Music as Entertainment vs. Music as Therapy

In modern times, we think of music as a form of entertainment, a soundtrack for movies and for our daily lives. A musician is someone who gets up on a stage or makes recordings to amuse us. Yet, once we begin to spontaneously create music from a deep, intuitive place, we realize that music has much greater powers. It has much more lasting gifts to offer us than mere entertainment. We can make music to bring healing.

“You play the blues to get rid of the blues.”

An old musician was once asked why he played the blues. He answered, “You play the blues to get rid of the blues.” This comment offers a profound insight into the therapeutic dimensions of music.

In our culture, it is considered “bad” to be depressed, alone, or bored. Music is generally used like a drug to counter such states—to stimulate us, to give us company, to entertain us. However, we are often merely masking our symptoms by doing this, and these states return again and again.

What if, when feeling sad, we immerse ourselves in that sadness rather than attempt to hide from it or push it away? What if we deepen our experience of sadness by making music that FITS those feelings rather than tries to kill them?

When we allow ourselves to make music that fits our feelings, what often happens is this: The feelings are made audible. They are expressed. At that point, they begin to transform into other feelings, often lighter ones. We play the blues to transform the blues. We play sad music to transform the sadness.

This understanding of music and its therapeutic application will probably never find a home in a consumer culture that uses pills, entertainment, and busyness to brighten the inevitable dark periods of life. Yet, music does has the power to transform the darkest times. However, there is a catch: we must often first let our music be dark before it can be light.

Is It Music?

Like nearly anyone who has managed to stay alive for over half a century, I have lost a number of dear people along the way. I have seen dreams and hopes shattered on the rocks of reality. I have known joy and great satisfaction, but also periods of grief, heartache, bitterness, disillusionment, and regret. Through it all, the piano has been there for me, offering me comfort, companionship, and release.

When I suffer an emotional blow, I often go to the piano and improvise repetitive patterns over and over again, sometimes the same pattern for half an hour. I don’t consciously set out to do this, but that’s what ends up happening. It’s the same figure over and over, with slight variations occasionally emerging. It’s a good thing no one is listening or I might get a shoe thrown at me!

Because I’m making sounds while sitting at a piano, someone might label what I’m doing “making music” or “improvising.” However, the sounds I am making aren’t really either of these. The sounds aren’t music in the traditional sense, and they aren’t for anyone’s entertainment; they are sounds and movements made by me and for me. They are being created for my comfort. What I am playing is not melody; it is therapy. What I am playing is not harmony, but therapy. The tones are more medicine than music.

To allow our music making to have its full range of powers, we have to allow ourselves to improvise from a deeply intuitive place. We have to allow ourselves to make sounds that take all sorts of shapes and forms that aren’t generally considered to be “music” or “good music.” Many of these forms will not be suitable for a listener, especially listeners who believe that music must sound a certain way to be “correct” or “entertaining” or “pretty” or even just to “sound like music.”

If we want music to have these therapeutic powers, and if we want to feel its effects, we have to let music take us in new directions, far away from the acceptable forms we’ve been taught in theory class or have heard on recordings or in concert halls. We can’t force either ourselves or the sounds we make to act in prescribed ways. At certain times, we can’t understand music as a consumer or a piano teacher or a theorist, but as a therapist.

We have to let music be free to take new forms before it can help us be free to take new forms.