• Bill Stauffer

Gratitude Friday 1-28-22 - The Unifying Power of Music

One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.” ― Bob Marley

Without music, life would be a mistake.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche

Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.” ― Maya Angelou


Music is important to me. I know that not everyone feels that way about music, but there are a lot of people who also respond strongly to music. Listening to music is a huge part of my life. A few weeks back, at the beginning of the year, Julie and I were watching a concert special with Carole King and James Taylor. They spoke about how powerful an experience it was to preform music and how rewarding it was for them to play and watch people respond to their songs. Carole King said that she realized that she was just the vehicle. What was happening when people heard their music was that they associated it with memories in their own lives. She said it helped her think about what she was doing. She was helping people access special moments in their lives. How beautiful.

As we listened to that concert, I was thinking about how their music related to the common experience of those in attendance who had lived through the 1970’s. Music really can bring people together. The experience of Woodstock in the summer of 1969 became representative for the promise of a generation, just as the free concert at Altamont in December 69 and the death of Meredith Hunter reflected its challenges. In the 80s, I remember being at Muhlenberg College that July 1986 working in the theatre during the Live Aid Concert. Concerts can unify communities as did the Unite to Face Addiction concert on the national mall in 2015. I was there. Concerts changed in COVID. We were grateful for the virtual concerts in the midst of the pandemic isolation. They helped hold our household together.


So, what happens in the brain when we listen to music? I found this link to a site hosted by the University of Arizona that talks about how music lights up our brain’s reward system. They even have a graphic claiming that different genres of music have different benefits, including to the immune system, memory, and mood. I notice I recall certain eras of my life quite vividly when I listen to certain songs. This BBC article talks about how this can be particularly true for memories laid down in our teen and early adulthood years. They term it the ‘reminiscence bump.’ It may work by evoking an especially important and exciting time in our lives when we are experiencing something new. I have noted before that some songs for me link to things that were frightening. When I was very young, I watched a factory burn down while Hey Jude (what a rad clip this is) was on the radio. I see the flames quite vividly every time I hear that song.


Why do some people respond to music so powerfully? There is some evidence that people who deeply grasp pain or happiness of others process music differently in their brains. This article talks about a study that found that in most areas of the brain, low empathy people and high empathy people processed music the same, but that highly empathic people process familiar music with greater involvement of the brain's social circuitry, such as the areas activated when feeling empathy for others. They also seem to experience a greater degree of pleasure in listening, as indicated by increased activation of the reward system. If there was ever a time we could use increased empathy for others more that right now, it escapes me. Let’s play some tunes people!


Perhaps the experience of music changed in some ways as music became more personalized and people could develop their own playlists through Spotify or personalized stations on Pandora. I really enjoy the abundance of music I can access but I wonder if we have lost something as there are fewer songs that large groups of people identify with. This article from the LA Times asks the same question. Another example of the isolative facets of technology.


One of the articles I recently ran across was this one on Global Citizen about the social power of music. It includes examples of how people across the globe are coming together to play and experience music. The piece talks about using music to lift kids out of poverty in Venezuela and how young Arabs and Israelis, have come together to perform as an “orchestra against ignorance.” It made me think of this Coca-Cola commercial from 1971, I'd Like To Teach The World To Sing (which I remember playing on all three of our TV channels at the time). The commercial became one of the most popular in history, and even had a hit single in the US. Watching that link to that commercial actually brought a tear to my eye. Those kids on that Italian hillside were on to something. We did not listen. Perhaps we should, now.


I am grateful I am that I am one of those people who respond so powerfully to music. I am grateful that in recovery, I have had the opportunity to see so much live music with Julie over these decades, as she loves it too. I am grateful that music has a power to bring us together and to heal our collective wounds. Perhaps, if we tried, we really could sing in harmony. I am grateful we all still have the opportunity to try.


What are you grateful for today?

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