Tuesday Tune-Up: The Healing Power of Music

I mentioned last week that I’m reading Amy Cuddy’s book Presence, and that the ideas she explains in her book are going to be finding their way into my writing this week. Here’s an instance.

Last week, I got all meta on your asses about the blues and how it’s the source of all modern pop music. This week, we’re gonna get all meta about music itself, and how the act of creating music – even poorly – can help improve your mood and your overall health.

Blues Legend Muddy Waters
Blues legend Muddy Waters

Cuddy, in her book, quotes William James – a pioneering American psychologist who first suggested that the relationship between mind and body might not be a one way street – in other words, we know our minds control our bodies, but James proposed that our bodies might also control our minds as well.

Cuddy’s research and countless other studies have born this idea out, and the reason why I’m bringing it up in a post about music is because of the quote from James that Cuddy chose for her book:

“I don’t sing because I’m happy; I’m happy because I sing.”

In last week’s post about the blues, I described a scene in which an African slave channeled all of the pain and suffering that came along with her situation and she cried out to heaven in song. Her body became a conduit and all of that pain and suffering – through the melodic and harmonious vibration of her voice – was sent up to the heavens. She wailed for comfort.

The point of that section of last week’s article was to illustrate the cleansing, healing power of the blues. I called it a bloodletting, and I still hold firm to that metaphor.

Life, The Universe, and Everything.

I’m going to get pretty metaphysical here in a minute, and I might lose some of you – especially if you’ve read my previous work and know how skeptical I am about most things – but please bear with me. Though the language I’m about to use might sound a little new-age and mystical, the claims I’m about to make are all grounded in scientific research.

The universe is full of two things: matter and energy (okay – there’s also dark matter, antimatter, dark energy, and all kinds of sub-atomic particles out there, too, but I don’t want to get too far into physics or quantum mechanics here). The point is, neither can be created nor destroyed. Each can only transfer from one form to the next.

The practical implication of Einstein’s theory of relativity – as I understand it, anyway – is that if matter were able to move at the speed of light, it would transform into energy. Just like space and time, according to Einstein, matter and energy are connected.

Alright… see, I’m already off topic. The point is, the Universe is essentially made of energy. Some of it is in the form of light, some as heat, some as motion, some as potential, some as matter itself. That energy permeates all of us, and we can use it and transform it however we like Look, I’m not saying we can all levitate, or use The Force to shoot lightning from our fingertips, but we do know how to do a lot with energy.

One of the many ways we manipulate energy is music.

Sound Energy

Sound is caused by moving air molecules. That is why both Star Wars and Star Trek have it wrong when they overlay sounds onto the explosions in space. It makes for good entertainment, but it’s not realistic. Sound energy works in the form of waves.

Just like waves in the ocean move water, sound waves move air at a specific frequency (or wavelength) and at a specific amplitude (or the height of the wave – in the case of sound, this is the volume or loudness). Both of these factors – the frequency and the amplitude – work together to determine the specific sound that’s made.

All this is to say – Music is pure energy.

In about eight minutes I’m going to post this article, whether it’s done or not, because I’m going to go to the gym (like I said I would) before going to rehearse with my band. I’m making music a priority over my writing work – which isn’t quite backed up, but it’s knocking on the door – because it’s essential to my soul.

Playing music, to me, as I said before, is bloodletting. It’s a way to release the hidden energies inside of me that need to be let out. Often people ask me why I teach English instead of music – since music is such an essential part of my identity – and I always tell them the same thing, essentially. I never want to ruin the magic of music for myself. And it is magic. Make no mistake about that.

Think about it – music is as much a miracle of human evolution as the optic nerve. Our ability to take sounds and organize them into harmonic pitch and rhythmic phrasing – and the raw power of that ability to evoke emotion, persuade, and even control those around us is truly magical. I mean really, when was the last time you were at a concert and were asked to “raise your hands in the air, and wave ’em like you just don’t care” and you did just like you were told because you were in a trance?

Music makes us forget about everything else but what’s happening in that moment – if we’re truly present and engaged in listening to or performing it. Speaking of being present…

Back to Amy Cuddy…

One of the things Dr. Cuddy brings up in her book is the idea of self-affirmation (not the SNL skit – the real thing). The idea is that you think about a time in which you felt powerful, present, in complete control, and connected to everything – and then you write about it. Then, when you’re about to encounter a stressful situation, you take a moment to recall the moment when you were powerful. The science backs it up – it actually helps to change your physiology – including your hormone levels – which will help you feel more relaxed and in control. In a way it’s like the most positive self-fulfilling prophecy ever.

For me, every time Dr. Cuddy mentioned positive affirmations – every time – I’d think about playing music. Again, it’s bloodletting for me. Pure and simple. It’s me pushing all of my anxiety and my doubts and my fear and my love and my passion and my rage and my anger out through the vibration of my throat and of my guitar strings, and it makes me feel better. No matter what. Playing music has a profound affect on my psyche. No matter how bad a day it’s been, usually, when I’m on stage, I don’t care. I’m only thinking about releasing that power – that energy – through my music and letting it out of my body. It’s transformative.

So sing. It’ll make you feel better. Even if you’re awful at it. Sing in the car. Go to a karaoke joint (trust me, most of the people there can’t sing either). Even if you can’t play an instrument, you can sing. And if you live in Spokane, you can get free music lessons at the downtown library! You’re welcome.

Edit: Rewrote a couple of sections and added sufficient links and pictures. Writers’ Wednesday to come shortly…