I already know this post isn’t going to win me any new friends. No one really likes a music critic.
But as a former serious aspiring musician, singer and songwriter, it just feels like it needs to be said – somewhere, by someone – that music really should come with warning labels (or at least a healthy disclaimer or two).
A few days ago I was in one of my favorite thrift stores. I was shopping around to see what I could find that would keep me warm in the Antarctica that my normally tropical city had suddenly become.
As I browsed through gently used turtlenecks, wool sweaters and endless reams of flannel, I was at the same time listening to a steady selection of the sort of hopeless, heart-wrenching lovesick ballads that I honestly haven’t heard since my own songwriting days.
Then all of a sudden, right there in the middle of the store, my heart started to hurt.
And when I say hurt, I don’t just mean my eyes began to tear up or I suddenly wondered if I had forgotten to take my anti-depressant that morning. I mean it actually started to HURT. I felt physical pain in the general vicinity of my upper left chest, right in between my left collar bone and my left boob – and we all know which vital organ makes its home there.
If you’ve ever stuck a power cord in an electrical outlet and see a brief spark of electricity fly out, that is about how it felt. My heart was ping! ping! pinging! these little sparks along with the beats of the songs.
Not sure how to make the pinging stop, I started to tap on my chest, using a special form of EFT (emotional freedom technique) a therapist taught me many years ago. As I tapped, the pinging receded. By the time I got to the register with my purchases, it was nearly gone.
But even with my family’s well-documented history of heart troubles, and even given my diagnosis one year ago this month of hypothyroidism, I knew it wasn’t any of these things causing my heart pain. I didn’t need to make a cardiology appointment, call my endocrinologist to negotiate a different thyroid dosage or schedule an EKG. I needed to breathe. Tap. Cry a little.
And get the hell away from that damn radio and all those (literally) heart-breaking love songs.
Let me tell you, music can be hazardous to your health.
For those of you reading this who are just dropping in here and perhaps don’t know me at all or know my history, I am turning 48 this month and I started playing piano when I was eight. In between I won several national and one international music contest, was featured in a national jazz magazine twice, released two CDs of my original songs and basically gave professional music my best shot for the better part of my life to date.
So that gives me a cool four decades of studying music at varying levels to notice how a song can change my mind, my mood or both in the time it takes to play “name that tune.”
There have been countless moments over the years when I have allowed a playlist to tweak my emotions….and my choices. Music has sent words flooding out of my mouth that I never ever meant to say. It has instigated actions I would have preferred never to witness myself doing.
And given that (at last estimate) more than 90 percent of all songs ever written are about love and romance or the lack thereof, music shoulders a whole lot of the responsibility for my often-broken and sometimes downright painful heart.
I’m not saying that listening to music – or playing it or writing it – is a bad thing, even though I know that is probably what it sounds like I am saying. Rather, I am simply suggesting music is more powerful than most of us give it credit for and it is good and wise to recognize that.
(If you’ve ever watched a small person trying to watch a big dog down the street and wondered who was walking whom, you totally grasp my meaning and the potential for avoidable harm that comes along with it.)
Don’t get me wrong – there are days when I really want to crank my stereo. I want to dive into music the way I sometimes dive into wine to numb my heart, silence my mind and free my body of its many real and imagined aches and pains. This works for awhile (wine or music or both). But never without a cost to me later.
Just as listening to the right song at precisely the right moment can make me feel like the whole world sings with me, so too can listening to the wrong song at the wrong moment make me believe hope has lost all its feathers as well as its will to fly.
So I – me, personally – I must be careful how I use music in my life.
For this reason, I have made it a practice to take care what I listen to. I monitor when and how often I listen to music as well as what I listen to and how loud I let myself listen to it (volume is another master manipulator in its own right). If I decide to queue up a favorite playlist, I take responsibility in advance for what is to come. And come what may, when the music ends, I open up my ears and my heart and let the song and the emotions that came with it go.
This is the only way – for me, at least – to enjoy music with at least some sort of minimal emotional safety net.
Today’s Takeaway: Are there certain songs that impact you in very reliable, predictable ways? Do you have “go to” songs you turn to when you need to laugh or dance or rage or cry? Have you noticed yourself changing your music listening habits over the years, adjusting the genre, the frequency, the volume? Do you think music can make people do or say things that they might never otherwise do or say?