Music and Mood

A friend wrote this blog post, and asked me to post it anonymously. I posted it on my other blog, ‘The Art of the Session’, because it talks about how making music  (particularly with other people) can lift mood. But it belongs here too, because for this friend music is a ‘place’ they can come to for empowerment, encouragement and enjoyment to help combat depression. I’m inspired by this story, and honoured that my friend chose to share it through my blogs. I hope these honest and thoughtful reflections resonate with you too.

I suffer from depression and learning to play guitar and sing has made a significant improvement in my quality of life as a result.

Mostly my struggle with mood is low level and being the constant companion that it is, I’ve learned to recognise its onset all too well. When I can feel the black dog of depression nipping at my heels, I’ll pick up my guitar, play and sing a few tunes and almost invariably feel a lift in my mood.

It doesn’t seem to matter what the songs are, or what they are about, I just feel better afterwards.

Others who suffer from mental illness have related to me that it’s saved their life. I’m fortunate, thanks to cognitive behavioural therapy, medication, exercise and counseling with a qualified psychologist (there’s a lot in this sentence for good reason), I rarely have suicidal thoughts. I must say I can wholeheartedly relate to its life saving power.

One of the challenges with depression is rumination. And when that rumination becomes a vortex of inner thoughts, spiraling worse and worse, music is a great distraction. For me, the guitar works out well because I choose more complicated pieces to play, and I memorise fully all the songs I learn. The combination of these is intricate enough to take my mind off the ruminations, once that cycle is broken, it’s a lot easier.

I’m the accidental singer. I never expected to sing when I started playing, I thought it was too hard, I didn’t have the voice, etc. etc. My wife sang along to the first song I learned. She would have sung it 50 or more times when quite by accident I found myself singing along to the chorus and thought to myself, this isn’t as hard as I thought it would be. Now singing is as pleasurable as the playing of the guitar and that’s quite an accomplishment.

I exercise daily (walking) and a bit over a year ago I decided to start singing while I walked. That damn rumination thing again. It’s been a fantastic experience. It forced me to get out of my comfort zone and keep singing even when others in the neighbourhood were nearby and interestingly that’s been an encouraging experience in the positive affirmations I’ve received about how others enjoy seeing someone willing to sing in public.

The best part of singing out loud while exercising is it stops me thinking about the day, the problems to solve, the unresolved things, the worries, the fears, the complications, all that.

My advice, don’t just play, sing! Sing loud! Sing strong. It’s fun.  And it’s good for your voice as well.

Another aspect of music and mood is the social side of music. We are amazingly fortunate in the SE Queensland area to have an active community of music clubs and musical gatherings. My overwhelming experience with engaging with others is a strong ethos of enthusiasm and encouragement. Making live music with others is FUN.

I remember the first time I led a song at a jam session. I was full of nerves yet excited to be progressing to playing in front of others. I got about three measures into the introduction of the song and stuffed it up and had to start all over. Then I made it about four measures before I had to start all over again. On the third go I made it all the way through the song. The others in the room were full of nothing but enthusiasm and encouragement to me. Hallelujah!

With clubs, gatherings and festivals, there are many opportunities to be involved in the local music community.  The festivals have a real family atmosphere, kids running and playing, often pets are around, and you don’t have to walk far to hear music being played in the camp grounds.  It’s a throwback to a feeling of village / community.

Many of these events are run by community groups and volunteers. This provides lots of opportunities to socialise and that helps you feel better about yourself. One club I’m involved with has a group that does music dementia therapy, playing to dementia sufferers in nursing homes. I can tell you it feels very good to know my volunteering for the club contributes to such philanthropy.

My wife has commented many times how glad she is that I picked up the guitar. The places it’s taken us, the people we’ve met, the experiences we’ve had all enriched by that decision.

With all those positives, surely there’s a downside?

It takes a bit of effort. Not that much really, but effort all the same. I started playing 15 minutes a day. My fingers hurt so much I couldn’t play for more than 5 minutes at a time, damn steel strings! So I’d play while waiting for my cup of tea to steep. I like my tea strong!

It took a few months of stick-to-it-ive-ness that wasn’t enjoyable. Once I got to where I could play a song all the way through fairly well, it started to become enjoyable and before long I was able to practice a half hour, and more daily.

If the guitar is too hard, consider a ukulele. Much easier, nylon strings are nowhere near as painful and the chords are so easy. And they have such a happy fun sound. Plus so much of what you learn can be transferred to the guitar.

Back story on my depression

Until I came down with depression some 15 or so years ago, I thought it was just a matter of the depressed person thinking differently, they just had to snap out of it with happier thoughts.

How wrong I was. I suffered from a major depressive episode as a result of my exposure to a toxic work / corporate project and just wanted to curl up in a ball and stay away from all other people. At that stage I was barely functioning in my work and personal life.

Unfortunately workplace discrimination towards those suffering from mental illness is alive and well in this day and age, hence my decision to keep this posting anonymous. It’s important the subject is discussed as openly as possible more and more as we progress in society.

Thankfully, with the help of my loving family and a qualified psychologist, not to mention medication, I was able to recover full work and family functionality.

Mostly now I suffer from low level depression. I’ve had another significant depressive episode after surgery for a life threatening illness in recent years which has resolved back to low level depression.

Besides music, one other approach I’ve learned about depression that’s made a big difference is as follows…. People often catastrophise bad moods to their detriment. We can be guilty of imaging our whole life is a failure just because we are struggling with one narrow aspect of it.

Look at how you deal with your best days, we tend to say things like “I’m having a great day”.  Yet when it’s a bad day, exaggeration sets in.

For me, learning to limit my bad day to just a bad day has helped a lot. I’ll say to myself “I’m having a bad day”. And I leave it at that. No catastrophising, no exaggerating. Vocalising it aloud, and to loved ones, helps as well.

Back story on my musical ability

It had been a life-long dream of mine to play the guitar and a bit over five years ago I decided to pick it up and it’s become a mainstay of my life since. I play every day and have progressed from absolute beginner to playing a variety of open mic performances at clubs and festivals.

My last encouragement to you is don’t focus on how long it will take you to learn to play.  That time will go by whether you pick up a guitar or not. Keep your goals specific and simple.

Has learning to play music cured my depression? Not at all. If only. Mental illness is complicated and more is being discovered about it all the time. Depression is a struggle. Thankfully music has made that struggle far easier for me.

Hope to jam with you soon around a campfire!



About andreabaldwin

I'm a freelance writer, publishing travel articles and features. I also write short fiction and novels for adults, young adults and children. I've been a registered psychologist for 20 years, and my past careers have included clinical psychology, organisational psychology, and management. I'm interested in the interactions between people and places, particularly how the natural environment supports the health of individuals and communities, and the importance of caring for our environment. I'm also interested in the ways people use writing to better understand their own thoughts and feelings, and to connect with others.
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