Mental health music jam- part 1- the oldies but goodies.
Updated: May 21
Music. For some it's just noise, for others a pleasant diversion, and for many, it is life-giving. Why is music so central to the human psyche and so powerful for mental health? You can take a room full of anxious or depressed people, pipe in lively dance music, sneak in a few "lively" types, and the entire room can erupt in joy and jubilation. The problems are all still there, but music helps us forget them, if only for a little while.
There is something called music therapy, defined as "the use of music to address the physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of a group or individual." Active engagement with music, such as playing an instrument, singing, or dancing is more beneficial than passive listening, but any interaction can help those in mental distress. (Music is great for the symptoms of mental illnesses, but to get to the root cause therapy and professional care are the only ways to get there.)
There is a Music Therapy Association (musictherapy.org), that claims studies that have backed up the value of music therapy in a variety of situations. They claim that music therapy has been proven to help with childhood development, military populations, autism, Alzheimer's, in prisons, pain management, special education, crisis and trauma, and in general mental health and medical treatments.
The Covid-19 pandemic has been hard on music and musicians, cancelling many concerts, closing schools, and eliminating most opportunities for people to get together and enjoy music. Luckily, we still have recorded music, and when I asked the question on a Nextdoor forum about how people used music to stay sane, I got many interesting responses. People responded across the spectrum on types of music that keep them happy and sane- ukulele, 80's dance music, classical, jazz, blues, motown, hard rock, disco, and musicals were all mentioned. There's something about music that just lifts the spirits, and that's a good thing.
Music has a profound effect on humans, and science doesn't understand why. Some of it may be because certain songs trigger youthful memories that are fun and pleasurable. Some of it may be the connection that we feel with the artists and the others who are also listening. Being at a music concert can be a transcendent experience- you almost forget who you are while engrossed in the songs. Given the wide variety of music out there, and the vastly different responses to each one, there's something to be said about specific genres or artists turning a "happy" switch inside our brains. What makes a country music fan happy might not appeal to a Grateful Dead fan, but each person seems to have their own sweet spot for what feeds their soul. What's yours?
This topic can't be covered the way I'd prefer in one blog post, so I'm splitting it into three. For the first one, I'm going to showcase songs that are especially uplifting or pertinent to mental health that were made before the year 2000. This list could be a lot longer, but I had a lot of fun compiling it. Here are ten songs to check out to brighten up your day, in no particular order.
1- What A Wonderful World, written by Bob Thiele and George David Weiss. Recorded by Louis Armstrong, 1967.
This quiet little song did little on the charts until it showed up in the movie Good Morning, Vietnam in 1987. It's a slow, beautiful ode to the life and Louis Armstrong, singing it near the end of his career, seems the perfect choice. It has slowly but surely gained popularity over the past few decades and been re-recorded by many other artists. The video below has over 11 million views on YouTube.
2- Hey Jude- written by Paul McCartney, performed by the Beatles. 1968
In 1968 John Lennon left his wife and son to marry Yoko Ono. Paul McCartney wrote this song for Lennon's son, Julian, to help with the breakup. Originally titled "Hey Jules", this song went on to be one of the Beatle's longest and most famous songs. Released during the turbulent election year of 1968, it was welcomed by a nation in the midst of a war, race riots, and assassinations. It's a beautiful ballad and one that utilizes nearly 3 minutes of nonsense lyrics at the end (na-na-na) to a satisfying emotional conclusion.
Oh-oh-oh, and anytime you feel the pain Hey Jude, refrain Don't carry the world upon your shoulders For well you know that it's a fool Who plays it cool By making his world a little colder
3- