When words fail

I caught the end of The Music Show’s interview with the chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, David Robertson, on Saturday. He was describing the importance of music for people who are ill or depressed. Referring to the orchestra he said: ‘We may be needed by someone enormously at any moment’.

I was impressed to hear someone from such a mainstream musical tradition speak so bluntly about the role of music in our emotional health. He talked about how listening to certain music, over and over again, helped repair the ‘psychic rift’ he experienced when seriously ill with peritonitis. You can listen to the interview here. This is one of the things he says he listened to: pianist Glen Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg variations.

I like the word repair because it implies that you can make something new again, without having to make it as perfect as it was before the damage. You can repair torn jeans with an embroidered patch, unravel a moth-eaten jumper and reknit it, or glue together a broken cup and grow a plant in it. So it is with emotional pain or physical damage. After you’ve been through it, you are not quite the same, but you still have a life.

On another radio program recently I heard someone arguing against the commonly expressed idea that you can ‘heal’ from the death of someone close to you. They argued that you couldn’t always heal, that it was the wrong word to use, that the wounds would always be there; raw to a greater or lesser extent. Also recently, in a moving and insightful blog post, my friend Sail objected to the notion of ‘processing’ the experience of his father’s death.

All this has got me thinking about the inadequacy of the words we use to describe depression and grief. How to describe what happens during that time of sadness, to put into words the change that happens, over time, that enables us to face the world again without being in constant pain. Is it ‘healing’? Are we ‘processing’ our feelings, mechanical as that sounds? Or we are slowly being repaired — unravelling and reknitting?

Probably this difficulty is because that experience is beyond words. But however you want to describe it, there’s no doubt in my mind — music helps. Whether it’s a quiet, reflective piano concerto, or driving dance music that pumps joy through your veins, or the spacious, resonant chords of Malian guitar …. it helps. Here’s some music that’s helped me: the Super Rail Band de Bamako.

What music helps you?






8 thoughts on “When words fail

  1. Beautiful post, Jill. As to what music helps me, always Beethoven’s magnificent 9th, but also the 6th whose last movement brings me to tears. Joni Mitchell’s Songs to Ageing Children. Paul Simon’s Homeward Bound. Carole King’s Home Again. Lucinda William’s Sweet Old World especially when sung by Emmy Lou Harris – a song that I clung to in one of my pretty awful depressions. Heaps of songs, really, for different types of help.

    • Thanks Paul, I’m glad you liked it and have left some things for me to listen to. I love Homeward Bound too, nice to be reminded of it.

  2. Lovely post – different music for different moods but most music is healing or repairing especially if you sing with it. Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams when I’m trying to study, Neil Young when I remember a good friend who died recently, Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye when feeling soulful. Lucinda and Emmylou and Gillian Welsh for goosebumpy sad moments. Gospel for uplifting, reggae for chilling and bopping, Hildegard von Bingen for flaoting like a feather ….

  3. Great post Jill. My depression experience has been long… and music when I was at last on the way out was important. This piece of your made me resolve to get back into music more…

    This is the link to my most played recovery music – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1t8aLJcL7J4 . It’s very long – but if you read the comments you can see the emotional impact this piece has.

  4. Thanks Ross, I listened to a little bit and it is beautiful, I can hear that a couple of hours of this would have a big impact. I hope you do get back into music again.

  5. Different music for different moods. Sometimes listening to music from a particular good year from the past helps soothe the soul. Classical music is also soothing. I have a track from a childhood story tape ‘Treasure Island’ that is so soothing Smetana’s Ma Vlast ‘Vltava (Die Moldau). I am translocated to a boat at sea and I am at peace when I hear this.

    • That is a good point about listening to music from a particular year – can bring back positive associations. Thanks for visiting & for sharing Ma Vlast Vlatava, that is a beautiful piece to lose yourself in, especially the first half.

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