Songs in the Key of Healing

By Christa Banister

Nurse holding ukuleleIt’s no secret that music can completely transform your mood. And whether you’re into Mozart or more of a Top-40 radio fan, whenever you’re listening, your brain releases the same feel-good neurochemical, namely dopamine, that’s associated with pleasure and reward.1

Interestingly enough, your brain has the same response of dopamine release whenever you’re eating or sleeping. And while songs aren’t exactly essential for survival like the aforementioned activities, it’s been a real game changer for some people struggling with depression, addiction and mental illness. Music, and the exercise of songwriting in particular, has proven to be downright therapeutic.

In his book This Is Your Brain on Music, Daniel J. Levitin, PhD, writes about a myriad of positive effects that music has on a person’s health. Not only do your favorite guitar grooves and catchy melodies improve the immune system, which helps ward off sickness and disease, but they’re also considered an excellent stress reliever.2 Additionally, it’s been proven that listening to music is considered more effective than prescription drugs in soothing emergency room patients and even quelling anxiety before surgery.3

But for anyone searching for something more than a much-needed boost during a crisis or moment of melancholy, music has even longer lasting effects when incorporated into regular therapy. Serving as an out-of-the-box outlet for processing trauma, grief and a host of other conflicting emotions, everything from lyrical analysis to improvisational music playing to actually putting pen to paper and writing your song has been deemed extremely beneficial.

The Upside of Transparency

While songwriting may seem elusive, like something only a select group of people would be good at, longtime music therapist Molly Warren wholeheartedly disagrees.4 If you’re living, breathing and going through something, anything, you’ve got a song waiting to be written.

Noting how putting pen to paper can help build self-worth and provide a much-needed dose of validation, Warren believes that anyone — musically gifted, tone-deaf or somewhere in between — can write about his or her own thoughts and experiences and choose the accompaniment that matches the emotion he or she was hoping to convey. Something that promotes catharsis and a sense of pride in sharing your story in a uniquely creative fashion, it’s a practical, even enjoyable, application of music as medicine.

Case in point: For 25-year-old aspiring rapper Mark Henrique, whose onstage moniker is “Gremlin,” concocting beats and rhymes has always been his go-to outlet for coping with his mother’s drug addiction.5 Recently sharing his honest, warts-and-all account of growing up in such a dysfunctional environment and the harrowing trauma of seeing his mom lose it all before her journey toward sobriety began 12 years ago, Gremlin shared what he wrote in an online video via Facebook and YouTube.

In what wound up being an unexpected, viral success, Gremlin’s story through song resonated with millions and became a vehicle for Henrique and his mother to share their respective stories, beginning with a women’s correctional facility in Bakersfield, California. While having a front-row seat to the ugliness of addiction is something Henrique wouldn’t wish on anyone, the opportunity to connect with people experiencing similar realities has been life-changing and transformative.

Strength in Numbers

Whether it’s the late Robin Williams and Richard Pryor or present-day funny guys like Jim Carrey and Patton Oswalt, they’re all comedians who share something in common. They’ve publicly acknowledged that making the world laugh is their response to pain and personal anguish. And in the same way that many comedians have chosen to entertain the world as an antidote to their own suffering, many famous musicians also find solace in writing songs for the masses.

Ed SheeeranSinger/songwriter Ed Sheeran, known for pop hits “Shape of You” and “Castle on a Hill,” is a strong proponent of songwriting as a form of therapy.6 Claiming the one thing that instantly lifts his spirits when he’s feeling down is writing a song, Sheeran sees it as a producing something positive out of a bad experience. And whether or not what he writes actually makes it into something for the masses, jotting his thoughts and feelings down is something Sheeran tries to do as much as possible for his own health.

Meanwhile in country music songwriting, which is largely a collaborative business, 50-year-old Travis Meadows has a reputation in Nashville for his unabashed honesty and has helped write big hits for everyone from Eric Church to Jake Owen to Dierks Bentley.7 His level of authenticity is not an accident, mind you. It has come from a lifetime of pain and addiction.

Not only did Meadows see his brother drown when he was just a kid, but as a teenager he was diagnosed with cancer (and recovered) but lost his right leg as a result. Like many musicians who move to Nashville to “make it,” there were many ups and downs both personally and professionally. That combined with a past marked by heart-wrenching loss led him into a long battle with alcohol and drug dependency and four trips to rehab.

Now sober for four years, some of Meadows’ darkest times became the fodder for his critically and commercially acclaimed album, Killin’ Uncle Buzzy. A candid listening experience that many artists would’ve edited considerably for mass consumption, Meadows’ anguish, failure and loss wound up inspiring millions of complete strangers, not to mention the artists Meadows wrote songs with. For Meadows, writing it all down was a therapeutic and redemptive experience during his fourth trip to rehab that wound up being the catalyst for changing his life for good.

Here at The Oaks, we understand the influential, transformative role that music therapy and songwriting can play in treating substance use and mental health disorders. If you’d like to learn more about how our on-site recording studio, therapeutic songwriting workshops and creative arts groups could help you or a loved one find recovery, please call our 24-hour helpline to speak with an admissions coordinator.


Sources:

1 Sena Moore, Kimberly. “Why Music Listening Makes Us Feel Good.” Psychology Today, January 20, 2011.

1 Novotney, Amy. “Music as Medicine.” American Psychological Association, November 2013.

2Music ‘Better Than Drugs’ at Reducing Pre-Surgery Stress.” MusicWorks, 2017.

3 Warren, Molly. “The Impact of Music Therapy on Mental Health.” National Alliance on Mental Illness, December 19, 2016.

4Rapper’s Song About Mom’s Drug Addiction Goes Viral.” Fox News Health, August 23, 2017.

5Ed Sheeran Likens Songwriting to Therapy.” Sioux City Journal, May 5, 2017.

6 Hudak, Joseph. “Nashville’s Most Badass Songwriter Travis Meadows Shares Tragic Life Stories.” Rolling Stone, October 8, 2014.

Articles posted here are primarily educational and may not directly reflect the offerings at The Oaks. For more specific information on programs at The Oaks, contact us today.