Music and Mental Health

Music Doodle
“One good thing about music”, sang Bob Marley,

“when it hits you, you feel no pain”

I must admit, I actually don’t quite agree with that. After all, “What came first”, asked Nick Hornby in Hi Fidelity, “the music or the misery?”[1] It is a perhaps startling fact that, as David Randall points out in a recent book, Sound System: The Political Power of Music, the majority of the ten highest-earning songs of all time “share themes of regret, loss and a yearning for things to be different”[2] – which, to return to Hornby, begs the question: Do we listen to pop music because we are miserable or are we miserable because we listen to pop music?[3]

Not all of us listen to pop music, of course, at least not exclusively; but the point stands. Music can cause pain. But it can also offer us ways to deal with our pain, whatever that pain may be.

For me, it is most often a source of joy, exhilaration, excitement, happiness and a croaky, exhausted voice. When it does cause me pain, it is usually because lyrics are, at that moment in time, touching too close to home on account of me being in a low emotional state.

This is what I will be focusing on during this evening’s chat: Music and Mental Health.

Can the former help the latter? I believe so.

***

Personally, too many of my favourite songs discuss alienation, loneliness, drink, drugs and the downbeat of the daily grind. As it happens, they’re usually sugar-coated with brass sections, and whilst lyrics do mean a great deal to me, the fact that the songs I have in mind here have bleak lyrics is almost incidental in this context. That said, when I was at my lowest – during a trauma which led to the founding of this blog – even they, which I had sung for over a decade, brought on tears. At the same time, though, I think it’s good to have songs that you can relate to at one time or another. And just because I cried to them at one point, doesn’t mean I shouldn’t have been listening to them.

How, then, can music help?

Escape

One way is simply to take us away from our misery. For Matt Haig, whose Reasons to Stay Alive I suspect a number of people reading this post would’ve read, music is way to “escape time”.[4] In his semi-fictional memoir of his relationship with his first wife during the 1960s, the late American writer Leonard Michaels described one performance in the famous New York jazz club, Birdland. At this and other clubs, he wrote, “I’d feel myself entering a trance of music, the meaning of this minute”. During this particular performance, the female singer sang the “wheeze in [one] rhyme … out of existence, rendering only the exquisite mystery, such sweet and melancholy love as belonged to music in those days.”[5]

Of course, to be taken away is not to solve the underlying issue. However, there really is no other feeling like the one we’re gifted with when in a crowd, singing along to a live rendition of songs which have for so long meant so much to us.

Equality

Another way it can helps is by “reassur[ing] us that we are not the only one[s] with those  feelings”, as Dave Randall put it in Sound System.[7] My experience of mental health is one through which loneliness ran through it like Blackpool through a stick of rock. It was inescapable and unconsolable. Bob Dylan infamously (electric?!) asked how it felt “to be on your own with no direction home”. Well, in my opinion, music, by reassuring us, both removes our loneliness and gives us direction. As Less Than Jake’s ‘Plastic Cup Politics’ asks:

“As people come and go
Do they know they’re really not alone?”

having just before this, sang

“I keep asking myself if they realise
That their fears are really just the same as mine
Do they know all their insecurities
Are the same ones that I have inside of me”

One of my favourite bands (other than Less Than Jake) have a song which opens with this couplet:

“My records are my best friends
And my best friends are more like family”

Friends. Family. Community. So many songs out there let us know that we’re not alone. Here’s the very first ones off the top of my head which tackle this…

– The Rembrandt’s Friends theme, ‘I’ll Be There for You’
– Bill Withers’ ‘Lean on Me’
– The King Blues’ ‘My Boulder’
– Queen’s ‘You’re My Best Friend’ (written by bassist Roger Deacon, for his wife, I believe)

Ponder some others that come to mind, put them on, turn them up and have a dance(!)

