Why can music help with grief?
Loss and grief are inevitable parts of life and all over the world throughout time people have used music at times of loss to come to terms with their losses, grieve, remember and heal.
There are innumerable examples. In Greek myth, Orpheus plays such beautiful music that he almost manages brings his departed wife back from the dead. In the bible, David plays laments on the death of Saul. In folk music, we see countless songs about grief and death while in classical music we find forms such as
Orpheus almost succeeded in bringing his wife Eurydice back from the underworld using music to soften the hearts of the gods
the requiem. From traditional practices around the world, to name but a few, there are the weeping songs of Yolngu Australian aboriginals, Shi’a laments over the death of Hussain or the Shona Mbira spirit ceremonies in Southern Africa.
"Music is one of the most powerful tools we have in times of loss"
Numerous examples also appear in popular music, including Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie and Lowell or Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree which both explore very personal incidents of grief, not to mention Elton John's Candle in the Wind which provided solace for millions on the death of Princes Diana. Meanwhile, people everywhere use music in some personalised manner to help them cope with grief, remember and process their own losses in their own way.
Nick Cave explored grief on his album
Skeleton Key after the death of his son
Yet, despite its ubiquity, there is surprisingly little research on the relationship between music and grief, and surprisingly few resources for people to help people discover this powerful tool.
Traditional belief systems, for example, often harnessed the power of music into ritual to provide guidance, emotional release, community and a set of beliefs to conceive and process the meaning of death. However, in the modern world, many have turned away from those systems of belief, but have not necessarily found anything as effective to replace them with when dealing with the loss of a loved one. Instead, individuals are often encouraged to deal with grief on their own, often being left to face one of life’s hardest times without guidance and knowledge all the tools that humans have developed for dealing with loss over the ages.
Music is one of the most powerful tools we have in times of loss and it is a tool that we can all “rediscover” and use to help us navigate grief and grieve well.
The Ewe people in Ghana celebrate a funeral twice, the second one a year after, and always with music and dance.
Grief can often unleash scary and uncontrollable emotions, it can leave us feeling out of control or lost at sea. Music can help us express and define those amorphous emotions. By giving them a place and a form, music can help us get a handle on them. It can then help us gradually to navigate, shape and direct them.
Music sits on a fascinating boundary between, on one side, articulable thoughts, words and the intellect, and, on the other side, our emotions, our bodies and what we can’t quite articulate. Music can be a
mediator between those two sides, it can help us discover, experience and release our emotions while we can also use music to consciously influence, channel and direct those emotions. Whether we call it the soul, the unconscious or our embodied experience, music can give us a window to that other side and can even help us discover ourselves, grow as people and become stronger through grief, little consolation as that maybe.
How can music help?
Music is not some miracle quick fix. You might have heard people talking about grief “work” and music is no different: it requires time, effort and active engagement. You will, however, find many ideas on this website to help you explore how communities, individuals and artists have used music to help them in times of grief. Hopefully, this can help you discover your own way to use music. In the meantime, here are some of the basic ways music can help:
The funeral proceeding of the Yolgnu people from Northern Australian usually last two week and involve the performance of an emotional journey through song and dance which leads the spirit to their resting place in the sentient landscape. This intense acting out of emotions complete a large portion of what Westerners would call grief work.
Feel emotions – experiencing fully is often cited as the best advice for grieving well. Music can help you feel something fully, even complex multi-faceted, contradictory emotions.
Discover hidden feelings – writing or listening to music that we’re drawn to can help us discover supressed emotions.
Influence and direct emotions – the street is not one way. Music can express emotion, but we can choose the playlist or write the ending, thus subtly influencing and directing emotions.
Give us a break – music can also give you a break from grief and help take you to another place for some time.
Say goodbye – since the beginning of time music has been used to mark rites of passage, including the final one. In so doing it can help us accept and say goodbye.
Remember – we can remember people through music we shared with them or music that helps us to connect with them in their absence.
Overcome taboos – maybe you can’t talk openly about grief, but you sure can sing about it. Music has been getting around taboo for millennia.
Give a place to your loss and grief – music can be a very important box where we can put our grief, express it and even share it if we so wish.
Connect body and mind – we don’t just live in our heads and grief can be a full body experience. Unlike talking, music speaks to the whole body.
Know you’re not alone – listen to the right music and you know that others have been where you are before you. Making music with others can put you all on the same page.
Transform your grief into something beautiful – this might be the root of all art, the transformation of pain into beauty. For some, this is what makes suffering bearable
Grow – Music can help us discover and accept ourselves and our emotions, becoming stronger by doing so.
Start anew – that doesn’t mean forgetting or moving on without, but we must all move forward in our lives. When we’re ready to, music can help us, too.