Finding humanity in music

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In darkness, I could still hear the light. It was there, somewhere. From the croaks of a note or two, my ears prickling, the only words I sang or spoke brought me home. Music gave me the stamina to pull myself up, just to walk to the shallow metal fridge to grasp for food. I escaped into the different realms of emotions that songs spoke of, lifting me out of my blotchy reality. Music kept me alive even when I was convinced the best option was out. Whether it be praise, sadness, joy, anger, hate or love, each song conveyed an emotion that hugged my deeply cold heart. All I can remember from this distraught time are the notes I sang, composed and listened to when I was on the brink of nothingness. Music refined my hazy reality, breaking me free from the bars of depression to absorb a little bit of the heaviness within my mind and heart.

After a grueling two years of struggling with depression, I wound up at a therapy-based boarding school — therapy on steroids, but in the best way possible. I discovered the gift of music therapy, full of calming anecdotes that brought up distant memories as we listened to diverse sounds. Music therapy changed my once ephemeral love for music into a steadfast commitment. From teaching struggling friends the ukulele to meditating to my therapist’s favorite songs, the appreciation of music was rekindled within me. This new awareness empowered me to capture glimpses of music’s precious moments as it played out in the everyday ordeals of life.

I remember waiting in a bleak doctor’s office for my first MRI to assess my injured hip, the smell of burnt coffee stinging my nose. When my eyes widened at the claustrophobic-looking machine, the nurse offered me headphones. She told me to pick a music genre to listen to for the next two hours. Though I do not recall much of the MRI scan itself, I remember the catchy beat of Bruno Mars’ “Finesse” transforming my tiny cage into a dance floor. Music worked its magic.

Months later, I was lying drugged up and exhausted in a hospital bed post-surgery when I heard the distant echoes of harp music. As soon as my father saw my face light up at the sound, he eagerly asked if the musician, a hospital volunteer, would play for me. She agreed. As she played “Hallelujah,” her harmonious voice resonated within me and alleviated my pain. In precious moments such as these, music was my medicine — motivating, healing and regulating my body.

According to the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, music can trigger the release of dopamine, a chemical messenger that helps with reward, motivation and memory. The article concluded that music can help increase immune functioning as antibodies rise, decrease pain and even decrease memory loss for those with dementia. I am no doctor, but during midterms, sickness and difficult seasons, it seems like a good ol’ song just might do the trick.

Curious as to how others felt about music’s impact on their lives, I sent out an anonymous survey to my friends on Facebook last week. In my survey, I asked everyone for recommendations for songs that helped them relieve their stress and made a playlist on Spotify of them all — if you’re feeling overwhelmed, go give it a listen. Reading through these responses showed me that I was not alone in feeling the redeeming qualities of music. Those who responded voiced experiencing a range of emotions in relation to different genres. Some felt gratitude — as one person shared, “Music reminds me that I love something.” Music helps people cope with the irreparable — with another respondent remembering how “playing the piano helped me get through the overwhelming emotions of my father dying.” Another spoke of music helping them “write (their) emotions into poems and lyrics … (since) there’s nothing more cathartic in the world.”

Most awe-inspiring of all is music’s ability to connect people with one another. Another individual shared how much they love attending live concerts because being able to “watch, hear, and feel (the musicians’) energy, fills my soul with something more joyous.” When it comes to music, our natural human response is to synchronize our movements — lungs breathing, heart beating — a signifier of the boundless amount of compassion we can have for each other. Music strings us together, altering thousands of disparate heartbeats into one universal boom.   

Music is the potter of my soul. Music shapes how I walk to class, write a column, sing a song, study for a test, grapple with mental health and navigate the challenges we all have to face in this world. As I try remembering the silence those dark years held, all I can hear is the resounding strength of my broken whispers sung out loud.

Contact Autumn Awbrey at [email protected] .