Research | Queen’s University Canada

The Power of Music in Veterans' Health

The Power of Music in Veterans' Health

[music note]

Dr. Kip Pegley knows what kind of impact music can have on people’s lives. As an associate professor of musicology and ethnomusicology, the power of music is all around her.

In her current research, Pegley is looking at the role that music plays within the lives of Canadian Forces personnel, in particular those who have been deployed and returned to Canada, including those suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

What she has found in talking to many vets is that music can help deployed soldiers create borders between their private time and work time, both on base and when they are “outside the wire.” In Afghanistan, for instance, infantry soldiers could be off base for weeks at a time and would rarely be able to let their guard down due to potential threats.

However, once they slipped on their headphones or earbuds, music provided that much-needed separation, allowing them to take more control of their situation from the inside out.

“Listening to music changes us physiologically − we now understand more about how it can modulate brainstem measures, including heart rate, pulse, blood pressure, body temperature and muscle tension, as well as influence hormones like dopamine and cortisol − which in turn can help protect our mental health. Here’s where it matters: whereas most civilians differentiate between ‘work time’ and ‘off-work time,’ deployed personnel live and work in the same stressful environment. And if they are constantly under threat and remain in that state of hyper-arousal, they are at higher risk for psychological injury.”

Through music, they are able to regulate their bodies, calm their nervous systems and tell themselves ‘It’s after-hours, you are safe, relax.

Also, music allows them to create walls where none exist and establish some sonic privacy, Pegley says.

“Through music, soldiers create and differentiate their environment, temporally and spatially,” she explains, “and this is incredibly valuable when they are deployed for months at a time.” Soldiers know the importance of having music with them − as one veteran recounted, “I rationed food, water and my iPod battery.” Listening to their personalized playlists also helps soldiers feel closer to home and mitigate feelings of isolation and loneliness. Sharing these lists with one another, in turn, helps them bond with their colleagues, people in whose hands they place their lives.

[Kip Pegley]
Kip Pegley (Photo by Greg Black)

Back home, she has found that music continues to play a key role in the lives of soldiers, particularly those living with PTSD. Some traumatized veterans engage with music differently than before their deployment, and their new relationships with music can give us insight into their psychological injuries. Others have come to rely heavily upon music to help keep them psychologically afloat, calling it their “anchor” and their “lifeline.” In a world that is ever-changing, music is their constant.

Music can trigger memories, both good and bad but usually powerful. When music holds personal significance, the memories associated with it often are much more available to us and we can experience them more strongly than other memories. For this reason, Pegley explains, music can serve as an important “portal,” providing a connection to veterans who are not socialized to talk about their feelings.

“Music becomes a way in. You can literally see veterans’ shoulders melt as they start to talk about a song and the memories they associate with it,” she says. “Perhaps they smile and perhaps they cry, and sometimes we sit and cry together. It’s a way for them to be able to access their memories and then be able to talk about them in more depth.” But sometimes the memories are really painful − many of them, for instance, struggle with the sound of the bagpipes, which they heard during ramp ceremonies. In post-deployment, veterans might hear this sound on Remembrance Day, or overhear it on the television, and it brings them right back to that painful moment. “A bagpipe drone can unleash feelings of loneliness or rage,” Pegley points out, “often when they least expect it.”

Music, then, can serve the therapeutic process by providing veterans access to difficult memories, but it can also derail this process, frustrating soldiers’ attempts to heal from their emotional and psychological wounds.

Learn More About Dr. Pegley's research