Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Pain of Music

By Stephen Luntz

Orchestral musicians suffer extraordinary rates of both physical pain and mental stress in order to wring glorious sounds from their instruments.

Prof Dianna Kenny of the University of Sydney’s School of Psychology surveyed 377 professional musicians from state and opera orchestras. Of these, 84% suffered physical pain severe enough to impair their performance. The results were reported in Psychology of Music.

The musicians were also particularly prone to mental health problems, with 32% having symptoms of depression and half reporting moderate to severe performance anxiety. Anxiety was just as high among those with relatively minor roles, which Kenny attributes to scrutiny from desk partners and conductors, even if audience members might not notice small errors by those playing more obscure instruments.

“There is a strong relationship between the severity of performance-related pain and music performance anxiety. Those reporting more severe pain also reported higher music performance anxiety,” Kenny says.

However, Kenny also found that this relationship breaks down among one-quarter of the performers. These had particularly severe physical pain but no depression. While she admits her colleagues have suggested that these people might be “perfectly happy but suffering from overwork,” Kenny has a different theory.

“Some musicians might somatise their pain,” Kenny says. “This means that they may convert their psychological distress into muscle tension, which leads to physical pain.” Although she says she does not yet have the evidence to demonstrate that this is occurring among the musicians, Kenny says there is clinical data for other people who lack an organic basis for the level of pain they are suffering.

In such circumstances, Kenny says, we have converted our evolutionary fight-or-flight response into muscle tension now that we can no longer respond with bursts of activity. Over time, repeated release of stress hormones such as cortisone and adrenalin can generate physical pain that is particularly serious for those who play instruments for their living.

Kenny says one of the goals of her research is to develop occupational health and safety guidelines for a group that currently lacks them, as well as a better idea about how to improve posture and benefit the muscles specific to particular instruments.