I am a musician and a music therapist; almost everything reminds me of a song. I recently saw a meme on social media that reads: “If you can’t handle me randomly blurting out song lyrics that relate to what you just said, then we can’t be friends.” This line made me laugh out loud, but it truly resonated with me, especially considering my line of work. Part of my job as a music therapist is to recognize the therapeutic value in song lyrics and to determine how music can best be employed to meet clients’ non-musical goals, such as providing an outlet for emotional expression, improving coping skills, or processing a difficult experience or life event. It is widely accepted that music has a powerful ability to trigger both positive and negative emotions due to paired associations with specific memories. We can all relate to hearing a song on the radio that takes us right back to our high school prom or a favorite family vacation. Every time I hear any song from the Pixies’ album Doolittle I think of that time in high school when my friends and I skipped classes and drove to downtown Orlando to go to the Tower of Terror, a two-story haunted house (and never got caught-unless my mother is reading this now). Sometimes we hear a song and it triggers painful memories like the grief we feel when we lose a loved one or experience a painful breakup. When I hear Michael Bolton’s remake of “When a Man Loves a Woman” I still feel uncomfortable, as that was the song playing on the radio in the car when my mother told me that she and my father were getting divorced. I was thirteen at the time but I still remember everything about that moment, including the soundtrack.
This “life soundtrack” phenomenon is one that is essential to the work of music therapists, but it is also something that most of us experience every day. We discuss this topic at length in my MTHP 200 Psychology of Music course. I ask students to explore the soundtrack of their own lives through an assignment called “My Life in 6 Songs.” This assignment was partially inspired by Daniel Levitin’s The World in Six Songs in which Levitin describes six song types that he believes have contributed to the stability of culture and the evolution of society. I wanted our students to discover their own emotional connections to the music of their lives and to identify the key memories that they associated with them. Each semester, the students ask, “How can I possibly choose just six? I love so many different songs!” That is the greatest challenge of the assignment. We all love many different songs, but which songs are the most meaningful to you? Which songs really tell the story of your life up to this point? Which songs say the most about who you are as a person or about the people in your life?
Most students choose to organize their six songs chronologically: the first song relates to childhood, the next to elementary school and so on, through college. Understandably, the longer an individual has lived, the harder it becomes to choose just six songs that span their life up to that point. Some students take a different approach and choose to share six songs that represent the six most important people in their life. Each student is assigned a day on which they introduce their songs, tell the class a bit about why each song was chosen, and then play about a minute-long excerpt of each. As an example and also in solidarity, I always share my own “Life in 6 Songs” during the first week of classes. My list continues to evolve over the years as my story and corresponding soundtrack moves forward: The Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride” is linked to eating pancakes as a child on Sunday mornings with my family. Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up” is dance parties with my mother in our pajamas; Ani DiFranco’s “Dilate” is my first broken heart; Dave Matthews Band’s “The Best of What’s Around” is undergrad parties with friends I’m still close with; Florence + The Machine’s “Cosmic Love” is finding my way through the darkness after my father died during my first semester teaching at Drury; and James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes” is meeting the love of my life, not too long ago.
I always remind students that they are in complete control of the songs that they choose to share in class; if there are songs that are too emotional for them or that evoke negative feelings, they do not have to share them. However, in the six years that I have been teaching this class I have been impressed and moved by the openness and bravery that students have demonstrated by sharing personal experiences related to their songs. Through this project my students and I have been witness to stories of first loves, academic and athletic successes, world travels, engagements, and childbirths, but also heartbreaks, deaths of family members and friends, addictions, and sexual assaults. Students have cried while sharing their songs. Students have cried while listening to others share. Each song and story, whether sad or joyful, is met with supportive eye contact and a nod of the head as if to say “I hear you. I’m listening.” Music is such an integral part of the human experience. It brings us together and validates our emotions. It connects us on the most basic level; we all feel pain, we all feel joy, we all want to belong. In a world that feels increasingly scary and confusing, sharing our personal soundtrack reminds us that although our songs may be different, we are not so different after all. What are your six songs?