How Music Connects Us to Others
It was the summer of 1984. My older sister and I were 12 and 11, respectively. We awoke one morning and started making preparations for the afternoon. We secured every bit of makeup, hairspray, hair accessories, and trendy clothes and shoes that we had at our disposal. Our three neighborhood friends arrived in the early afternoon and we got started. We teased our hair, referencing magazine articles as needed, and got our clothes and makeup just right. We lined up our instruments – plastic tennis rackets for guitar and bass, a hairbrush microphone, a portable keyboard, and upside-down bowls for drums, with chopsticks for drumsticks. Soon, the moment arrived. We were ready. We took our places. And we became The Go-Go’s.
It was a softball team that brought the five of us together that summer, but it was our shared love of pop music that really united us. We sang Madonna songs to each other while riding our bikes to the neighborhood pool and we were glued to the TV every Friday night when MTV would host the Friday Night Video Fights (we called in to vote for Duran Duran’s “The Reflex” more than once). We spent our allowance on records and music magazines and spent hours on each other’s bedroom floors cutting out pictures of our favorites from the magazines and learning all we could about them.
Music as connection
That’s my earliest memory of finding a connection with others around music, but it’s certainly not my last. Music isn’t the only thing that has connected me to other people, but it has sometimes served as a bridge between myself and someone I don’t otherwise have much in common with. It took me a long time to build a bond with the man who became my stepdad when I was in college. It wasn’t until he introduced me to Neil Young and we found a shared love of Annie Lennox that we really started to bond. I still remember driving somewhere with him and my mother listening to Lennox’s version of “Thin Line Between Love and Hate” at top volume. My mother was oblivious, while my stepdad and I shared an unspoken love of the song.
Music doesn’t just connect us to other people. It can connect us to memories too. When my grandfather passed away in 1996, I helped my cousin obtain leave from the Marines to attend the funeral. When he arrived, we spent hours driving around, sharing stories of my grandfather while we bonded over our shared love of the band Quarterflash. It was something we had both grown up listening to and it reminded us of our childhood. Besides Quarterflash, one might hear Elvis Presley, early Rolling Stones, Steely Dan, and other 60s and 70s bands in my house growing up. I still associate Three Dog Night’s song “One” and “Your Song” by Elton John with housecleaning. These were two of the songs I remember being played at top volume while my mother vacuumed around whatever armchair I was perched in.
And it’s not just memories of events that are brought to mind when I hear these songs. I remember the emotion associated with these events – the feelings of empowerment listening to Annie Lennox with my stepdad, the feelings of sadness and nostalgia listening to Quarterflash with my cousin, and the feelings of. . .well, boredom when I think back to the Three Dog Night and Elton John songs. At its best, music does that to us. We don’t just connect with others or with memories – we connect with the music itself. Many of us have songs and bands that mean something to us and that remind us of specific events in our life. One article describes this as the “soundtrack” to our life – and that feels fitting to me. Many of us have these soundtracks.
Music as community
When I started high school, I struggled to make new friends at a new school. I wasn’t exactly sure where I fit in when I arrived. I wasn’t preppy or athletic, but neither was I punk enough to wear a black leather jacket or have a mohawk. (My hair was dyed purple, but it was only a semi-permanent color.) I had discovered the Psychedelic Furs and listening to them on my Walkman saved me from the “easy listening” station that my school carpool driver favored. From there I discovered The Cure, New Order, Depeche Mode, The Cult, and other “alternative” bands. When I learned that a couple of classmates loved the same music, we became instant friends. They introduced me to other friends of theirs and I knew I had found my community. We remained friends well into college.
Music is responsible not just for the formation of friendships, but for the formation of communities. Take the punk community, for example. The punk ethos is very DIY (do it yourself) and individualism is stressed. Conformity is frowned upon. But even in such an individualistic culture, communities are formed – and they’re largely formed around the music. People unite at shows in their shared love of the band or the music – even as they’re slamming into each other and pushing each other. I was recently at a punk show and accidentally got pulled into the pit. I struggled to find my feet and get myself out. From out of nowhere, a large man grabbed my arm, pulled me out, and put me on the other side of him, ensuring that I wouldn’t get pulled in again. I thanked him after the show and he refused to take any credit, saying that he considered that part of his job as a big guy at a show. It breaks my heart to know that some of these folks feel like misfits in other areas of their lives. But I’m grateful that the punk community gives many folks who don’t feel like they fit in anywhere else a place to be accepted for who they are.
The same can be said of the Juggalo community – a community that formed around the music of Insane Clown Posse (ICP). My partner has become fascinated by this group, seeing in it some of the same things he witnessed in the punk community growing up. Again, we see a group of people who may not feel like they belong anywhere else coming together around music. And this group is tight. At random times throughout the night at an ICP show, one will hear the chant over and over again: FAM-I-LY, FAM-I-LY. And here’s the thing that really blew my mind: this group of folks, who often come to shows with the most terrifying clown face paint are the one of the politest groups of people you’ll find. At our first ICP show, my partner and I looked nothing like the crowd and we stood out like a sore thumb. The crowd did not care. Just by virtue of being at the show, we were welcomed into their family. At one show a young man in the signature black and white ICP face paint accidentally bumped into me and instantly turned and apologized profusely, wanting to make sure I was okay. These folks welcome anyone and everyone.
Music as therapy
You don’t have to dress up like a Go-Go, go to a punk show, or wear clown face paint to connect to a music community. If you’re in Portland, there’s a whole category of Meetups around music. You’ll find groups who host drum circles or who listen to or play jazz, blues, or house music. There are even a few groups for those interested in the ukulele. If you’re feeling lonely or disconnected from others, attending one of these meetups can be a great way to find things in common with others. You may even make a new friend.
Music can also be helpful as a part of therapy. Recalling a song or a lyric in a therapy session can bring up an emotion that we might not have accessed in a while. It could bring about a memory of a time that we haven’t thought of for years. When I listen to some of the same music that I loved as a teenager, I can be transported back into my years of teenage angst and it can help me process those feelings even as an adult. Sometimes a song or a lyric can express an emotion or provide an understanding when we struggle to find the right words ourselves. Have you ever listened to a song and thought, “Yes! That’s it! That’s exactly the way I feel!” Sometimes music can even help us access grief around losing a loved one when we’ve tried to shut that pain off without realizing it, thus starting the healing. Music, and its ability to help us feel connected to others, to recall memories from the past, and to bring about emotion, may be one of the most important therapeutic tools we have.
Lee, E. (2015, April 25). Music, Memory and Emotion: How They All Connect. Retrieved November 29, 2019, from http://dailynexus.com/2015-04-24/music-memory-and-emotion-how-they-all-connect/.
Jenny Larson loves her work as a therapist at Live True Counseling and as a Volunteer Counselor at William Temple House. When not seeing clients, she can be found reading psychology books and celebrity memoirs, watching bad (good) 80s movies, and sewing or baking. While self-identified as a cat person, she also has a fondness for dogs and other animals.