Category Archives: therapy

Nostalgic Healing

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

There was a time, not so long ago, when nostalgia was classified as a mental disorder. Psychology texts from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries described nostalgia as a form of “melancholia,” an “immigrant psychosis,” and a “monomaniacal obsessive mental state causing intense unhappiness.” These negative views inherited the term’s original connotation, as coined by Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer in 1688. He called nostalgia a “neurological disease of essentially demonic cause.”

Nostalgia has accumulated positive associations in recent years. Pop culture “nostalgia dealers,” specializing in vinyl records, comic books, and motion picture reboots, capitalize on the public’s wistful longing for the past. Social media sites like Facebook make it possible to stay in touch with people from different stages of our lives, fortifying links between who we were and who we are today. This healthy sense of self-continuity begins in young children, who fondly reminisce about birthdays and family vacations.

A host of social-psychological studies have found nostalgia to be effective in counteracting loneliness, easing anxiety, increasing generosity, and strengthening relationships. Even when yearnings stir bittersweet emotions, they imbue our lives with meaning and make the end of life less frightening. Dr. Clay Routledge of North Dakota State University observes: “Nostalgia serves a crucial existential function. It brings to mind cherished experiences that assure us we are valued people who have meaningful lives. Some of our research shows that people who regularly engage in nostalgia are better at coping with concerns about death.”

Music is a favorite nostalgia tool for laypeople and researchers alike. An experiment conducted by Routledge and colleagues showed that playing hit songs from the past makes life seem “worth living” and wards off despair. Psychologists in the Netherlands found that listening to nostalgic songs makes people feel physically warmer.

study from Scotland’s Glasgow Caledonian University tested the effects of music listening on the perception and tolerance of experimentally induced cold pressor pain. Fifty-four participants were subjected to three cold pressor trials. The first was accompanied by white noise, the second by specially designed “relaxation music,” and the third by the participants’ chosen music. When listening to preferred music, participants tolerated the pain stimulus significantly longer than when listening to white noise or relaxation music. They also reported having a much greater sense of control when hearing their chosen music.

While this study did not involve nostalgic music, per se, we can assume that at least some of the favored music fit that description. We might even expect stronger coping from expressly nostalgic music. Not only does this put to question the comparative efficacy of music marketed for healing (the type featuring drawn-out tones, flowing rhythms, atmospheric drones, and minimal chord changes), but it also suggests that the best music for mood regulation may be totally idiosyncratic: my nostalgia is not necessarily your nostalgia. Wistful affection, in short, is a key factor when considering music for pain relief, well-being, and life-affirmation.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Moved from Within

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Force in music is usually understood metaphorically. Unlike the physical motion of water or wind, which can move objects between two points, musical force symbolically transports the hearer from one mental state to another. The sound’s causal effect is akin to psychological manipulation: the listener is pushed and pulled into a particular mood. The phenomenon is commonly described as being “swayed,” “bowled over,” “carried along” and “taken away.“ The potency of such metaphorical movement is attested in diverse musical situations, including therapy, religious devotion, classical performances, patriotic displays and lullabies. In these settings, the listener is moved without actually moving.

Musical force can, however, manifest in another way. We detect movement in music partly because we experience it as a living organism, with coursing blood and appendages gesturing in various directions. As described above, this animation is often seen in the mind’s eye and affects our psychological state. But it can also occur within our bodies.

According to Gary Ansdell, a research associate at the Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy Centre in London, motion in music is more than just a mental inference or psychological response. Music can stimulate a person’s spirit or will, which then animates the body. Although music originates outside of the person, its mechanism differs from other exterior agents. For instance, when someone’s leg is bent by an apparatus or machine, the action takes place outside the person and is not necessarily reflective of his or her wishes. The leg is acted upon as if it were an inanimate object. But when music compels the leg to move, the activity is generated from within. As Ansdell explains it, music communicates directly with the will, resulting in movement that is externally triggered yet internally generated.

Music therapists utilize this force to good effect. Many physical impairments can be overcome, circumvented or remediated through musical stimulation. The force of the music is such that it activates physical movement that is, under ordinary conditions, enormously difficult. The body translates the living essence of musical sound into fluid motion. This effect has been documented among patients with varying degrees of emotional constrictions, motoric impediments and physical damage.

In therapeutic settings and elsewhere, music motivates physical movement in three basic stages. First, the listener interacts with the sound, perceiving in it some type of motion (fast, slow, steady, disjointed, etc.). Second, the body aligns itself with the music’s tempo and direction. Third, the body enacts the path of motion. Through this process, music becomes a vectoring force that literally moves us.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.