By Adam Zwig, PhD
As far back as I can remember I’ve been in love with both music and psychology. As a child I’d take time between singing songs with the radio to inexplicably ask my parents things like, “Why are some people happy and some sad?” and “Why do people fight? When I got older I took time between playing rock n roll shows to get a PhD in psychology.
“Woah, now what am I going to do?” I fretted. “I can’t be a full time musician and a full time psychotherapist.”
Or can I? Ha! I decided to go for it and ever since then I’ve literally had two careers… that is, until I realized they’re actually one and the same endeavor. I don’t mean this in the music therapy sense; that’s not what I do. For me, music is therapy and therapy is music.
Psychotherapy is personal growth work that involves exploring the unknown in yourself - the parts of you that you repress or have yet to learn about. In this work you can develop new awareness that frees you in a powerful way. When this happens it feels like a weight is suddenly lifted off and you can fly like a bird.
Well, that's exactly what occurs when I write a song. I enter into an altered state and wait for something to happen - a raw emotion, a mysterious image, a phrase out of left field, or an insight that surprises me. It’s a fishing expedition into the unknown and I return home with either nothing or with a nice catch. When the latter happens I feel like I just had a therapy session with the great guru, except that it’s just me, my guitar, and the sound waves. Sometimes people have a similar experience when they listen to their favorite tunes.
Great songs make you feel and think in a way that connects you to something deeper, truer, more real, and more ecstatic than your usual experience of life. That’s the power of music. It’s a superhighway into your subconscious - the feelings, thoughts and ways of being that reside in you but only as potentials, not as lived realities.
Listening to an awesome song is like a three minute therapy session. The only thing missing is being able to integrate the experience into your life. In other words, music is a potent magic that connects you to a deep place without you knowing how this happens. Working on your problems does the same thing but makes you conscious in a way that enables you to use what you learn in your everyday life.
What’s Connects Psychotherapy And Music?
The central connecting point between psychotherapy and music is the concept of process. Contrary to conventional wisdom, human problems aren’t pathological even though they feel bad; they’re meaningful processes designed to force you to grow. We’re so used to thinking of pain and symptoms in our lives as something wrong. We look at our problems as meaningless garbage to throw in the trash. We look for quick fixes and distractions in our attempt to get away from what’s bothering us. But this attitude is actually counterproductive. It’s one of the reasons people suffer from the same issues for years, decades, or even whole lifetimes.
A problem is your personal growth process trying to happen, and that’s how you should approach it. Listening to your favorite music is also your personal growth process trying to happen, although we don’t usually think of it this way. You’re drawn to certain music because it gives you an experience you need more of in your life. It makes you feel things that are already within you but you don’t have access to… until your song rocks the radio!
Psychology Says The Mind Is Like A Computer But It’s Not - The Mind Is Like Music
Over the last hundred years psychologists have put forth a variety theories to understand the human mind. They’ve used things like clocks, looms, and telephone switchboards to try to illustrate how the mind works. The most current theories draw on computer science.
There are lots of ideas within this approach but they’re all flawed in some way. They view the mind as a static entity like a machine run by software that sometimes malfunctions. A personal problem is seen as a software glitch you have to fix.
The fault with this way of thinking is that human experience is based on what things mean to us whereas computer language is simply a series of 0’s and 1’s that don’t relate to meaning at all. A computer doesn’t find one particular thought or feeling any more meaningful than another. The mind simply doesn’t adhere to these kinds of mechanistic models because it’s not a static entity with a fixed set of instructions; it’s a fluid process driven by meaning.
A more accurate model of the mind is music. Music is built on processes - the relationships between notes, melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. It has no absolute, fixed elements, nothing that exists in and of itself as a permanent entity.
You might be thinking, “But wait, isn’t a musical note such an entity?” Yes, but one note is not music; music is created by how notes (and other musical elements) interact with each other. It’s made up of dynamic relationships that create meaning on an emotional level, not of set components.
There isn’t even really such “thing” as a C-major scale; that’s just one of infinite ways the human mind can arrange an endless number of notes. The notes are just the raw materials for the musical process.
It’s the same with your problems; your depression, anxiety, or relationship issue is not a malfunction in a mind-machine like a software error in a computer. It’s a meaningful process that presents you with the raw materials for your self-development. Your difficulty is like a song - an emotional process with a message. What causes you pain contains the hidden music of your personal growth.
I don’t usually use music in my psychotherapy practice but I want to tell you about a client who had a strange musical experience in our session. Sandy, a 46 year-old receptionist, had been depressed ever since her divorce a year earlier, and despite doing her best to get on with life she couldn’t seem to break out of her sadness. I asked her to describe her feelings in detail and she said, “I feel lost and sad and empty but I try not to focus on it. It’s such a struggle.”
