Most everyone loves a little music therapy, and now we’re learning something about why. First, there’s something about the anticipation/fulfillment pattern of music. This article (Jonah Lehrer in his Wired column) cites evidence from classical music that dances around the tonic (the I chord) but doesn’t quite hit it, building anticipation for the final climax enjoyably. If you listen to rock or pop music you hear something very similar: guitarists leaning on the 7th, creating a near frenzy of desire for resolution.
I do love instrumental music, but when I really need music therapy I like to sing along and really belt it out. Maybe it’s like doing affirmations: you really need to say these things out loud and not just add them to the noise in your head. And check this out:
Scientists have researched what variables in a song inspire people to sing along in public, the Daily Record reports. Experts found that the impromptu urge to sing along to a song can be credited to four different elements.
These are a long and detailed musical phrase, multiple pitch changes in a song’s hook, the song being led by a male vocalist and the male vocal being in a higher key.
It’s not on my list of top mood lifters, but yeah, I’ll sing along to their catchiest song: Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” (But if you really need a mood lift immediately, go now and watch the Google doodle of “Don’t stop me now.”)
I have my own favorites, many of which fit the qualities researchers found, plus have some personal resonance and — if you ask me — empirical awesomeness that make them go-to songs for me when I need an attitude adjustment.
OK, yes, he is not a band — technically. He’s just such a fantastic musician that he counts as a whole band and then some. And if you want songs with multiple pitch changes—that come out sounding like the most obvious, simple melodies no matter how complex—Stevie is your man. Stevie writes some great love songs: I won’t tell you about the mushy night when husband-to-be and I sat on the sofa and sang Stevie songs to each other, because that is just too much. Or that his brother sang “If It’s Magic” while his brother-in-law played the harp at our wedding: beautiful. Then there was the time we saw him live on New Year’s Eve in Detroit . . .
Love songs aside, though, Stevie is the ultimate “movin’ in the positive” (“Master Blaster”) music. Before all that hearts and flowers stuff, I remember the summer after I graduated from college: I spent the first day crying and crying (and listening to David Bowie, “Changes”) because I felt so lost. Then I picked up the Musiquarium compilation albums and spent the next three months listening to “Boogie on Reggae Woman” nonstop, and I was healed. It’s a sing along, it’s a dance along, it’s irresistible:
They aren’t men, but they do sing in that easy pop tenor range. The Dixie Chicks were part of an experiment for me, years ago, to try things that other people might be critical of. My brainstorm: listen to country music. I didn’t really like the sound of Natalie Maines’ voice at first, but I couldn’t deny that singing along to “Goodbye Earl” and “Sin Wagon” was a lot of fun. When they came out with Taking the Long Way in 2006 I was primed to love it: they had already won me over with their bluegrass—rather than contemporary country pop— sound, and this album was their middle finger to everyone who had gone after them, burning records and sending death threats, after they dared criticize the president during a concert. (Wow, that incident sounds even weirder 10 years later.) Taking the Long Way is a whole album that responds to “Shut Up and Sing” with “I’ll sing, but no one tells me to shut up,” and that first song, “The Long Way Around,” is pretty much the theme song for any kid who grew up in a small town that always fit too tight.
After that album I went back and got Home, their first really big album. All the songs sound different and more defiant after their fall from country music grace, especially “Truth No. 2” (written by the amazing Patty Griffin). Singing along with the Chicks on that one always makes me want to go storm the Bastille, or at least keep plugging along a few more days.
Sly and the Family Stone
Sly is so funky—and at times so dangerous—that it’s easy to miss the fact that half his hits are self-help: “Everybody is a Star,” “Everyday People,” “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” “You Can Make It If You Try.” I usually prefer to listen to albums rather than greatest hits compilations, especially for music in the heyday of long-play albums, but in this case the greatest hits album is like mainlining positivity. When I put this album on now I see myself in our old one-bedroom apartment, pregnant and trying to get a dissertation written before having the baby, following a spectacularly disastrous oral exam. Could I really make it if I tried? Singing these songs over and over again, I started to think I could. Maybe the greatest of them all, fit for nearly ever occasion: “Stand.”
I can’t resist linking to the Pee Wee Herman medley, which is so worth a click through. (Embedding is disabled on the video.)
Like many children of the 80s, I found the soundtrack of my life on U2 albums, from War to the upcoming 20th anniversary commemoration of Achtung, Baby. I doodled lyrics from “40” during class in high school. When the movie Rattle and Hum came out I thought my teenage self might die from love of each individual member of the band. I sat in my bedroom and repeatedly listened to “One” and “With or Without You” while I pined for the boy who later became my husband. Lately I’ve had All That You Can’t Leave Behind in the kitchen CD player, which has a nice long stretch of songs that help me persist through a persistent funk: “Beautiful Day,” “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of,” “Elevation,” and “Walk On.” All of it says: keep going, drop your baggage, look around and enjoy this day, and if things suck now it won’t last. Nothing new, perhaps, but when you sing it out to the chickpeas and rice while making dinner it’s mighty uplifting stuff.
(Forgive the Tomb Raider video, please! In fact, forgive all the videos. If I could post audio only I would.)
When I was younger, my list of music therapy songs might have been more of the “Where Will I Find Love?” variety, but this list is squarely in “Love your life and don’t look back” category.
What are your go-to songs for turning your mood or your day around? Send us a guest blog post (mina dot 40questions at gmail dot com) or send a link to your own blog—or just put ’em in the comments.