Music and me

One of the things that depression stole from me is the capacity to enjoy music.


(This is about recorded and/or broadcast music -- somehow, my relationship to LIVE music is a different, more complicated thing. But I'm not going into that here.)

I know fellow depressives who have found music to be a saving grace, something they held onto for dear life when the world stopped making sense.  Sometimes it was music in general, sometimes a specific artist/album/song that got them through.

That makes total sense to me.  But it's not what I experienced.  It's not that I stopped valuing or liking music.  But at some point I realized that I really hadn't listened to music in a very long time.

On the odd occasions when I came across music playing on the radio, or (rarer still) turned on a CD, I would quickly grow restless, distracted, and anxious.  And I would turn it off.

I bought a few music CDs during these years that I had every expectation of enjoying -- a favorite artist's new project, for instance, or the work of a group that I heard live in concert.

But then I never got around to playing them.  (One, which I purchased a year and a half ago, was still in the shrink wrap until yesterday.)  Eventually, I noticed this, and stopped buying new music.

My depression has been (mostly) in remission for some time now, and yet the not-listening-to-music has stuck.  The vague anxiety and dispondency when accidentally exposed to (much, not all) recorded music still comes around.  I have lamented this from time to time, but that's the extent of my reaction.

I was a bit startled, the other day, to find that I have actually come to FEAR music.  

Part of the reason, I think, that I don't generally throw on recordings of music I used to like is that I'm afraid that they will raise uncomfortable associations.  Music, of course, like aroma, is a potent carrier of memory, and some memories are places I just don't want to revisit.  If it was unpleasant, obviously I'd rather avoid it.  If it was pleasant but is now lost, I'd rather avoid the pang of mourning than be reminded of the joy.  I who get weepy over the most banal bits of prose came to fear the much stronger emotional power of music, and so I avoided it.

And if familiar music was dangerous, new-to-me music seemed even more so -- at least with the familiar music, I could have some anticipation of what was coming.  New music may not carry memories, but it still might have the raw emotional power.  (And then, there's the risk that "new" music carries memories, but memories I don't remember -- that is, perhaps I have heard it before in some different context, and even registered some deep-seated emotional connections, but upon hearing it again I may not be able to consciously recognize what it is in the song that is ressonating the off-key note in my soul.  This happened at least once.  It was very unsettling.)

This, I think, is why I get anxious when I listen to music -- I expect that, at any moment, it will make me sad, and so I tense up in anticipation.

Toward the end of high school/beginning of college, I managed to produce in myself a sort of Pavlovian response of anxiety in reaction to the music of Mozart in particular.  This was when those studies were being touted about how Mozart makes you smart, and so I listened to Mozart while studying for big tests, and only while studying for big tests.  It got to the point where just playing a little Mozart would trigger the feelings of stress of facing a big test.  

Now I seem to experience the same phenomenon, on a much wider scale.

I further hypothesize that the other feeling that I get when listening to music -- boredom -- is a defensive mechanism against the anxiety and sadness.  Subconsicously, I expect music to make me sad, and so I put up emotional barriers when it comes on and try to listen at only the most superficial level, hoping that whatever it is about the music that stands the chance to move me won't get in.  

Which of course more or less defeats the whole point of listening to music in the first place.

Methinks that my unthinking reaction of avoidance toward recorded music in general has actually amplified the experience of anxiety and boredom when I do listen to it.  Methinks futher that my life is impoverished by not having very much music in it.  Methinks further that when music inevitably triggers an emotional response in me it will be OK -- usually it will be fleeting, and even when it is strong, that's okay -- I'm strong, too, and do not need to protect myself from strong feelings.  

THEREFORE, this is what I'm doing for Lent: listening to music.  Mostly non-sacred music, if there is such a thing.  I'm going to give the songs on those "new" CDs that I've bought over the past four or five years a chance to work their way into my heart.  I'm going to revisit old favorites and start building new associations.  I'm going to buy this even though all of my ex-boyfriends are rabid U2 fans.  ("Why," as a wise man asked, "should the devil have all the good music?")  ;)

For Lent, I am giving up fear, if only in a small and circumscribed part of my life.  Hopefully the alleluias we sing in 40 or so days will sound all the sweeter for it.

2 comments:

The Muser (aka Beautiful Mama) said...

This is beautiful. Faithful. Giving up fear--ah, that has been the hardest spiritual discipline for me too. Peace, peace. (i am finding that traditional liturgy and religious symbolism triggers panic/anxiety reactions in me and am spending this season--and probably many more--trying to figure out how to relate to those religious things that both nurture/give me life and remind me of trauma)...

Peter Onigan said...

I'm very impressed with this discipline, it should have made your list of suggested disciplines. I hope you find that some of the beauty of music does return.

If you happen to be looking for suggestions that might not have any other connections, I've got three to offer. Raising Sand from Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Everything That Happens Will Happen Today by David Byrne and Brian Eno, and The Animal Years by Josh Ritter. All three have a gorgeous sound to them (though try the Byrne before buying since his voice drives some people nuts). The Ritter album is very emotionally powerful, and he's an excellent song writer who's lyrics are filled with religious imagery.

Be well. All my best.

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