Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now

You know me: likes a laugh. Why else would this blog have covered death, war and football so copiously over the last year or so? So, to keep things light and breezy, let me turn your attention to depression.

A couple of years ago the excellent BBC 6 Music radio station drew up the definitive Top 20 list of songs to listen to while depressed. The station's intention was to highlight, rather than mock, the depressive condition, but I'm not altogether sure the final chart did anyone any favours.

Topping these particular pops were (in at No.1) The Smiths' I Know It's Over, followed by REM's torturously whiny Everybody Hurts and, at No.3, that well-stocked barrel of chuckles, Comfortably Numb. It was the original version of Pink Floyd's opus of gloom of course. The Scissor Sisters' cover might have had a more uplifting effect.

The reason for dragging all this up now is that a research project in Finland has discovered that music may actually help people with depression. A study of 79 sufferers by the University of Jyväskylä found greater progress in the treatment of their condition when exposed to music therapy than those undergoing conventional treatments alone.

Professor Christian Gold, who lead the Jyväskylä study, thinks that music therapy might offer a unique solution for people with depression. "Music therapy has specific qualities that allow people to express themselves and interact in a non-verbal way," he says, "even in situations when they cannot find the words to describe their inner experiences."

"Music-making is social, pleasurable and meaningful," British mental health specialist Dr Mike Crawford commented about the Jyväskylä research in the British Journal of Psychiatry. "It has been argued that music making engages people in ways that words may simply not be able to," he added. "These results suggest that [music] can improve the mood and general functioning of people with depression."

It is well known that a vigorous workout will give release to endorphins (not sure what the endorphin's collective noun is - I'm tempted to offer 'pod'), leaving the excerciser out of breath but on a natural high and with a grin fixed somewhere between Jack Nicholson's Joker and the average male at the moment of arrival.

This goes a long way to explain why exercise is regarded as one of the best aides for coping with depression, amongst many other conditions. Music therapy has, for a long time, been an effective recovery aid for both mental and physical trauma. A few years ago I had the great privilege of visiting Nordoff Robbins, the music therapy charity, and saw for myself the cognitive improvement people with a range of disabilities were enjoying as a result of interaction with music.

So could music really treat those struggling - and I use that word with caution - with depression? Music has always been able to capture the human condition and wring it dry. The blues probably wouldn't exist if it wasn't for downtrodden tales of loneliness and romantic failure. Why else would lovelorn middle-class white boys have fallen for the music of the American South's immigrant underclass?

But is it music itself or the choice that makes the difference? One man's tonic might be Leonard Cohen while another's is Lady Gaga. My own spirits will be lifted instantly by an outing for Solid Air or What's Going On in their entirety, or simply the opening chords of the Rolling Stones' Monkey Man. By the same token, don't count on anything flushed through the televisual sewer that is The X-Factor to raise more than a dull, nauseated pain.

©2003 Arsenio Corôa

One of the joys of having a decent-sized music collection - or, simply, a fully paid-up Spotify account - is the ability to match music to mood. It's a theme explored superbly in the fascinating book This Is Your Brain On Music by San Francisco-born overachiever Daniel J Levitin (I say 'overachiever' out of profound envy: Levitin is a real-life version of Buckaroo Banzai - prominent neuroscientist, psychologist, record producer, sound engineer, music consultant, musician and writer).

In his book, Levitin opened up "...the intersection of psychology and neurology..." as it relates to music, meaning, enjoyment - and emotion. In particular, he drew attention to the commonality of purpose with which advertising executives, movie directors, military marching bands and lullabying new monthers use music or song to evoke a certain emotional response.

Levitin points out how an advertising creative will give the Ford Focus some gravitas by bedding a 30-second spot for it with an operatic excerpt; the film maker, on the other hand, will use music as part of the narrative, a practice dating back to the silent era when pianists and organists accompanied the screen from the orchestra pit. Think about Jaws and John Williams' tension-building theme, or the pivotal application of Barber's Adagio For Strings in Platoon. For a master of the brilliantly evocative soundtrack, listen to Michael Mann's eclectic, hand-picked choice of music in Heat, Collateral and, don't laugh, the original TV series of Miami Vice.

Levitin's own research identified how the brain responds differently to variations in rhythm, tempo, pitch and timbre. This is something you can easily put to the test: load up your preferred MP3 device with your favourite songs, head to the gym and see how your effort peaks and troughs as your workout soundtrack varies.

I know from personal experience that my response to London Calling and Led Zep's Immigrant Song differed dramatically to the random inclusion of a more mellow track by Richie Havens, but avoid doing - as I did - and including Wings' Live And Let Die on the playlist: the Nordic cross-trainer didn't know what was going on as your sweating correspondent peaked and troughed between the song's frantic rock and stretches of cod-reggae. Even now, I think the machine might have been mistaken into thinking its guest was having some sort episode...

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