Musing On the Power of Music

Abundant research testifies to the awesome power of music to affect our mental and emotional states and even influence our behavior.

I have always loved music. As a child, I sat for hours in front of my treasured small phonograph, listening to and being carried away by a variety of intriguing tunes. Music spoke to me, even though I wasn’t sure exactly how. But when I needed to be calmed, there was always a tune that could do the trick. And when I needed to release pent-up rage, there was a vehicle for that, too. Mostly, however, music for me was a way to connect to deep emotions as well as to light the fires of inspiration. I suppose that’s why when I started composing later in life, every melody that played in my mind ended up becoming an inspirational song.

There is a branch of psychology that formally studies the nature of music and its power to affect the human psyche. And, there is a considerable overlap between the psychology of music and the science of musicology. But regardless of the approaches we’ve taken to understand it, abundant research testifies to the awesome power of music to affect our mental and emotional states and even influence our behavior. Abundant research indicates that music which incorporates aggressive themes and harsh, strident tones and verses actually has the power to increase the potential for aggressive behavior, especially in impressionable young persons. Captors have long known that bombarding prisoners with music discordant with the dominant tastes and preferences of their culture can be an excruciating form of torture. Music’s power to help heal is becoming increasingly evident, too, with recent research findings on its effects on the well-being of persons suffering from high mortality rate diseases. Music’s power to soothe was the topic of a mostly misquoted passage from Congreve’s The Mourning Bride:

Music has charms to soothe a savage breast,
To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.

Some psychologists actively employ music as a therapeutic technique with their clients. For me, music is therapy, purely and simply. It does for me what almost nothing else can do. It can take me away, charge me up, stir my imagination, bind my wounds, fill me with joy, and make me cry all in one sitting, depending upon the nature of the composition.

There is a timelessness about the greatest music. I was deeply struck by the realization that almost all of the inspirational pieces that have made the deepest impression on me since my childhood have lyrics that were paired with melodies handed down in various cultures from generation to generations and whose original authors are largely unknown. It’s almost like the origins of melodies come from another world or dimension that we don’t yet truly understand, as opposed to just the random firing of neurons in the human brain. I get that feeling particularly when a melody seems to come out of nowhere and fills my head for days or weeks on end, begging me and taunting me to do something meaningful with it.

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When I retired for the most part from my once hectic professional life, I promised myself I’d spend more time composing. The problem is, you can’t make a creative enterprise happen. Inspiration comes when it does — of it’s own accord. You have to get used to surrendering to that fact. The first time I did so was a dramatic life-changing experience. A melody popped into my head one day and for 7 years wouldn’t let go of me. I heard it in the background everywhere. At work, in the car, while walking in the neighborhood, etc. I had only a few lyrics in mind and no idea whatsoever about what to do with it. I literally felt compelled, however, to create what would become my first musical composition. I had created before, having written a book. But this was different. Something else was driving me. It felt like I was just the vehicle, having the choice only to go where some force was taking me or continue to be haunted. When the project was done, I still had no idea about its purpose. That didn’t become clear until 2 years later. In the process I came to a deeper sense than at any other time in my life of being connected to something much more powerful and undefinable. Something other-worldly and beyond the bounds of time. And I felt my breast soften and soothe. I haven’t been the same since.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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