Issue June 25, 2013

Therapeutic music

Mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile’s earliest musical memory is listening to “The Girl from Ipanema” in a diaper. “I just remember it being incredibly comforting to me that anytime anyone would put music on, I was, from all reports, I just would turn into a different person … far more easily dealt with,” he told NPR.

The bossa nova classic soothed the savage baby, who later felt betrayed when he learned “the warm bath of a recording” wasn’t about his parents’ love for each other or for him. But the formative lesson is that “music can express things abstractly, like it doesn’t need language,” he said.

During the year since that interview, I’ve randomly asked folks to name their go-to happy tunes — songs most likely to deliver them from depths to heights. It has replaced my favorite question (“What’s the most shameful thing you’ve ever done?”), and it’s less intimidating. It’s not a trick question; there are no wrong answers. Nobody declined comment. The most astonishing response was: “I don’t really listen to music to get happy” — which prompted a survey of other motivations.

The most interesting choices reminded me of “Ipanema” — not intrinsically merry but instead reminiscent of a gleeful event or glorious interval (often college). I realized the capacity of music to transform our moods by transporting us back to shining moments in time. Ask why an unlikely tune induces exuberance, and you can count on a breathless, personal recollection.

Most picks were no-brainers. They stood alone, independent of happy pasts. But one stirred controversy among Jackson Browne fans. All agreed that “Doctor My Eyes” (1972) is an upbeat melody about a dystopic America’s “slow parade of fears.” But opinions were mixed as to whether the message is more depressing or inspiring. I sided with the defendant, who argued that the song indicts emotional sterility. “It means you can’t rejoice if you can’t grieve,” he said.

The debate made me wonder whether my playlist is too psycho-shiny and happy. I’m more excited by potent vocalists and opioid harmonies than by poetry or realistic dualities. In other words, my euphoria depends more on sound than substance. There’s nothing lyrically profound about Chaka Khan’s flawless “Ain’t Nobody” (1983) or The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” (1969), but either would awaken me from a coma to start “Dancing in the Moonlight” (King Harvest, 1973).

The two songs that take me back to the psychedelic ’60s are the Mamas & the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” (1965) and The Youngbloods’ “Get Together” (1967), which Joni Mitchell often sang as an encore. Her brilliant body of work makes me more ebullient than anyone else’s. The release of “Conversation” (1970) is a circus of romantic mirth. And the bittersweet “Both Sides Now” (1969) resonates with anyone who has lived, loved, lost and won (her smoky voice in the version recorded in 2000 epitomizes wisdom).

Other vocal acrobats’ tunes that thrill me include Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen” (1981), Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” (1981) and K.D. Lang’s “Constant Craving” (1992).

Did I mention that hooks make me happy?

Just as events can recast the past, happenings can attach new memories to old songs. No recent performance made my heart happier than Scott Anthony’s soulful rendition of Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” (1986) at a benefit for the family of the late Joe Gadansky.

For 80 years, the late musical genius Pablo Casals began each day by playing two Bach preludes and fugues. “It fills me with awareness of the wonder of life, with a feeling of the incredible marvel of being a human being,” he wrote in his autobiography.

A growing body of research proves that music is therapeutic. “A study in The Journal of Pain found that when people concentrated on a specific melody, they felt less pain,” according to the May issue of Women’s Day.

Charles Darwin, toward the end of his life, regretted that he hadn’t spent more time evolving his heart and mind with poetry and music. “The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature,” he wrote.

Whether music inspires us to think, feel, sing or dance, it’s a humanizing, healthful influence. So it’s just as well that I gave away the bumper sticker that reads, “It’s not that I’m old; your music really does suck.”