“Some­thing touched me deep inside the day the music died” (Don McLean)

Have you ever wondered why music has such a potent effect on our mind, our emo­tions, our brain? The fact it has such a pro­found influ­ence on our well being and men­tal health, listen­ers and artists alike. That old adage about the com­mon link between music and ‘mad­ness ‘. A pro­fess­or at John Hop­kins Uni­ver­sity notes how music provides a total brain workout. It reduces anxi­ety, blood pres­sure and pain, and pro­motes sleep, mood, alert­ness and memory. Our love of music shaped the brains abil­ity to per­form at the highest levels. Even­tu­ally, after many thou­sands of years, it has become evol­u­tion­ary import­ant to us. Music can be cent­ral to our Iden­tity. Think of the times you’ve met people and they’ve very quickly asked what kind of music you like, often look­ing for com­mon ground. That said, music can also stoke up pain. But the joy music brings – not much else in my life can do that.

So music can cre­ate or open up cages of emo­tion­al dis­tress for artists and listen­ers alike. But for the most part has brought solace to me, to the extent that at times it has saved me. When depressed it has giv­en me some­thing with which to identi­fy with. Take Pro­fess­or Green : “You’ve seen me cry, now you’re gonna have to see me hurt­ing, cause pre­tend­ing everything is alright, when it really ain’t, really isn’t work­ing”. Where does such life chan­ging power come from? As neur­o­lo­gist Oliv­er Sacks writes in his book ‘Musi­co­phil­ia’, we prob­ably don’t bio­lo­gic­ally need of it for sur­viv­al, unlike food and so on.

Daniel Levitin strives to explain this mys­tery. ‘This is Your Brain on Music ‘ explains how music activ­ates neur­ons in more regions of the brain than more than any­thing else sci­ent­ists know of and causes the release of neuro chem­ic­als in our brains. We “know that the brain is music­al because there are spe­cif­ic neur­al cir­cuits”. This mir­rors Oliv­er Sacks who con­tends that the brain has a great­er capa­city for music than just words alone. Even fur­ther, it shapes part of who you are as a per­son.

The lyr­ics of pop rock band, The Script, in ‘If you Could See Me Now’  describes our needs emo­tion­ally for music, using the words his late Fath­er gave him: “He’d say music was the home for your pain, And explained I was young, he would say, Take that rage, put it on a page, Take that page to the stage, Blow the roof off the place’.

In the Journ­al of Cog­nit­ive Neur­os­cience (2019) the author talks of how our love for music has shaped our brains abil­ity to per­form at the highest level, and has become evol­u­tion­ary use­ful to us, so much so that it could have dated back many thou­sands of years ago. That’s how long it can take for an adapt­a­tion to show up in the human gen­ome. So music must have made some things bet­ter for humans that we devoted so much atten­tion to it. 4

For Oliv­er Sacks “Music is part of being human”. There is no cul­ture in which it is not highly developed and esteemed. Vitally, “Music can pierce the heart dir­ectly”. Deeply and mys­ter­i­ously, music is mul­ti­fa­ceted. On the dark side we see artists and listen­ers suf­fer­ing. From the  pro­fessed dia­gnos­is of bipolar car­ried by Kanye West, the admis­sion by Jay‑Z that he is in ther­apy, to the sad sui­cide of Chester Ben­ning­ton from Linkin Park, along with the ter­rible suf­fer­ing of those who took their own lives, such as Kurt Cobain to Chris Cor­nell. The empti­ness can be sur­mised by Chester in his lyr­ics: “I tried so hard and got so far but in the end it doesn’t even mat­ter”. But there is hope. Those artist’s, whose com­pas­sion and empathy over­rides means everything: “For any­one going through depres­sion, you feel anxious when you go out of the house, you’re not alone, and you can come out of the oth­er side. Trust me. “ (Bug­zy Malone). Like­wise, Logic, “ I made this song for all of you who are in a dark place and can’t seem to find the light”. Here in lies the heal­ing psy­cho­logy in hip hop. Not much more in life can give me that. There can be, as an art­icle called ‘Moods, Mad­ness, and Music’ in ‘Com­pre­hens­ive Psy­cho­logy’ journ­al (1987) pur­ports, a link between ‘major affect­ive dis­ease’ and music. For Bob Dylan, “At times in my life the only place I have been happy is when I’m on stage”.

It is now becom­ing recog­nized that Hip-Hop as a genre, can help depres­sion. Pro­fess­or Becky Ink­ster, a neur­os­cient­ist at Cam­bridge Uni­ver­sity, co-foun­ded a social ven­ture called ‘Hip-Hop Psych’  pro­mot­ing use of the said music to aid the treat­ment of men­tal ill­ness, arguing that an aware­ness of men­tal health is erupt­ing in hip hop. Hip hop her­ald­sp hope.

In tracks such as Lowkey, “Voice of the voice­less” we can see that when things are hard, you have a weapon. When you have noth­ing, you still have an instru­ment, your voice and music. That’s how music evolved, and how hope­fully it will stay, grow­ing ever­more power­ful. It self med­ic­ate with­in, and also gets your anger, sad­ness, joy out as a won­der­ful mode of cath­arsis. As pro­fess­or Green states, “You’ve seen me cry, now you’re your gonna have to see me hurt­ing, because pre­tend­ing everything is alright, really ain’t work­ing”.

Look at those suf­fer­ing from forms of demen­tia. They often have little short term memory. But put music on from their young­er years and they come alive. Demen­tia UK expand by explain­ing how use­ful music ther­apy can be. Music accesses dif­fer­ent parts of the brain than lan­guage, so music can com­mu­nic­ate or engage someone dia­gnosed, even if they no longer speak or responds to the words of oth­ers.

So, dear music. This is my brain­wave. We’ve had some tur­moil in our time. But no mat­ter what, you’ve always been there for me. My best friend. My first love.

“Music is your own exper­i­ence, your thoughts, your wis­dom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn (Charlie Park­er, sax­o­phon­ist, 1955).



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Kate Taylor

Kate Taylor

Kate Taylor is a Lon­don based writer whose Interests are based primar­ily on music and art and also the philo­sophies and polit­ics that accom­pany them. In addi­tion she has an Msc in psy­cho­logy, has worked as a ther­ap­ist, and paints abstract art pieces.

About Kate Taylor

Kate Taylor
Kate Taylor is a London based writer whose Interests are based primarily on music and art and also the philosophies and politics that accompany them. In addition she has an Msc in psychology, has worked as a therapist, and paints abstract art pieces.