John McHugh with piano

“There’s Music Everywhere”: John McHugh and Music In Mind

John McHugh is the artistic director of Music In Mind, an organization devoted to promoting health and wellbeing through music. As a composer, performer, and educator, he’s explored the relationship between speech and music in a variety of contexts: accents and dialects (The Big Voice—Liverpool), cultures and history (From the Famine), and with his project Hidden Voice, dementia.

I spoke with John last week about Music In Mind, Hidden Voice, and his upcoming projects, including his plans for this summer with Memory Bridge.

There is music within speech, there's rhythm, obviously, within speech. But there's music within movements as well. There's music everywhere.

You’ve taken on this interesting mission to compose music that promotes public health and wellbeing. What led you to making that choice?

It’s interesting because over many years, I’d written pieces about heritage and about accents and about how when immigrants come to an area, it changes the accent. And that was always fascinating, with my parents and my grandparents and the heritage there. And then I started to compose music based around speech patterns as well, trying to explore the music within the Liverpool accent and the Liverpool dialect.

And all of those projects got me thinking about how music needs to mean something within society. The fact that composers really should have a real function within life. So it’s fine to compose sonatas and symphonies and those type of things. All that’s great. But I think music . . . can express who we are, and it can express feelings and, as I say, themes of heritage and history as well.

With a lot of these projects, you kind of jump in with both feet and you're not quite sure whether it's going to work or not. But I thought, Well, it's worth trying. So that's what we did.

Why dementia?

There was an organization in the north of England called Legion Care, and they wanted to explore the relationship between music and dementia. I didn’t want to go down the normal music therapy route . . . I wanted to explore what we’d been doing over the last few years in terms of using music to tell a story—to try and find the hidden depths within a story.

And so I thought about it a lot, and I thought about the piece that I’d done previously about the Liverpool accent, where I’d filmed people and I’d set their speech patterns to music to find the music within speech. And I thought, I wonder if that would work with dementia.

So with a lot of these projects, you kind of jump in with both feet and you’re not quite sure whether it’s going to work or not. But I thought, Well, it’s worth trying. So that’s what we did.

I got all this footage, hours of footage, and I sat down on the computer and I started to go through the footage. And you start to hear stories, and then you see people’s personalities. And then I started to hear speech melodies. And I started to write down some of the notes that I heard.

Speech has a rhythm, and it has a melody as well that we almost hear—we must hear it on a subconscious level. But when it's set to music, it really expands it out to people.

So, for example, in the second section, it’s a chap called Tony who comes to visit his mom every day, and he says that some days she recognizes him, but most days she doesn’t.

“Well, it’s still worth coming in,” he says, because “there’s still something in there.” And as soon as he said the phrase, “there’s still something in there,” I’d hear the melody bah-bah-bah-bah-bah-bam. Straightaway I heard that. So I wrote down those notes, and I started to create this cello melody from it. And then he went on to say, “On certain days she doesn’t recognize me, but I came in today, and she recognized me.” And that was a theme that came out.

So how it works in real life, when you see it, is that you have the people on the screen talking and the music is playing live, playing what they say. So it’s a kind of video opera, really. It raises everyday speech to an almost poetic level.

So phrases that we would hear normally, and we wouldn’t think too much about, once you set them to music, it expands the emotion—expands the feeling—and it’s almost as if it’s a kind of emotional DNA that’s locked within speech. Because of course, speech has a rhythm, and it has a melody as well that we almost hear—we must hear it on a subconscious level. But when it’s set to music, it really expands it out to people.

Hidden Voice Performance

Did you have any personal experiences with dementia before this?

The only experience I had was that my mother worked within the dementia care world. So she was quite experienced, but I wasn’t personally. Which I always felt helped, because my role within it would be simply to tell their story. I wasn’t imposing any of my ideas on it. And that’s where we came up with the idea of Hidden Voice. This technique of setting the speech to music, or finding the music within the speech, releases this hidden voice, the voice that we don’t normally listen to.

Do you find that the experience of creating art like this changes you as the creator?

Definitely. It makes you more humble, because it’s their melodies, and it’s their speech, and it’s their emotion. And it’s made me really get in touch with the real emotion within people, through their speech. There’s a pace, there’s a feeling, there’s a texture, almost, to the way people speak. And that really infuses the whole musical emotion. So for me, it’s quite a humbling experience.

How can we, as artists and musicians—how can we help people to have more sense of empathy, to have more understanding, and to have a deeper sense of listening?

I understand that this is a topic that you’re also continuing to explore in a project with Michael Verde from Memory Bridge and Evelyn Glennie, the percussionist. Can you tell me a little more about what you’re working on with them?

Yeah, well, that’s fantastic and really fascinating, and we’re in the early stages. Evelyn’s message is about teaching the world to listen. Michael’s is that lovely phrase, “love is listening.” And of course ours is about trying to find the hidden voice within.

So within those three messages is a real synergy, a real circle. The idea is that we’re trying to develop a new way of working to explore communication. It’s the idea of how can we, as artists and musicians—how can we help people to have more sense of empathy, to have more understanding, and to have a deeper sense of listening?

And that’s the area that we’re exploring, and I’m really looking forward to in the summer, in July, we’re going to be meeting at the Memory Bridge seminar. And we’re going to spend at least a day together exploring those ideas more.

And then I’m hoping that we’re going to expand the project. We will do some performance events, possibly some more seminars, and see where it goes from there. But it’s really exciting.

I think once you get a message like that that’s so strong, it can only bring more and more people on board. And I’m really looking forward to seeing how that happens as well, bringing on more artists and maybe some more universities involved in the research and some writers and some thinkers. So it’s a kind of artistic movement that could start to happen.

Music is in everything.

What’s next for you? Any other new projects on your plate?

Yes, I’m just starting next week: a Hidden Voice-type piece, but it’s not based around dementia—I’ve been asked to explore domestic abuse. So an extremely delicate subject. And so we’re going to start the filming next week, both on the male side, about men who’ve been abusers but have now tried to change, and to try and get a message of hope from them. And then we’re also going to film women who’ve come through it.

So again, it’s one of these projects where you sort of jump in with both feet and you don’t quite know where it’s going, but you just have to trust that you can do the right thing. That we’re going to find the right stories and that through setting their stories, I will find some music within it.

So that’s the next one, and then I’ve also written a ballet. It’s going to be performed on the first of May in a place called Warrington, which is near Liverpool. And it brings together sport and the arts—sport and dance. This piece sets the rhythms of Muhammad Ali to music, and the idea of his story, going from the incredible success and then how the success waned, to his ill-health and Parkinson’s. But really it’s based around the joy of movement and dance. So the ballet’s called Like a Butterfly and it’s based on him—his beautiful dancing movements within the ring.

Is there anything that I haven’t asked you that you’d like our readers to know?

One of the things I always say is that music is in everything. And I’ve found that myself, through setting speech to music . . . there is music within speech, there’s rhythm, obviously, within speech. But there’s music within movements as well, within the boxing, within the way we walk. There’s music everywhere.

John McHugh with Guitar

Excerpts from an interview conducted on January 17, 2020. Text has been edited and condensed for concision and readability.

To learn more about John McHugh and Music In Mind, click here. You can also view clips from his creations The Big Voice—Liverpool and From the Famine on his YouTube channel.

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