Music loves Emotion loves Music

January 26, 2022

One of the modalities we use in Expressive Arts Therapy is music. Music has a wonderful evocative power to bring memories forward in our mind. It can take us back to times when we felt sadness or happy emotions, when we felt melancholy or love and intimacy. Music can bring up emotions that were present in an earlier memory. Think, for example, of an old ex-boyfriend and the favourite song from that relationship. When you hear that song does it bring up happy memories of that person or sad memories or just a wistful remembrance of an earlier time.

If you think of the timeline of your life, the music that was popular in your teen years can bring back memories of those times. The songs that you remember from your childhood can whisk you away to those years. Our music preferences change and develop over our lifetime, as our relationship to music also changes. When we want to reminisce, music from that time period can help us to generate more detail and imagery from the time we want to travel to. When we are feeling melancholy, moody music with a slow timbre can help us to elaborate and bring out the juiciness in that feeling. Listening to the music that our parents listened to when they were young can help us to experience them from a different viewpoint.

Human beings had sound before they had speech. Children do total sound before they have speech. They can express anger, sadness, frustration and pain long before they can put words to these emotions. We are built to recognize tones and tonal differences. One spring, I found two fledgling magpies out of the nest and, although I did everything I could to put worms and bugs in front of them, and to help them find shelter, I found them one morning succumbed to a cold early spring storm. As I was burying them, the mother magpie made sounds very similar to human sobbing sounds as she circled above me. I was moved in this moment, to a sense of the commonality of all mothers and motherhood, of loss and sorrow, of perished promise and hopes lost. Perhaps some sounds are a universal language, pre-verbal or extra verbal, without words, but with recognizable emotive quality.

Ethnomusicologist Stephen Feld has a compilation of field recordings of the Kaluli people of Papua New Guinea. The Kaluli people sing with birds, with insects, with tree frogs and tumbling waterfalls, with the rain itself. And when the Kaluli sing with them, they sing like them. Nature is music to the Kaluli ears. Kaluli music is a natural part of the surrounding soundscape. The songful language of the Kaluli is rich with words that echo the speech of animals as well as mimic the many swirling, bubbling and plopping sounds made by water and the rain forest (David Abram, “The Spell of the Sensuous”).

What part does music play in your life? Did you have a different relationship with music when you were younger? Do you want to revive that relationship now? How does music nourish your experience of life and how does it help you elaborate your emotions?

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