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Piercing the Heart: On Music and Depression

January 11, 2013

As I write this, I am about 90% of the way through Oliver Sacks’ book “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain”, which, like several if not all of Dr. Sacks’ books, explores through careful science and years of experience with patients the intersection of neurology and another well-known aspect of life, in this case music. While I am neither a doctor nor a scientist – I took introductory psychology in college, but that’s as far as I ever got – readers of mine may have already noticed that I am interested in the social sciences, the way individuals think, and, to the extent that I’m able to comprehend it, the way the brain works. It’s why writers who tackle such subjects in a non-overly-technical way have always appealed to me (see my love of Malcolm Gladwell). Sacks has in the past year become one of my favorite authors because his books are entertaining, factual, and accessible.

If you hadn’t picked up on that about me, I understand. But surely by now you know that I love music. Not just listening to it, but feeling it, understanding it, absorbing it, thinking about it, getting lost in it. Therefore Musicophilia is a book I was destined to read; perhaps the only reason I waited this long was to have an outlet to discuss it, for it warrants hours of discussion. Therefore I will undoubtedly cover Musicophilia in January’s edition of LitMonkey (I promise to keep it brief – if you can’t take hours it’s better to only take a few minutes). But before I do I have to address one chapter that particularly got me thinking – “Lamentations: Music and Depression.”

At its core, Musicophilia is a tour through every conceivable aspect of human life and how music affects it all neurologically. Sacks discusses an amazing array of conditions in great detail, including (among others) synesthesia, musical hallucinations, seizures, amnesia, catchy tunes (aka “brainworms”), absolute pitch, amusia, savantism, aphasia, dreams and depression. He also studies the role of music in relationship to epilepsy, dementia, Tourette’s, Parkinson’s, dementia and Williams syndrome. However, as far as I can tell, it is only in the chapter on depression where Sacks fails to reference any neuroscientific evidence and focuses solely on personal experience and theory. My theory is that for this one narrow aspect of human life, even if it cannot be proven by science, music’s influence on individuals suffering through depression was simply too obvious for Sacks to ignore. Let’s face it – we’ve all been there, going through a difficult time, perhaps a breakup, or the loss of someone close – and we’ve used music to pull us through. Sacks couldn’t write a 300+ page book on music and the human condition without touching on depression any more than I can pull myself out of a gloomy state without firing up my iPod or putting a record on the turntable. Equally apparent is that certain music appeals to our blue moods. Stereotypes are never universally true, but they typically derive from somewhere, and there is a reason that for my generation listening to the Smiths (or just Morrissey) embodies the depressive experience. What is it that makes certain music appeal to our depressive sides, ultimately pulling us through to the light at the end of the iPod?

First, it is important to acknowledge two facts: (1) Despite what I said some 50 words ago, that “certain music appeals to our blue moods,” different people are uplifted by different types of music. (2) Cheery music does not equal cheerful mood. Point 1 is addressed by Sacks, who uses examples from his own life, his patients’ experiences, and the written word of figures such as philosopher John Stuart Mill, novelist William Styron (famous for “Sophie’s Choice”) and critic and novelist Wendy Lesser to show that depending on the inner working of the person in question, the cause of the depressed state, the nature of the depression and likely a multitude of other factors, what music “pierces your heart” (as Styron puts it) undoubtedly varies and is sometimes impossible to predict (and may come to the person as a great surprise). Sacks doesn’t quite address point 2, though he does note anecdotally that “it is not coincidental that the music which released our grief [Lesser and Sacks’, both dealing with the loss of a beloved figure] and allowed emotion to flow again was a requiem, in Lesser’s case, and a lamentation, in my own[1].” The overarching theme that is not quite articulated by Sacks is this – there are “kinds” of music that will pierce your heart, but the particulars vary person to person, and sometimes event to event.

Which takes us back to Morrissey. As far back as I can remember, I’ve listened to music to put me in a better mood regardless of what state I was in, but it was only when I hit my early teenage years that I recognized the unique ability of music to pull me out of a funk, and that certain music was appropriate, perhaps even necessary, for this task. Somehow I innately knew even at this age, and without any outside direction from an older sibling or friend, that the way to cheer up was not though cheery tunes. The first Smiths songs I ever heard (not counting the scene in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” where “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want” plays as Ferris, Cameron and Sloan walk through the Art Institute) were “Is It Really So Strange?” and “A Rush and A Push and the Land Is Ours,” both included on a mix tape prepared by one of my more musically-forward friends. At the same time I was beginning to listen to the Cure, setting the stage for years of listening to the perfect (and perfectly stereotypical) 1-2 punch of depressed adolescent music. Note that I say “depressed” and not “depressing”; once I got further into the discographies of the Smiths/Morrissey and the Cure, I learned that their music didn’t bring me down, rather it helped me access my feelings and turn them outward, eventually releasing them and moving on. In both cases there is something haunting about the music, a feeling that Morrissey or Robert Smith is suffering from a pain that they will never escape. But there is also humor, a clever wit that opens the window just a crack, letting the listener in on the joke. The joke being that nothing can really be that bad.

Consider for a moment some of the lyrics behind just these three somewhat randomly chosen Smiths songs:

1. “Is It Really So Strange?”

