Healing Music

by Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

On the morning of 9/11/01, I drove to San Diego City College to teach two psychology courses.  On the way I listened to news reports of the  9/11 attacks. At that time investigators did not know if other U.S. cities faced attack.  When I arrived on campus my students were watching television news reports of the attacks.  Three of them had not heard from their loved ones yet and they looked worried.  I offered to cancel the class if anyone felt unable to focus.  We took a vote and the entire class wanted to continue.  A short while later security personnel evacuated the campus.  As I left the college I noticed a few people sitting peacefully eating sandwiches on the grass, while others ran to their cars in a panic.

That week I counseled a number of people who lost loved ones, or thought they had, and one who believed her relative assisted the terrorists.  A few days later a television music special aired,  to benefit 9/11 victims.  Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performed an acoustic version of his song, My City of Ruins. The refrain, “come on rise up,” with it’s message  of hope and pain, allowed me to cry for the first time that week, releasing all the pain and worry in one healing moment.

Healing music can fall into three different categories:   songs of hope, songs of connection,   and songs of inspiration.  Hopefulness is a characteristic of good mental health.  In times of pain and despair, hope moves us toward healthy actions to improve the situation.  Connection provides a healing relief from the loneliness and isolation we can feel.  It improves our mental and social functioning when we feel connected to others.  When music inspires a feeling of oneness, understanding or sympathy, we feel a sense of our humanity, enhancing self esteem.  Inspirational music provides energizing motivation to behave better, or aspire to something beyond our current grasp.  This music encourages our growth, another indicator of mental health.

Marvin Gaye’s classic, What’s Going On, provides healing words of connection, peace and reconciliation:

Father, father

we don’t need to escalate

War is not the answer,

For only love can conquer hate.

The song, with it’s universal appeal to bridge our differences with love and understanding, carries with it a deeply personal message for Marvin Gaye.  He was murdered by his own father on April 1, 1984, the day before Marvin was to turn 45.

Songs of hope elevate our spirits when we feel challenged by circumstances beyond our control.  A more recent song, called appropriately, I Hope, by The Dixie Chicks, speaks of  the hope that our children will inherit a world with “more joy and laughter.”

Inspirational music covers the spectrum of musical styles.  Many feel inspired by religious music, or standards like Amazing Grace, that reference the spiritual themes of redemption and salvation.  Often great instrumental music inspires by stretching our musical imagination beyond its limits.  Here’s an inspiring treat by the amazing musicians, flutist Emmanuel Pahud and pianist Eric le Sage performing Franck’s Sonata for Flute and Piano.

The composer Cesar Franck, a child prodigy, was exploited by his overbearing, abusive father during his younger years.  It wasn’t until he found love (forbidden by his father) and broke from his parents, that he composed his greatest works.  You can hear the pain, triumph and inspiration in his music.

When we feel angry, sad, deflated, afraid, confused, lonely or broken, we can find a composer or artist who took that feeling and made something beautiful with it.  The song writer makes us feel less alone in our human struggle.

Growing up black in America, many little girls felt conflict about their African hair in a culture that seems to value long blond locks.  This song from Sesame Street celebrates the natural beauty of African American hair, helping little girls feel proud of their heritage and looks.  Plus the song is adorable.

I would love to hear what music you have found healing in your life.  Please share this discussion with friends and family.  It might help you learn something new about one another.  To close I’d like to leave you with a holiday healing song.  Written by the Russian Jewish immigrant, Irving Berlin (who also wrote God Bless America), it’s a song of hope during the holidays, that your “days be merry and bright.”  Growing up poor, without education or opportunity, Irving Berlin took his singing voice and became the most celebrated American composer.  A Jew, he wrote the most recorded Christmas song of all time.  Soldiers, and those away from home during the holidays can dream, find hope and healing in a song.