It seems we’ve all been there. You’re having some kind of day. Maybe you just got that promotion you’ve been hoping for? Maybe you woke up to find news that your favorite band announced a tour and is coming to your town? Perhaps you spent the morning arguing with your significant other about something or, even worse, you’ve lost a loved one? Many of us pop on the headphones or turn the stereo up and we know just what to listen to. I know I do and I have this catalog in my head for the perfect song for almost any situation. Some may think of that as just being in tune with your music collection and that was exactly it for me. Lately, though, I’ve started thinking of that instinct a little differently. Could it be my way of taking part in something that the world over has dove into – just doing it on my own? Could I be self-medicating? Could it be therapy?
Therapy is, obviously, not a new concept. The treatment of emotional or psychological problems can be traced to the ancient Greeks. They were the first to identify mental illness as a medical condition, rather than a sign of malevolent deities. Their understanding of the nature of mental illness was not always correct, but they did recognize the power and value of encouraging and consoling words. People have been participating in some form of therapy for hundreds of years. Many therapists also use music as a tool to aid in their practice. This practice is a bit newer though. The idea of music therapy is centuries old, appearing in writings from Aristotle and Plato, but the officially recognized practice of music therapy only dates back to just after World War 2. Musicians of all types would travel to Veterans Hospitals around the country to play for veterans suffering from both physical and mental trauma. There are known writings and references to music therapy earlier than that, but that is when the practice became officially recognized and more widely used.
This idea is still fairly new to me, as I have never participated in any form of official therapy. Whether I knew it or not though, I was having my own sessions. My music can elevate me when I’m down and it can level me out when I’m up. It can keep the ride going and it can soothe an aching soul. Over the last year or so, I found myself retreating into my music a bit more often.
A very wise person who is very close to me pointed this out and it made me think about why. In all openness, the last couple of years have been fraught with worry, strings of bad luck and heartache. So much so, that for the first time in my life, I was thinking of getting into therapy. This is a tough thing for me as I’m not a big talker…especially when it comes to talking about feelings and all that. I’m more of a shove it down deep kind of guy. Healthy or not, that is who I am. My thought was that starting therapy could start to change that.
While thinking about starting therapy, I found myself tailoring my playlist to music that could make me more open – get me in my feels as they say. This, again, got me thinking about music as self-therapy. These thoughts and this theme kept coming up. That is when the seeds of this article were born. Over the next several weeks, thoughts and ideas started to spill out on paper. I started and stopped writing several times. Ever the procrastinator, I kept putting it off to be finished another day. Well, our little reggae community then suffered a great loss. A very kind and gentle soul who is important to so many in our community was lost to us all too early (RIP Papa Bisquit). As our community banded together to deal with this loss, the theme of finding the right music to help with that kept coming back up. To me, that loss made finishing this piece even more important and relevant than ever.
I needed more though. I didn’t want to just make this an opinion piece. I needed more meat, more substance. I wanted it to be more than just me rambling on about my use of music as therapy. I wanted it to represent more information and for that information to come from all walks of life. This prompted me to set out on gathering some information. I set up an anonymous survey and sent it out far and wide. Yes, I did send it out to many of the Facebooks groups I belonged to (mostly fan groups for bands in the Reggae/Rock scene), but I didn’t want it to end there as I felt it might be a bit skewed. So I cast my net even wider. I spread it around my office and to all my Facebook, Instagram & Twitter friends in general. My hope was to get a wider range of thoughts and opinions from those both inside and out of our little reggae universe. This blew the doors off and I got an overwhelming response. Armed with this information, I felt confident I could represent more than just myself.
What did I discover? I found that I’m (neigh, we) not the only one who relies on music to both help us through the hard times and to accentuate the good. I found that there are positive messages all over the music world that people depend on. I found that all kinds of music can help us make sense of loss. I found that traditional therapy can have a profound effect on people – both positive and negative. I also found that traditional therapy almost always comes with medication. This would lead me down a whole other rabbit hole that I will spare you all on.
The most intriguing thing I found was that almost all respondents that had participated in traditional therapy found it beneficial. Does this mean that therapy is almost always going to be beneficial for everyone? No, that certainly couldn’t be the case as not everyone is built the same. But one thing it could indicate is that almost everyone who can open themselves up to, and be willing to accept therapy, can and likely will benefit from it. That seems to be a key point as well. If you’re not ready for therapy, it would be really hard to find any benefit in it. However, another thing I found was that almost everyone found benefit in listening to music as a form of therapy. Whether they were conscious that it was therapy or not, many people found music to be able to lift them up from their lows and aide in accentuating their highs.
On the flip side of that coin, another common theme I found in the survey results was that when it comes to music therapy, while definitely beneficial, most were in agreement that it is more of a short term solution that gives immediate results. When there are more deep seeded issues present, music therapy is more of a temporary solution. Kind of like a band-aid on a wound that requires stitches. This, of course, assumes that there is a wound present. I am in no way advocating for someone who may need therapy to abandon the thought in favor of music therapy. What I have surmised is that music therapy can only help. Whether it be to help keep you afloat until you are ready to find a more permanent solution or to just make your days that much easier.
Music can also be a key that can help you unlock a larger world. Both a world of new experiences and a world of acceptance and preparedness for a healthier and more stable mind. Another thing I heard multiple times is that music is often used in conjunction with traditional therapy (had responses about this from both patients and therapists). Music therapy can assist in readying yourself to be more open and honest with a therapist. It can relax you to the point where, even for those who find it difficult to talk (like myself), it becomes easier to open up and have a good and honest conversation about what is going on in your life.
In that same vein, I found that music (certain songs and/or artists) can be deeply tied to very specific points in your past. Vivid memories can be tied to a particular piece of music. With that in mind, it could be helpful to listen to those songs to help prepare you to discuss certain traumas that may be difficult to discuss. The human mind has a tendency to bury things or block things out – making it difficult to vocalize. Music can tie itself to those types of memories and listening to that particular piece of music can help to bubble it up to the surface.
So, what does this all tell me? Is this article really for me? I’d like to think I’m not completely self-serving by writing it. I also like to think that writing it has helped me to wrestle with some things that have been on my mind for quite some time. I also hope that you may have found some solace in these words as well. It may not have been a revelation and it may not have given you the information you didn’t already have – but perhaps it did give you a little bit of something that says these thoughts are not only yours. In the grand scheme of things, we really are all in this together. In this little reggae community, we find ourselves in, we all know that it is more than just music to us. We find personal connections in it. We make new friends and find common ground with other people from across the globe. We share laughter, we share joy, we share sadness, we share heartache and loss. Perhaps most importantly, we share love…love for each other and love for music. If they know it or not (and I’m sure many of them do know it), these musicians are – in a way – our therapists. As one of the survey’s respondents said, “Sometimes a musician’s personal experience can be read or felt through their lyrics. Familiarizing yourself with familiar people that may seem to have been down the same road may help the person listening realize they are not alone, but very much going through normal stuff the musicians might have been through.”
~ Pat Douglas