Using Music to Teach Health

By May 13, 2015 No Comments

By Becky Drootin

How can we bridge the gap between public health workers and the general public to get people engaged and interested in health issues? This is the question Mark Burns asked himself that eventually led him to write his recently published guide, “Health Improvement: At Full Volume, Using Lyrics from Pop’s Back Catalogue To Engage ‘Harder to Reach’ Groups Around Health and Well-Being Issues.” Similar to the work done at HHPH that incorporates health messages into music, Mark finds positive health messages that already exist in popular music, re-contextualizing them to promote health to the public.

The guide is incredibly extensive, offering 300 pages full of ways to get people engaged in health topics through music. He discusses theories behind making use of lyrics as well as numerous ways in which it can be done. He also includes many songs by a wide array of artists such as The Beatles, Madonna, James Brown, Prince, Miley Cyrus and more. He has even created a Spotify account that includes playlists of the music discussed. Burns has determined that a lot of the songs we hear on the radio every day can be used to promote messages of well-being. While he discusses using music to promote messages about sexuality, relationships, smoking, drug use, healthy eating, exercise and self-esteem, his guide makes it simple to educate on any health topic.

For Mark, the music came first. Over 20 years ago, he wondered if lyrics about relationships and love were shaping the thoughts and feelings he had on his own experiences. “Were they giving me unrealistic expectations or making me feel incomplete without a partner? I decided to stop listening to them for a while at least.” Of course, Mark still wanted to listen to music so he began collecting songs that were about self-esteem, assertiveness, and other topics besides love. He filled the pages of the guide with songs that he had been listening to for years.


In 2007, he wrote a 180-page guide on using a variety of forms of popular culture as a tool to further health education titled, “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Health: How Music and Popular Culture Can Reduce Health Inequalities.” When he was discussing the guide at a university, a question about the music portion inspired him to write a couple more pages on his train ride home. Two and a half years later, he had over 300 pages on the subject.

Burns has had a long career in public health. This is not his first endeavor to make public health messages more relatable for the general public. He previously has done projects that used soccer and comics to do so. Mark is looking to engage people “who aren’t and who don’t see the need, are embarrassed or simply don’t know what they don’t know.” He says, “I think pop music and other forms of popular culture could be the bridge that could attract and educate people.”

Mark created the guide to give tangible form to his ideas and make them easy to share with others. He hopes to find funding and work with other organizations in the future to try out the ideas he has written about, especially the ones that deal with emotional and relationship health. If you have questions of your own for Mark you can contact him at markburns@blueyonder.co.uk