Oh yes, you can kick me
And you can punch me
And you can break my face but you won’t change the way I feel
‘Cause I love you

[… and later]

I left the South
I travelled North
I got confused, I killed a horse, I can’t help the way I feel
Oh yes, you can punch me
And you can butt me
And you can break my spine but you won’t change the way I feel
‘Cause I love you

2. “A Rush and A Push …”

I traveled to a mystical time zone and I missed my bed and I soon came home

They said: “There’s too much caffeine in your bloodstream and a lack of real spice in your life”

I said: “Leave me alone because I’m alright, dad, Surprised to still be on my own…”

[… and later]

Oh, but don’t mention love // I’d hate the pain of the strain all over again

And people who are weaker than you or I // They take what they want from life

[… and later still]

Oh, I think I’m in love // Urrgh, I think I’m in love

3. “Please, Please, Please …”

Good times for a change
See, the luck I’ve had
Can make a good man
Turn bad

[… and later]

So for once in my life
Let me get what I want
Lord knows, it would be the first time

All three share a common theme of despair. Hard luck, being beaten down, having life taken from him. All three share the notion that this hard luck came about despite the singer being “good” in some sense. And all three share an unsure but promising sense that there may be “good times for a change” coming down the line, for the author is in love. Morrissey will flip the order of events, sometimes signaling the good times to come early on, sometimes leading with the intense hardship, and always mixing in the dark humor throughout. The words “I got confused, I killed a horse, I can’t help the way I feel” are never more funny than when I’m no mood to laugh. And they’re absolutely necessary to break up the pain of being kicked and punched by the one you love. It’s almost impossible to pick out a Smiths song or an early-solo Morrissey song without going through these themes, and even in those rare cases where some of it is missing, it can nevertheless be seen in the theme of the album as a whole.

Which brings me to the Cure, and in particular the album Wish. Wish wasn’t my first exposure to the Cure (I already had copies of the amazing singles compilation Staring at the Sea and the brooding Disintegration) but Wish got my most focused attention in terms of listening to a Cure album as a single entity. Devoted Cure fans may find this funny, as Wish is the Cure’s best-selling album, it contains quite a few hit pop singles (like the still-popular “Friday, I’m In Love”), and is often cited as the least artsy of the bunch. I completely agree that Wish is in many respects the Cure for the masses. But it also is the album that I feel contains the greatest journey, traversing extreme ups and downs, humor and darkness, revelry and despair. Yes, standing alone “Friday, I’m In Love” is a silly song with massively upbeat lyrics, but it sits in the middle of the album, flanked by emotions above and below that give the mood greater context. Robert Smith opens with “Open”, a dark song about being mixed up, lost, drunk (literally or metaphorically) and becoming sick, tired and numb. From this confusion he falls in love, wanting to be as “High” as the pixie of his dreams, who’s “kitten as a cat “, “that lives in a world of make believe.” But he isn’t quite there, can’t get that high. So he’s forced to hold on tighter than he’d like. Unfortunately that leads to his love leaving him, and the slow, extremely dark “Apart”, which beautifully sums up the post-break-up feeling of devastation, the deep depression that one wanders through while wondering if they were ever loved at all, and where it all went wrong. From this despair reluctantly he falls for her again (“From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea”), but there is interference from a fake or former lover whom Smith refuses to even consider at this time (“Wendy Time”). Instead he dives full force back into his relationship with his true love, tries to show her that he can match her move for move, be as high as she once was, in perhaps the Cure’s most underrated song of all-time, “Doing the Unstuck.” Consider some of the lyrics:

it’s a perfect day for letting go
for setting fire to bridges
boats
and other dreary worlds you know
let’s get happy!
it’s a perfect day for making out
to wake up with a smile without a doubt
to burst grin giggle bliss skip jump and sing and shout
let’s get happy!

but it’s much too late you say
for doing this now
we should have done it then
well it just goes to show
how wrong you can be
and how you really should know
that it’s never too late
to get up and go!

It’s kind of pathetic actually. The most upbeat song of the album has this undercurrent of dread, the possibility that she may be right. It may be much too late for doing this now. Smith is trying so hard, and it leads directly to the utterly meaningless happiness that follows in “Friday, I’m In Love.” Of course, not surprisingly she cannot stay with him. The feeling, for her, is gone. He cannot manufacture his joy to match hers no matter how hard he tries. She doesn’t “Trust” that he’s being real, and despite his protestations, his proclamations of love, we know it’s over. Perhaps she gives him one last chance, but her heart is no longer there and Smith knows it, which is why he writes “A Letter To Elise”. Smith ends things with her (again) because he can’t “make [her] eyes catch fire the way they should.” He poignantly says that “the make-believe ran out.” “Cut” is more of the same, Smith explaining that he can’t be with someone who he knows doesn’t love him:

I wish you felt the way that I still do // The way that I still do
But you don’t // You don’t feel anymore // You don’t care anymore
It’s all gone, it’s all gone, it’s all gone

In “To Wish Impossible Things” the singer finally seems to be coming to terms with what has happened, acknowledging that it was great but now it’s gone and so to wish for it to be back to what it was is impossible. He falls back to his old ways a bit in “End” (a song I feel is out of place), but the journey is complete. And having run through the full gamut of emotions, the Cure has provided me (and thousands of other adolescents before and since) the kind of catharsis that only music – only certain specific music – can.

Sacks eloquently states that “Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional. It has no power to represent anything particular or external, but it has a unique power to express states or feelings. Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation. … While such music makes one experience pain and grief more intensely, it brings solace and consolation at the same time.” This describes wholly my experience listening to Morrissey. It describes the Cure.

Nowadays, I hardly listen to the Cure anymore, and while I still enjoy Morrissey I don’t feel the same emotion as I once did when listening to him. Tastes change, people evolve, and those songs simply don’t move me. But I still get sad. We all do. And one thing that hasn’t changed is music’s ability to pierce my heart. Music provides consolation when words cannot. It’s just that today I turn to the National. Matt Berninger is my Morrissey. High Violet is my Wish.


[1] This kind of music means little to me. Admittedly I had to look up “requiem” to learn that it is a musical composition associated with death and mourning, and lamentation, which is a piece of music expressing grief, regret, or mourning.

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  1. LitMonkey – July 2013 | 2bitmonkey

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