“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).