I suggested she focus directly on these feelings but she shook her head. “Aren’t you going to help me get rid of this? I don’t want to focus on it.”
“I understand, it’s painful, but by exploring it we may learn something,” I replied. “Let’s go further into it and see where it goes. In fact, feel it even more. Get even more lost, sad, and empty.”
She shrugged her shoulders as if to say, “This doesn’t makes sense to me but I’ll try anything at this point.”
She closed her eyes and I encouraged her to feel lost, sad, and empty, and even exaggerate the feelings. After a while she opened her eyes and said, “Sorry, I’m having trouble because I’m hearing a song in my head. As soon as I go all the way into my sadness and really feel it this song comes in and distracts me.”
I asked her what song it was and she said it was an old one she hadn’t heard in years - Knocking on Heaven’s Door, by Bob Dylan. I wanted to know how the song made her feel but she said, “I don’t know, I’m trying to ignore it. I can sort of make it go away but as soon as I feel sad again, it pops back in… ‘Knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door’…”
I suggested she listen really closely to the song in her mind and pay attention to the feelings and thoughts that arise. We did this for a few more minutes and then suddenly she broke down crying. I waited for her to compose herself and asked her what happened.
She said she felt in touch with something deep, spiritual, otherworldly - something about accepting life. I asked her what she meant by “accepting life,” and she told me the whole story of her relationship with her husband and their divorce. Then she said that everyone, including several therapists, had told her to be strong, cheer up, leave the sad feelings, and get out there to meet someone new. In addition, a psychiatrist had recommended she take antidepressants. The consensus was that a year is too long to be grieving, but the more they told her this the worse she felt.
Now, she had a completely different feeling, one that provided her with a sense of relief and peace she hadn’t felt for a long time. She said, “I suddenly feel like what happened with my ex is okay. I’m okay. Everything’s going to be alright. I can let go and accept things as they are. What a relief!”
We explored this further and then I asked if she could apply the experience to her whole life. After pondering it she nodded, “That would be amazing. It’s a completely different way of living, like I don’t have to worry and fight things. It’s all going to work out. Life will take care of me.”
I tried to find out how the song had opened this up in her but she wasn’t sure. “I don’t know. It’s just the sound of it, and of course, the word, ‘heaven.’ I’m not religious, but it gives me a feeling of life beyond my dramas.”
After this session Sandy’s depression lifted, and her life took on a whole new direction. Until we processed her experience of Knocking on Heaven’s Door, she'd been trying to avoid her sadness. She didn’t view it as a meaningful process, but rather as something wrong. In addition, as I mentioned, everyone in her environment had echoed this sentiment by encouraging her to get out of the grief and get on with life.
However, this wasn’t what she needed. She needed to get in touch with something deeper, something beyond the personal, even beyond the rational, and connect with a spiritual awareness that could embrace and support her experiences instead of rejecting them.
The Problem Is The Solution
The standard view of her problem was that there was a malfunction in her mind - an illness called "depression," manifesting as being in too long of a grieving period (as if there’s a “normal" amount of time). The solution was thought to be to repair the malfunction by finding a new relationship, or by covering over her sadness with medication. But this wasn’t what her mind and heart were seeking.
Her chronic grief was a meaningful and purposeful process that lead not only to the solution for her lost relationship, but to a whole new way of being, as well. The divorce had pushed her into a depression which, when intentionally focussed on and amplified, sparked a song that gave her a new way of relating to life. She discovered the hidden music within her grief (both literally and figurtively) by consciously going into the painful feelings instead of trying to get rid of them.
My client transformed through a song, but you don’t need music to change and grow. You just need to learn how to tap into and follow your process. Instead of thinking of your problem as a meaningless piece of junk you want to throw out, think of it as a meaningful process with a beautiful song hiding within the ugliness. Of course, you can’t just go straight to the song, you have to go through a process, and this is what I’ll be blogging and vlogging about in the coming months.
Dr. Zwig - singer-songwriter, psychotherapist, and author - has had 9 Top Ten hit singles on the U.S Adult Contemporary charts, is an internationally renowned workshop leader and lecturer, and has over 50 million views on YouTube. He has been featured in Billboard, Huffington Post, CNBC, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, Forbes, and Gibson. Dr Zwig has released 7 albums and his songs can regularly be heard on NBC, Fox, and Fuel TV. His forthcoming book, Music in the Mayhem: Tales of Total Transformation from a Rock n Roll Psychotherapist, arrives soon.