Music Soothes the Savage Beast of Grief
Joy returned to me six months after my brother’s death. It arrived linking arms with music. The movie Bohemian Rhapsody was in theaters, and my husband and I went on a date night. The film had been in talks for many years, and it was something my brother and I had discussed. We shared a love of music, especially the signature anthem of our youth culture: rock and roll. The movie soundtrack stirred memories, reminiscences of youth and excitement and invincibility. It was a welcome reprieve from my current state of mourning that included thoughts of aging and despair and vulnerability.
I pulled out old CDs and danced through the upcoming days to the soundtrack of my youth. I felt alive and joyful and my head was filled with blessed memories rather than the traumatic ones of the preceding months. I was connecting to my brother through hi-fi.
In the summer of 1982 my older brother took me to a Queen concert. We told our parents that we were going camping, which we did quite frequently, so it was an excuse they didn’t question. In reality, we were headed out of state. We drove with the windows down and the cassette music turned up. It was a time of innocence and adventure. The future lay before us and we were driving headlong into it. The music of Queen stirred up memories of that time of our lives when possibilities were limitless, and we lived joyfully in the moment.
Fast forward to this Christmas. I received a turntable from my husband, and my parents unearthed my childhood and adolescent record albums. They should have wrapped those records up, because what a gift! I was transported back in time the moment that needle fell on the vinyl and the crackling static came through the speakers. I have been listening non-stop since December 25th!
Listening to the music of my youth has brought an uplift in emotion in my creative urges and intentions, and a deep connection to my missing sibling. What I have been experiencing is not quite music therapy, but the experience is exactly why music therapy can be successful in treating depression, grief, and mourning.
Music enters our brains through our ears and travels a neural pathway all the way through the thalamus to the hippocampus and limbic system, which is the center for our emotions. Music has a direct path to our emotional circuit board. That’s exactly why music is used so powerfully in movies to impact an audience. That’s also why so many people choose songs that define their relationships to incorporate into weddings and funerals, both highly emotional ceremonies. It makes good sense that psychology would introduce music into a clinical setting for patients dealing with the emotional upheaval of grief and loss.
Music therapy sessions can include drumming and group drumming, with the therapist or patient establishing a beat and others joining in sync. The drumming then progresses to create a rhythm specific to an emotion. Just reading that, I felt compelled to beat out a rhythm for my anger or grief or loneliness. The therapist may also employ music and lyric analysis with their participants. Some beautiful songs about grief are “I Grieve” by Peter Gabriel, “Who You’d Be Today” by Kenny Chesney and “JoAnne” by Lady Gaga. Songs about grief and loss assure us that we are not alone and help express those raging emotions we are experiencing.
Listening to and rewriting songs about love and loss is another therapeutic tool for those grieving. By customizing songs to fit your own personal relationship to the deceased and your own path of grieving, you can give a voice to those feelings that can be so difficult to otherwise articulate. When drowning in my own grief following the death of my brother, I swam through all of the songs I could find about death and loss. I sang those songs at the top of my lungs, altering the words to fit my situation. When your own words won’t come, the words of others will certainly do.
While music can certainly improve mood and relaxation, music therapy is more than just listening to music. It is provided by a credentialed therapist with a minimum of a bachelor’s degree from a college accredited by the American Music Therapy Association. It is a health profession whose members have a knowledge of medicine, psychology, and music. You can find a music therapist by visiting the AMTA website. They have a state by state directory, and will also assist you via email or mail.
I am still turning the table of the ’70s and ’80s vinyl. That music, those songs, represent a time in my life that was carefree, a time before the reality of mortality and the pain of loss arrived. I spin an album or two a night, carefully cleaning the vinyl and handling it like heirloom china. The albums are not only auditory, but visual and tactile, as well as having a bit of musty olfactory involvement. It’s not a cure for my grief, because I don’t believe there is one. But these old relics of technology are currently my Bic lighter, raised in the darkness of my grief to salute my youth, my brother, our shared history, and our shared love of music.
Daugherty, S. (2020). Music Soothes the Savage Beast of Grief. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 29, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/music-soothes-the-savage-beast-of-grief/