Friday, February 26, 2016

The Healing Power of Music

The year was 2007 and for an evening at least, I was beaten.

I was working as an intern as a therapist at the time, and had a series of bosses who I didn't exactly care for. I was constantly hearing, ‘settle down’, ‘tone it down’, and other pieces of advice that ran contrary to my instincts. I was demoralized. Had I taken a wrong turn somewhere? Chosen the wrong career field?

I decided to drown my sorrows. After my 5th Jack and coke I started the long walk home. For a night at least, I felt like a failed therapist and a failed man, unable to fight the system and unable to access my own creative freedom.

And then....Something caught my ear. I heard a song. It was Dylan. The last time I heard this particular song was 1992 and it was my first year working in the national parks. I was young, adventurous, and venturing into the great unknown for the first time. I was traveling west with a friend and we had stopped at his father's bar, which was literally in the middle of nowhere in a small Montana town. I was young, scared, excited, brash, and brave and on the cusp of a great adventure.

I always remembered a line from the movie Field of Dreams, that we don't realize the most significant moments of our lives while they are happening. So, at that moment, when I heard Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay" when we walked into the bar, I didn't know the effect on me it would eventually have. I wandered over to the jukebox, trying to look cool as a cherub-faced kid in a room full of tough guys in cowboy boots and ten-gallon hats. I registered the name of the song that was playing and etched it into my memory. Lay Lady Lay

And so.. Cut to 2007. I heard this song again and I was completely back in this moment again. Mesmerized, amazed, confused, and hopeful. Something about the song had called me back to another time and place. But why? What was it?

In that moment I took a crumbled piece of paper I carried around with me at the time with a line from Albert Camus. "In the midst of winter, I finally found there was within me an invincible summer.”

An invisible summer. It sounded so promising!

I stepped into the bar and took a look. There was a kid singing "Lay Lady Lay.” He was passionate and enthusiastic. I looked up at him and smiled, nodding slowly and looking back. Over the next several years he would become a great friend of mine.

It took me some time to examine what had transpired that night, but eventually it started to crystalize. I had, for that one night, been saved by music.

And I can think of a thousand other times music healed by troubled soul like this.


Driving my old Volkswagen Bus up from California back home to Washington. I’d just lost all of my money in Lake Tahoe and given Plasma for some gas money. I popped in David Bowie’s Space Oddity.

Hearing ‘Ground control to Major Tom’ made me laugh hysterically. It strangely reflected that SOS moment in my life.

Driving across Idaho after the death of Jerry Garcia. I was unsure what to do with my life and feeling old and rudderless. I heard ‘Touch of Grey’ by the Grateful Dead and had a wonderful moment.

‘Every silver lining’s got a, touch of grey’

Just lost my girlfriend and my job and stuck in a little town in Indiana. I put ‘Fernando’ on by Abba on the jukebox and sat, cried in my beer, and contemplated the absurdity of listening to Abba in a hick town in the middle of nowhere. Laughing at myself and signing along to that song was strangely therapeutic.

It’s not just me that’s been healed by music either. I worked in nursing homes for a few years and saw some of the most remarkable things I’d ever seen with the help of music. Take a look at this video. Look at his eyes!! This is the effect music has on a brain that’s been dormant for years!

 Oliver Sacks has done some wonderful research on this topic, and his book 'Musicophilia' is a wonderful read. In talking with my patients now, I almost always ask them what role music plays in their lives. It's one of the most diagnostic questions you can ask actually.

Music soothes, heals, inspires, motivates, energizes, ignites, and remembers.

Nietzsche said, ‘Without music life would be a mistake.’

Nietzsche was right.

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