Expression

A third way is by putting into words – which we can then sing along, or shout out, with pride – confident assertions in ways we couldn’t quite articulate ourselves. Here are a few of my favourite lyrics…

“Self-reflection is an asset not a let down
So forget those doubts”

“Sometimes your best defense is a good reminder of your common sense”

“Say what you like ’cause I don’t care
I know where I am and going to”

“In the shadows of darkness I stand in the light”

(See more over at the Inspirational Lyrics page.)

***

One of my favourite quotes of all time is by Bill Hicks , the late American comedian. In one of the last letters he penned before he passed away, he wrote:

I left in love, in laughter, and in truth, and wherever truth, love and laughter abide, I am there in spirit.

We can find all of these things in music. That’s what’s so great about it, and why it can be such a helpful tool in dealing with mental health. One scholarly essay on the British record industry between 1920 and 1964 concludes that whilst pop music was considered merely a commodity to the industry, it nevertheless “became so malleable a form that it could be used by its consumers for their own ends too”. [7] In other words, music is what we make of it and whatever we choose to take from it. In his 31 Songs, a collection of musings about songs that mean a great deal to him, Nick Hornby offered a humorous and positive interpretation of this when discussing Nelly Furtado’s ‘I’m Like a Bird’:

I know … that most pop songs are aimed cynically at a target audience three decades younger than I am, that in any case the golden age was thirty-five years ago and there has been very little of value since. It’s just that there’s this song I heard on the radio and I bought the CD, and now I have to hear it ten of fifteen times a day… [8]

Music truly is “more than words and sounds”. Music is “one thing that I can depend on”. It is a “steady riot in my soul” and “when I got the music, I got a place to go”.

Whenever times are tough, try to keep in mind that music will always be there for us. Just remember; everything’ll be alright.

***

[1] Nick Hornby, Hi Fidelity (1995)
[2] Dave Randall, Sound System: The Political Power of Music (London: Pluto, 2017), pp. 64-5.
[3] Nick Hornby, Hi Fidelity (1995)
[4] Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2016 [2015]), p. 228.
[5] Leonard Michaels, Sylvia (New York: Farrar, Straus ad Giroux, 2007 [1992]), p.35.
[6] Dave Randall, Sound System: The Political Power of Music (London: Pluto, 2017), pp. 66.
[7] Simon Frith, ‘The making of the British record industry 1920-1964’, in Impacts & Influences: Essays on Media Power in the Twentieth Century (eds.) James Curran, Anthony Smith  & Pauline Wingate (London & New York: Meuthen, 1987), p. 289.
[8] Nick Hornby 31 Songs (London: Penguin, 2003), p. 20.

“One good thing about music
When it hits you you feel no pain”
‘Trenchtown Rock’
Bob Marley

“to be on your own with no direction home”
‘Like a Rolling Stone’
Bob Dylan (Highway 61 Revisited)

“My records are my best friends
And my best friends are more like family”
‘Got No Say’
The Skints (FM)

“Self-reflection is an asset not a let down
So forget those doubts”
‘Keeping Up Appearances’
Capdown (Wind-Up Toys)

“Sometimes your best defense is a good reminder of your common sense”
‘Faction
Less Than Jake (Borders & Boundaries)

“Say what you like ’cause I don’t care
I know where I am and going to”
‘Modern World’
The Jam (This is the Modern World)

“In the shadows of darkness I stand in the light”
‘Fall Back Down’
Rancid (Indestructible)

“more than words and sounds”
‘Soundman/Soundcheck”
Less Than Jake (Losers, Kings, and Things We Don’t Understand)

“one thing that I can depend on”
‘Sound System’
Operation Ivy (Energy)

“a steady riot in my soul”
‘Steady Riot’
Big D and the Kinds Table (Strictly Rude)

“when I got the music, I got a place to go”
‘Radio’
Rancid (Let’s Go!)

“everything’ll be alright”
‘Everything’ll Be Alright’
Chris Murray (Yard Sale)

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