Last term I had an assignment where I had to analyse 3 research papers, terribly boring stuff, so I tried to make it a little more interesting for myself by looking at research around music therapy. In one of the studies I read from 2018, an Australian team looked at how young people in mental health facilities listened to music. They wanted to establish whether the young people had considered healthy and unhealthy ways they listened to music. They defined healthy music listening as using music to induce positive physical and emotional responses like the motivation to get up and get dressed or to get pumped up for a for a job interview; while unhealthy music listening was defined as those times where people listen to music in order to feel worse. You know, when you’re listening to songs you know will upset you because they remind you of your ex, or because they make you think about better times that you can’t return to, or songs that encourage anger or hate in you. And they spoke of ‘rumination’.
I’ll be honest with you, I googled the word like I often do when I’m reading medical literature, and something just clicked in my head. I found out that those times when you’re obsessing over what’s wrong in your life and dissecting it, hurtling down a rabbit hole of pain, anger, stress, frustration, hopelessness, and agony, that vicious path of feeling crap and often purposefully seeking that feeling…is called rumination. I felt a bit of relief from learning that word. It meant that this thing that I’ve done a million times in my life, had a name, and was therefore real and that other people did that too.
I particularly remember listening to Arab Strap’s Monday Night at the Hug and Pint in my teens, drinking wine from the bottle, smoking excessively and analysing my woes in great detail in my dark, dank, doom-ridden bedsit. A part of me thinks this was a cathartic process to some extent, because I was really getting in touch with my emotions, however, I definitely delved too deeply into dark places and I became almost addicted to those feelings of sadness and anger. I could relate closely to a lot of the lyrics in the album in those days and there was something about the music itself that made me feel worse and I actively sought that. But until last month, I hadn’t really considered it as a symptom of the depression I was experiencing at the time. There have been many times that I’ve been low, and I’ve obsessed over the things that I perceived as being wrong in my life rather than considering what is worth celebrating or what I can do to feel better. Please note that this isn’t an option for everyone who is down. I’m not saying that people with depression should 'shake it off and just be happy' and I understand how harmful an opinion that is. However, if we are aware that we ruminate, we many be able to address that.
At another stage in my life, I was going through a progression program with a company I worked for and a friend and mentor handed me a little book called Who Moved My Cheese. Now I haven’t read that book in a lot of years and not with the health education I’ve had in recent years, so I’m not going to give you a hard recommendation to read it but it certainly did something for me at the time that has had a lasting effect. It’s a parable that encourages people to consider changes to their behaviour and the way they perceive issues in order to achieve the results they want to see. If your cheese isn’t where it usually is, have a look around to see if it’s somewhere else before jumping to the conclusion that you’re now going to die because you don’t have any cheese. I don’t remember if the book suggested this to me or if I had the idea, but I decided to make a playlist named after the book.
The playlist would include only the songs that put me in a great mood. It had pop-punk, indie, hip-hip, folk and dance tunes on it and to most people it wouldn’t really make sense as a playlist, but it worked for me. I used the Who Moved My Cheese playlist while I got ready for work, or when I had a date, and I used it just, you know, on a Tuesday or whatever if I needed a boost. Looking back at the playlist now is interesting because a lot of those songs still bring me happiness and still stir up enthusiasm and confidence in me. Maybe that’s because I associate them with those feelings or because they were written and recorded with that in mind and perhaps it’s a combination of the two. Either way, this works for me. I still sometimes use that playlist, but I also regularly use other playlists and albums to perk me up or to start the day in a great mood. When my wife and I are going on a road trip I try to pick music I think will have that effect on both of us. Something that will get us talking, reminiscing about a gig we went to or another happy memory from the past. Granted, sometimes I swing and miss and other times I just want to listen to what I want to listen to and then there are times when she puts her foot down and we listen to the 4 or 5 songs she has saved on her phone.
So now, being aware of how I’ve used music to feel great and to feel awful, I can understand how I would use music to feel other emotions. I listen to music for several hours every day so how do I know if I’m listening to the right music at the right time? When I’m studying, I find music without lyrics or lyrics in a language I don’t understand really helps. Usually something with a persistent beat helps too but I tend to be able to locate a beat that isn’t necessarily prominent in a song (maybe others can too). I find that if I don’t listen to music while studying, I’m more likely to pick up my phone, or a guitar, or just stand up and walk around, or start fidgeting, or go get something to eat, or smoke etc. Basically, I lose my concentration. Likewise, If I listen to something too stimulating while I’m studying, with really thought-provoking lyrics or a bassline or piano part that I can be distracted by, I tend not to get much work done either. Metal, rock and punk seem to get me to a destination quicker than folk and classical do. Spacey, experimental music helps me to think about ideas for essays or blogs and really explore their validity but also there are times where I suppose this gets out of hand. And then there’s silence…
Well not really silence. Look, I get that the word mindfulness is loaded with stigma about hippy, airy-fairy-ness, but it is very much grounded in science today and considered by health professionals to be a valid and effective resource for anyone who chooses to practice it. When I feel like things are getting too much, I close my eyes in a comfortable place and position, and I focus on the sound and the sensation of my breathing. When I spot that I’m ruminating, I use mindfulness, and also sometimes when I can’t sleep because my mind is racing. Thoughts popping into my head is inevitable, so I recognise when that happens and gently bring my focus back to the sound of my breath and the feeling of my chest and shoulders rising and falling. I also sometimes do this with relaxing, classical pieces. I focus on the either higher notes or the lower notes or a specific instrument (usually piano) and when my mind wanders, I just gently bring the focus back.
So these are some of the healthy and unhealthy ways I listen to music. What about you?