The Power of Music

Content notice: Discussion of suicide and death.

In 2002, shortly after I came out of the closet and life as I knew it was falling apart, I was driving home up a twisting, wooded, two-lane, mountainous highway. I was feeling lost, alone, and pointless. I began to drive about 80 mph and became aware of how easy it would be to simply let the car crash into a tree. Just push the gas pedal to the floor and let go of the steering wheel on the next curve. Just then the Cranberries’ song “Linger” came on the radio. I didn’t know why at the time, but the song gave me solace and the moment passed. It had snapped me out of a trance-like stupor. A song, it seemed, had saved my life.

I hadn’t thought about that moment for years, but when I heard of Dolores O’Riordan’s death the memory came flooding back. Is it possible for music to hold this kind of power? Can a piece of music really be that meaningful? Informed by my training as a psychologist and from my own personal experience, I’m compelled to answer with an emphatic “Hell yes!”

You’ve probably heard of the “Ink Blot Test.” This psychological tool, formally known as the Rorschach, is what psychologists call a projective test. The theory behind projective tests is that when shown an ambiguous stimulus (aka, an ink blot), a person will project their own perceptions onto the blot by seeing things that are unique to that individual. For example, when shown an ink-blot that is roughly the shape of a butterfly, some will predictably see a butterfly, while others may see a moth, or a beautiful bird, or a blood-sucking vampire bat. And, logically the more ambiguous the ink blot, the more varied the projections.

Songs are a lot like the Rorschach. While song lyrics are not quite as ambiguous as an ink blot, not all lyrics are obvious or literal (i.e.: Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”). In fact, many are more poetic or symbolic, oftentimes leaving us to make sense of the nonsensical by weaving our own tapestry of meaning. We fill in the gaps using the filter of our inner world, and interpret what we think the song means, metaphorically, literally, or through our own experience. This is the essence of projection.

Some songs have penetrated so deeply into my inner, private world they seem to have been written just for me. Each song becomes my private therapist, allowing me to re-live an experience, to somehow leave this earth, if only for a while. To sing along…oh, to sing along! This is the true therapy for me. To align my voice to the melody, tone, and emotion and message I am sure the artist intended. I feel seen. Understood. Validated. And thus, somehow less alone. Being understood and seen is so vital for humans, particularly at times of strife and uncertainty. I have kept most of my projected deeply personal meanings of songs to myself; they become my secret diary in which I never have to write a word. The hidden secret between me and the song.

I have often turned to music to cope with loss. After my mother died, I was emotionally frozen. In the ten months of her dying from a terminal cancer diagnosis, I became her rock. I made the conscious decision to put my own emotions aside to attend to her needs. There was simply not time to cry. After her death I paid a price for my bravado, as I could not feel anything. Even in therapy with my trusted therapist I was stuck…for months. Then music saved me. I was listening to Counting Crows one day while stuck in traffic and “Anna Begins” began to play. I began to sob uncontrollably. I didn’t know what was happening—just something about the tone, the lyrics, and the slow build to an emotional crescendo that busted open my emotional clot. I was flowing again.

After that, the music of Barbra Streisand, Tears for Fears, Genesis, and Carly Simon spoke to me with such grace that I listened to only a handful these songs for close to a year after my mother died. These songs became my savior; my way of connecting with my grief; my way of processing the loss. Each day as I commuted to and from grad school, I listened to the music. I listened, and sang, and cried, and listened again. I saw images of my mother I could no longer recall freely in my own mind. As the picture of her face became harder and harder to see in my mind, it was music that brought her back. In each song, I saw parts of her. I saw her life. I wanted others to see her too. I did not want her to be forgotten. And so, as the end of over a year of incubating, I put together a slide show of her life, with pictures paired with the music that saved me from the depths of despair. I shared the video with those who knew her, and most found the same solace I had found.

After these and many other experiences, I have learned not to doubt the power of music. Music haunts us and gets past our defenses. Music has a zip-wire to our soul. Music can make us laugh, cry, breathe and move. Music brings us together. Music connects us in ways we cannot imagine. In “Songbird,” Barbra Streisand sings: “Songbird, sings from the heart, each word can tear you apart, I sing you sing along, you find your life in my song.” Validation of the universal power of music.

Music can be a wonderful way to express and explore any emotion, whether it be grief, loss, or joy. I encourage you to notice the kind of lyrics you gravitate toward. Are you finding your own narrative within the song? Are you yearning to be seen? I also encourage you to express yourself through the words of others. If you have a hard time putting your thoughts together, verbally or in writing, sharing a piece of music with others can be a wonderful, borrowed language to do so. Next time you find yourself saying “Oh! I love this song,” take the time to listen again and notice your solace.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide or in a emotional crisis, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or contact one of the regional lines in your area. In the U.S., you can also text the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. If your life or the life of anyone else is in immediate danger, please contact emergency services.

Dana Waters earned her doctoral degree in clinical psychology from Adler University in Chicago. She is a board certified psychologist (ABPP), and is core faculty and associate chair for the clinical psychology doctoral program at Antioch University in Seattle. She also has a private practice where, along with her canine co-therapist “Ella,” she specializes treating adults with posttraumatic stress, LGBTQIA issues, folks on the spectrum, and chronic pain. She teaches neurophysiology and statistics, so it should come as no surprise she is somewhat of a science geek. She loves old Sci-Fi movies (Brainstorm being one of her all-time favorites), and she also cut her teeth on Star Trek (Original and TNG). She has been working on a theory of psychology from the perspective of multiverses and string theory, for which she will never be done.
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