their brain. When they are listening to the music, they may start thinking and their brainwaves might become more stressed. When this happens, the music stops and they hear a “click” sound which refocuses them by resetting their brain.
It's my hope that one day music will play an important role in traumatic rehabilitation and help get soldiers - and all traumatized individuals - back on their feet.