The Healing Power of Music
Music is magical. I don’t understand how it works on the human spirit, but it does. I mean, you can talk to somebody and your words may not have much of an effect, but say those same words in different tones and at a measured pace, and you’ve just sung a song capable of making people cry. Music is a great mystery, and a great joy, of human consciousness.
Music has great power. If you understand this and pay attention to how you listen to music, you can learn something about yourself, and you can use the power of music to transform yourself.
I have many examples of this. One of my first really “aware” experiences of how I listened to music happened many years ago in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting (yes, I had many epiphany experiences in those meetings–I think that was the point of going to them). An older woman who’d been sober for many years was talking about how she dealt with her sadness. She said she liked to light some candles and listen to sad music and just allow herself time to be sad. At the time, I was in turmoil, dealing with all sorts of buried feelings that were beginning to surface, not the least of which was sadness.
I went home and tried her technique. I lit some candles, turned the lights down, and put on the saddest CD I could think of (it was The Cure’s Disintegration). It worked so well, I did this many, many more times, over the course of about five years(!), until I felt all the tears cried out. Music helped me get in touch with this old, old grief in a visceral way, and I don’t think anything else could have done that.
When I noticed how much power music had over my emotions, I also noticed that most of the time, I liked to listen to hard rock and punk rock, which, I realized, was pretty angry music. Noticing this was one of the ways I realized how angry I was. So I deliberately stopped listening to that music and started listening to softer, sweeter music. I don’t know if doing so helped me work through my anger, but I certainly wasn’t fueling it anymore. This is not to say there is no place for angry music, because there absolutely is. I think angry music helped me get through a really difficult adolescence, and that it provides a healthy outlet for a lot of unhappy teenagers. A lot of people also like angry music for working out and doing unpleasant chores because they believe it keeps them motivated.
When I stopped listening primarily to angry music, I branched out into other styles. I listened to a lot of jazz (Chet Baker is my favorite jazz musician), and I listened to some classical, renaissance, baroque, and also folk, country, blues, and even some world music (the links go to some of my favorite examples of each). In re-sensitizing myself to other forms of music, I came to see how different music appeals to different levels of our beings, and I came up with a general theory about music, which has helped me to 1) understand what I like about different forms of music and why, and 2) use music skillfully and cathartically, to recognize, develop, or completely change my moods.
I’ve defined three broad categories of music: popular, jazz, and classical. Popular music, with its heavy drum beats and simple melodies, appeals to our most primal structures–lust, anger, and loneliness, for example. This includes all popular music, including rock, country, folk, blues, and probably hip-hop (which I’m not all that familiar with). Lovers of rock/haters of country or rap, or vice versa, may object to this lumping together, but all popular music follows a similar chorus-refrain-chorus-refrain-musical solo-chorus-refrain pattern, and thus sounds quite similar–and it is all designed to appeal to baser emotions, whether the songs are about lost love or yearning or how much we hate the older generation. (This has become particularly true for modern country and pop. If you don’t know what radio station you’re listening to, it can be hard to tell a pop song from a country song.)
Jazz has an altogether different appeal. Jazz appeals more to our intellectual senses. It is emotional, of course–all music is emotional–but it does not have that driving beat that gets us going on a primal level. It is, I suppose, more sophisticated, and more subtle, and for most people it is really an acquired taste; it doesn’t grab you by the balls the way popular music does. Rather, it sneaks up on you and demands a fair amount of focused listening to interpret what the musicians are doing. It’s every bit as powerful as popular music, but in a different way.
Classical music, at least classical music in the traditional sense (and not the cacophonous modern stuff), touches the human psyche at yet another level–the spiritual level. Classical music, with its gentle tones, interwoven melodies, and almost complete lack of heavy percussion, is transcendent. Rather than appealing to our body or mind, it brings us out of ourselves, beyond ourselves, to a place of sublime peace and beauty. I think this makes sense historically, as this music was composed back when the primary purpose of all art was to honor the sacred. The greatest of these artists–people like Bach and Michelangelo–not only made art the Church approved of, they tapped into the deepest and highest aspects of humanity itself. When we listen to classical and baroque music, we too are channeling those most sacred parts of ourselves.
This is my theory of music. It certainly isn’t necessary to understand these things, or to analyze why you relate to a certain genre more than another, because above all, listening to music should be fun. But isn’t it also kind of fun to step back and see the magic of music in a new way, a way that might help you learn something about yourself? Music has such tremendous power to soothe, to heal, and to get us in touch with parts of ourselves that we might not otherwise know are there. It helped me get through one of the darkest periods of my life, and it has brought me great joy, as well. I know it can do the same for you.