Music for Difficult Days

Plot Twist

It seems like Mother Nature is on a tear this winter, what with polar vortexes, thundersnow, drought, flood, fire—you name it. And it’s still February! Piled on top of weather drama, it seems like a lot of people—at least those in my various spheres of life—are getting unusually hammered by personal trials and tribulations of assorted shapes and sizes.

Turning to music for comfort and solace is not a subject that is talked about much—not out loud, at any rate—in our community, even though it is a perfectly natural inclination, and something that many of us engage in regularly. One’s listening choices can radically transform in the face of extreme stress, anger, grief, or whatever the dominant emotion of the moment might be. I know that for myself, music that I normally adore can become intolerable under such circumstances, and that every situation begs a slightly different soundtrack. Sometimes no soundtrack at all, but rather focused attention to the sounds around me, is what is most needed to promote a sense of peace and balance.

I’ve seen and heard some serious scorn from the new music community directed at the tendency for listeners to gravitate towards music that is familiar, rather than music that is new. An understandable bother, given that we are usually focused on whatever music is new and shiny, and we want to share the energy around that! However, I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t have sounds they gravitate towards again and again in general and, when life is under a strain, it’s pretty normal to reach for a familiar anchor. As it turns out, nostalgia like this can even serve to facilitate creativity. That is one of the magical things about music—it is basically just vibrations of air that can affect us at a very deep level. Whether it’s your selection of “desert island music,” sounds to provide counterpoint against a tough day, or to blow off steam to, or to facilitate crying in your beer, it has an impact.

This is not at all to say that new sounds—or the act of creating new sounds—can’t be comforting and/or rejuvenating. It’s that minds under emotional strain behave differently, and let’s face it: emotional strain is increasingly part of life on planet earth. I wonder what would happen if more composers held that in their awareness during their creative processes?

Here is some music I search out when life gets complicated. What about you?

8 thoughts on “Music for Difficult Days

  1. Alvaro Gallegos

    Nice text, Alex. When life gets complicated I always go back to Beethoven, his music always gives me hope.
    OK, what about music closer to our times? Bernstein’s “Candide” and Zappa’s “Joe’s Garage” always cheer me up! Also, Bernstein’s “Mass” which connects me with my spiritual side.
    I have always found a positive aura in the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” and many rock music that I like (including Yes)
    I like this topic.

    Reply
  2. Kyle Gann

    Ha! My son, the black metal guitarist, used to drive around his hometown of Lewisburg PA blasting Evening Star (specifically “An Index of Metals”) out of his car stereo. I liked to imagine him depressing random passers-by as he drove down the street.

    But seriously, that was a crucial album for me in a certain period of life, and it’s an important topic. We composers don’t often enough talk about what people want music *for*.

    Reply
    1. Alexandra Gardner Post author

      Hi Kyle! Haha I should meet your son sometime. Yes, that album was an important one for me too a long time ago, and I had forgotten all about it until recently. Unlike a lot of music from my youth, it’s still important to me!

      I think our field would be quite different if we as a group though more deeply about what music is *for*. Obviously the answer is different for different people, and it’s probably always changing, but keeping the question at the forefront is terribly important I think.

      Reply
  3. lawrencedillon

    We could call turning to the familiar “nostalgia,” but we could also think of it as forming a deeper commitment, as opposed to being Don Juans of sound, chasing skirts simply because we haven’t chased them before.

    Reply

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