As any college-aged student could tell you, music is very important. Why it’s important, however, depends heavily on personal experience. A strong sense of attachment is involved in hearing a song and declaring it as your jam. You can’t take these things lightly. Otherwise, “Party in the USA” would utterly lose its premise and meaning. And we don’t want that, do we?
The purpose of music is similar to any other medium of art: either to express and be understood or to observe and find connection. In terms of place, this quality of music augments our memories of certain times or places in our lives. Given the shared nature of consciousness, songs can influence a similar sense of place for many people. Many of us remember awkwardly standing in the dark corner of our middle school’s gym while the likes of “Cyclone”, “Heartless”, or the classic “Cha Cha Slide” played during school dances. Playing “Tunak Tunak Tun” at my old school’s mixers elicits a unique response. As you can see, we’ve grown up hearing at least some of the same songs. Though as a collective whole, we all know where we were when Beyonce released her most recent album. Or at least I do.
One of my favorite artists wrote liner notes for the first album his band released. It took me a long time to find a copy online (here, should it interest you), so please appreciate the following relevant quotes:
“This leads me to something weird about the power that music has, its transportive ability. Any time I hear a song or record that meant a lot to me at a certain moment or I was listening to at a distinct time, I’m instantly taken back to that place in full detail … It’s a form of recall that I can actually trust. … You can call it escapism if you like, but I see it as connecting to a deeper human feeling than found in the day-to-day world.”
These are strange ideas to talk about in the confines of plastic album covers, but they resonate with me anyway. If you don’t mind the cliche, we can create soundtracks for our lives. For example, hearing “Let’s Get It On” gives me fond memories of strolling down the streets of Durham with my friends after sunrise. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” takes me back to daydreaming in the grocery store while my mother shopped several aisles away. “Unwritten” reminds me of sharing a bedroom with all my sisters and playing storytelling games late at night, barely loud enough to disturb our somnambulant younger brother. Sometimes I listen to “Race You” or Icona Pop’s “Girlfriend” just to relive the memories of silently sitting in my dearest friend’s dorm room as we worked to the sound of her blaring laptop speakers. “Young Lion” was the first song I listened to after a somewhat lengthy hospital stay; I could never retell what it sounded like. Needless to say, I’m certain that all of you experience similar feelings when you hear familiar songs. Music helps us remember places in deeply meaningful ways.
Speaking of memories, music can also serve a role in medical settings. As described in this cool video (and also these sources), music has helped patients recall information when suffering from neurological injuries and diseases. Additionally, music can improve outcomes for critical care and cancer patients. While doctors aren’t sure of how music affects hormone and white blood cell levels (x, x), the impact appears to be cognitively based. The benefits of music therapy are well documented (x), so much so that some schools offer majors specifically devoted to the subject. While many of these same sources may suggest music as a treatment for depression and other mental illnesses/disabilities, I would personally recommend it as an adjunct to other methods. Although quite uplifting, rousing renditions of Mozart’s masterpieces are yet to negate anyone’s need for psychotherapy or medication.
While visiting my grandfather in the VA hospital, I noticed signs advertising the availability of MP3 players to patients by request. In light of numerous scientific studies, this made perfect sense. However, music probably can’t heal my grandfather’s literal heart. His hearing loss precludes that, among other factors. But if you should ever talk to him, bless his heart, he will passionately tell you how he thinks “Dixie” should be the national anthem. He’s also intent on planning his 100th birthday party. Music might not be a cure by any means, but it certainly makes life more bearable. This is what art is all about, the art of medicine included.