Music with a Message: How Music Can Help Us Grieve

[Original Banner Photo byLuigi Ghirri, Urbino (1975)]


This still feels like grief. You’ve been told how to deal with it, how to explain the result of this Presidential election to your children, your brothers and sisters, your friends. We’ve been presented scripts from news outlets, school principals, and politicians full of sentiments and aphorisms, which are sometimes well intentioned, but fall flat in the face of reality.

A lot of us are familiar with the Kübler-Ross model of the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. We see these “stages” as a normal and natural response to loss, but in reality, we all process our grief differently. Our response doesn’t follow set stages or progress linearly, but rather strikes randomly in various forms at various times. How does one heal in such an unpredictable and frightening time? I obviously can’t answer that for you, but I can offer a possible avenue for momentary solace: music.


Photo by Chip Kidd, originally seen on the cover of Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks

In his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Oliver Sacks wrote, “Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation. One does not have to know anything about Dido and Aeneas to be moved by her lament for him; anyone who has ever lost someone knows what Dido is expressing. And there is, finally, a deep and mysterious paradox here, for while such music makes one experience pain and grief more intensely, it brings solace and consolation at the same time.” Music can move us to the heights and depths of emotion, and often our reactions to music often lie far deeper than thought, giving permission not to be understood completely. Sometimes we can heal by not knowing or not understanding. Sometimes we have to let music provide profound consolation in a way words never could.

Pitchfork recently published an article about the healing powers of music (focused primarily on Neurologic Music Therapy or NMT). Music therapy, as a social approach, has been around for centuries (even dating back to Plato and Aristotle) but began developing as an actual profession after the World Wars. Community musicians would visit thousands of veterans suffering from both physical and emotional traumas in hospitals and other facilities. The use of music as an intervention and therapy spans a variety of different health “domains” like cognitive or motor impairments, and emotional well-being and social skills. Just turning on the radio isn’t going to heal everything going wrong in your life, as there are specific approaches that target these different areas I mentioned above, but it shows, scientifically, that music impacts our biology and psychology in profound ways.


Artwork by Emma Pierce

A while back, I spent about six months participating in dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) program. It’s a very skills based behavioral therapy, aimed to help regulate emotion, work on interpersonal relationships, and tolerate distress. One thing I learned was that there are times to lean into your emotions, to feel whatever is going on inside you and not push it away (because it’s bound to come back, and come back more fiercely). In other situations, you must act opposite to your emotions. For example, if you’re feeling particularly depressed and just want to hide away, or stay in bed all day, go for a walk. Act opposite to potentially harmful behaviors. You can hold opposing truths at the same time; you can be fearful while simultaneously feeling hopeful about the future because of the incredible response and resistance we’ve been witnessing from so many inspiring people around us.

I bring this up because this dialectical approach applies to music, too. We all know at least one person who has a playlist for every situation or every emotion, right? Well, some of us here at KXSU have put together a playlist for a couple different situations. The first I’m calling “Fight the Power.” These are protest songs essentially, aimed to help raise your spirits and desire to be active in issues you care about. The second I’m calling “Lean into Sadness.” These are songs that make us want to cry, or sob until our eyes are puffy and red because sometimes you really need to let your feelings out. The third playlist is called “It’s Gonna Be Alright” and is going to be full of pump up songs, songs that make you want to dance and can bring you out of a depressing state (momentarily perhaps, but that’s better than nothing). The small handful of songs a few of us here on the reporting staff have collected may not fit for you, and that’s expected and intentional! We want to hear from you about songs, albums, and artists that inspire you, make you feel, or let you escape for three and a half minutes.

You can submit songs in the anonymous survey here and I’ll compile all responses into a later article!

Fight the Power

Leaning into Sadness

It’s Gonna Be Alright

“Freedom” – Beyoncé ft. Kendrick Lamar “Chasing Pavements” – Adele “What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger) – Kelly Clarkson
“We the People” – A Tribe Called Quest (explicit) “The Cave” – Jack’s Mannequin “Respect” – Aretha Franklin
“People Have the Power – Patti Smith “World Spins Madly On” – The Weepies “A Change is Gonna Come” – Sam Cooke
“It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) – Bob Dylan “Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun” – Gaelynn Lea “White Flag” – Joseph
“I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free” – Nina Simone “I Don’t Feel It Anymore” – William Fitzsimmons “Cha Cha” – D.R.A.M.
“What’s Going On” – Marvin Gaye “Museum of Flight” – Damien Jurado “Hallucinating (Mariachi version) – Elohim
“Get Up, Stand Up” – Bob Marley & The Wailers “Not Myself” – Sharon Van Etten “One Dance” – Drake
“Man in Black” – Johnny Cash “Fast Car” – Tracy Chapman “I Found A Love” – The Wrong Numbers
“Peace Train” – Yusuf/Cat Stevens “I Love Seattle” – Tacocat
“Fountain of Youth” – Local Natives

No one can tell you how to cope with such an unprecedented source of grief, but take solace in knowing that you are not alone in your grief. The role of collective grief leads to action.

“I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom. Like art.” – Toni Morrison

EMMA PIERCE | An angry pacifist | KXSU Music Reporter


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