Interview with Musician and Neuroscientist Izzy Frances

Eleanor Ruxton interviews the talented polymath.


Musician and neuroscientist Izzy Frances loves to play on your heartstrings. Propelled by a desire to understand herself and others, Izzy has burst onto the Oxford music scene with a dizzying combination of science and emotion. This approach to music is intensely refreshing. It isn’t an attempt to secure a flashy lifestyle, to get rich quick or to become a household name. No, this is a more intimate affair, an attempt to “capture emotions and share them in a way that anyone can understand”.

Communication drives this artist’s creativity, then. So too does her “deep love for carefully woven lyrics” which “change our perspectives and help us understand situations better”.

Our seemingly intrinsic enjoyment of music has captivated the scientific community. Some speculate that the articulation of feelings, needs and desires through music was important to the communication of early man. fMRI has revealed that whilst different communities prefer different styles, all experience the same neurological reaction to music. It really is the “universal language”, as Izzy says.

On the most basic level, it is understood that music triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that functions as part of the brain’s reward system, which has ensured our survival. Whilst every day is not a case of fight or flight, Izzy explains we might use music routinely to decrease levels of cortisol, the stress hormone in our blood.

But is music an exact science? Despite her scientific background, Izzy prefers to write from a place of raw emotion. It is here that the divide between music as a science and music as an emotional outlet melts away. For Izzy, the best songs must “pour out” of her and into us. This is about building a close connection, a bond between musician and listener that is vital to the emotional experience of music.

Izzy’s account of co-writing reflects music’s ability to be simultaneously intimate and universal. Again, her emphasis is on communication and building trust: “it usually involves opening up about something personal to people you barely know.” This has clearly been a rewarding experience for her, a sweet-sounding emotional detox that the listener can enjoy.

Tone-deaf myself, I am fascinated by the power of musicians like Izzy who can capture my mood perfectly, or even change it. Yet despite the power she wields, Izzy has no intention of crossing over to the dark side. She explained to me the importance of positive “listening techniques” – that is, engaging with music in a way that makes an individual feel less alone or pulls them out of a negative emotional state. Careful not to be cornered into the label ‘dark-pop’, Izzy assures me that her next song will be upbeat. Above all, it is important to her that individuals develop a knowledge of music that will enable them to use it in a positive way.

This sense of creative altruism is precisely what has led other members of the scientific community to develop music therapy. The applications of this are numerous, ranging from treatment of dementia patients to bereavement counselling, and even the stabilisation of babies in intensive care. Dr Stephen Porges’ pioneering polyvagal theory explains that our body’s reactions to trauma often worsen the negative emotions associated with traumatic events – for example, when we perceive fear, blood flow to the brain is automatically reduced. Music therapy might go some way in restoring physiological and emotional balance. Science and emotional sensitivity thus go hand-in-hand.

More artists are discussing the mental health narratives that feed into their work. For Izzy, this is symptomatic of a growing urge to be true to oneself. She explained to me the role that her kind of music has in combating industry pressure. “I’d like to see the music industry backing people to be authentic and true to themselves more than anything else, as despite what they may say there is a lot of pressure to write, perform and appear in a certain way.” Izzy’s scientific background places her perfectly on the cusp of the next big trend.

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