Youth Music column: lyrical catharsis

Matt Griffiths
Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Research from Youth Music has highlighted the impact of lyrics in helping young people to process emotions and reduce feelings of loneliness. CEO Matt Griffiths tell us more

Courtesy Sound Communities

As a youth-focussed charity, we have witnessed how recent challenges, such as the pandemic and cost-of-living crisis, have had a profound effect on young people's mental health. Research by Action for Children found that there has been an increase of 50% in childhood mental health problems over the last three years.

With NHS mental health services at breaking point and funding cuts across education and youth services, we wanted to find out which strategies young people are using to cope.

Therapeutic power

Our 2021 Self-Expression Report already evidenced the link between songwriting, self-expression and wellbeing in young people. Given the current climate, we conducted new research to find out more. This revealed that 73% of 16–24-year-olds found that reading, writing or listening to lyrics enables them to process difficult feelings and emotions.

As part of the research, we spoke to Professor Nicola Dibben, science and psychology of music expert at the University of Sheffield, who said: ‘Social-psychological research into music-making and listening has highlighted the important psychological functions of performing for adults and young people: the ability to re-experience moods and emotions, recall memories, find a connection with music and with other people through music-making, and feel as though one is being listened to by a friend.’

We also spoke with creative career starters aged 18–25 from Youth Music's NextGen community, including the Brighton-based poet and DJ Erin James, who told us: ‘Writing is a massive vessel to my emotions, how I process my emotions and how I process the world. Where I felt previously that I didn't have the right tools or I felt a bit powerless to respond to an event, my writing has shifted from a personal processing of emotions to using it to educate other people and myself as well.’

Youth Music funded-partner Music Fusion works closely with young people facing challenging life circumstances. CEO Jinx Prowse said that lyric writing is ‘cathartic’ and commented: ‘It's often their only release; it's a way of translating their trauma. It helps them realise what they’re going through.’

Building bonds

Through our work, we also know how music helps young people connect with others around them and build bonds within communities. Our research found that those aged 16–24 were over twice as likely as older generations to find that reading, writing or listening to lyrics helps to reduce feelings of isolation or loneliness (54% vs 22% for over-55s).

Louise Godfrey, executive director of Readipop, a Youth Music funded partner that uses music and arts to enrich lives, communities and the cultural landscape of Reading and the Thames Valley, said that writing together in groups brings a lot out of the young people she works with: ‘If one of them is feeling vulnerable and writing in that way, then the others feel safer to do so. We help each other to be vulnerable sometimes.’

Erin James facilitates workshops with young people and believes this process is inspirational: ‘When I enter that space for just half an hour to an hour, [the young people] can just become writers and not be teenagers who have so much weight on their shoulders. By me sharing my own stuff in workshops, more people want to share their stuff. It's nice to see that level of vulnerability and openness.’

In conclusion

The last few years have been a difficult time for many, but particularly for young people who have experienced significant upheaval and instability in such a short space of time. The impact of this, during such pivotal points in their lives, is weighing heavily on their mental health.

And it's increasingly tougher for young people – especially those facing barriers in their lives – to access support.

This new evidence shows that creativity continues to provide an important outlet for young people. In these challenging economic circumstances, it's crucial we ensure that the projects providing the space for this invaluable work are able to survive and thrive.