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Music and Despair: How to tune in to joy

by / 0 Comments / 20/11/2017

Recently, I completed my National Citizen Service (or NCS). Long story short, it was one of the best experiences of my life, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone …


 

One night, we’d just finished our campfire and had gone up the hill to play some football. Not being the athletic type, I took the time to sit down in my oversized hoodie and pull out my Walkman (a really old mp3 player), plugging in my earphones, laying down and watching the stars. As I did so, a girl rolled next to me. She asked me why I always have my earphones in (I always have my earphones in), striking up a conversation about music. Eventually, she started to tell me about some of her favourite songs, and I started to make a list of them. I downloaded the songs and we curled up on the grass with an earphone each, listening and thinking. She started to sing along, quietly, and I joined her. I have no idea why, but that was a really strong memory for me. As I type this now, I have my Walkman by my side, and was reminded of the story when one of her favourites came on; ‘Feels like Heaven’ by Fiction Factory.

The whole thing got me thinking about music, and how it had so vividly taken me back to that star-filled night on the side of a hill. And I started to think more, about how all humans like music. Before different cultures had even encountered each other, they’d already built the foundations of their own music. And that feeling when your tune comes on? That you just have to move along to? And the fact that you feel like the song is yours, when so many other people enjoy it too? All of these facts caused me to realise that music is deeply rooted within us, and that it has actually been used for good by many people.

My mum is an educational psychologist, which means that she works with children growing up with mental disabilities. Her and I bond over music (I actually got the Walkman from her), so it prompted me to ask her if music ever had anything to do with her work. Surprisingly, she said yes. She began to explain that, though it isn’t always the case, a lot of children with mental disabilities will respond to music in a way that they can’t respond to other people.

Take autism for example; a major issue for some autistic children (depending on their placement on the autism spectrum) is that they can’t filter out their hearing. What this means is that all the background noise, horns honking, other people talking, feet hitting the ground, is all heard with equal focus, which can sometimes overwhelm them, causing stress. However, music provides a singular focus, with no background noise that needs filtering out. It’s a series of patterns and, if there’s one thing science has figured out about humans, it’s that we adore patterns. So, overall, music can act as a calming influence for these children, and my mum occasionally uses their responses to music to help sooth them.

Apparently I’m not the only one who was interested in the way that music works with our minds; though we don’t know the actual purpose of music, listening to music and feeling goosebumps (you know what goosebumps I mean; like when ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ builds up to a massive climax and dramatically descends, like on a rollercoaster) has been scientifically proven by a 2001 experiment at McGill college to activate brain structures that cause a euphoric reaction, as seen with sex, drugs and food. So, really, our bodies are rewarding us for listening to music in the same way that it rewards necessary activities. Researchers also found something now known as the Walkman effect (which I tried to use to my advantage when revising for my GCSEs). Essentially, it states that memory and general efficiency are both massively improved when listening to music specifically played on a portable device.

So, where does this all leave us?

I’m not really sure, to be honest. It seems that music may have some secret purpose that we’re not fully aware of yet. But the real question this article poses is whether music can save us from the unbearable despair that we’re so clearly heading towards. The short answer is yes. Music massively controls our mood. In fact, it works in a similar way to Pavlov and his dogs. If you drop an ice-cream whilst listening to The Beatles’ ‘Let it Be’, hearing it a week later will serve to remind you of that dropped ice-cream, making you hate existence just a little bit more than you already did. On the flip side, you could do what I did. Remember the girl that I mentioned? By associating myself with the music that she liked, and offering her an earphone whenever it was on, I linked myself to positive memories that she had of the music. Out of interest, I asked her why another of her favourite songs (‘In the Ghetto’ by Elvis Presley) was so special to her. This was her response:

‘My dad introduced me to music when I was very young, and he loved that song; he used to listen to it with his dad, so it’s been passed down through our family. It makes me really happy when he sings it. He taught me to respect and respond to music.’

By playing the song ‘In the Ghetto’ on my Walkman, I unknowingly tethered myself to every time that she’d ever heard that song with her father, causing her to feel similar emotions when with me. So, I’d like to invite you to do what I did. Go out, find someone that you consider a friend, and ask them what their favourite song is. Look it up on YouTube, sit down and listen to it. I can guarantee that you’ll grow at least a little bit closer, because they’ve just given you a piece of their soul. If people did this often enough, or did this exchange on a mass scale, who knows? Maybe music really could end up saving us from the unbearable despair that we’re so clearly heading towards.

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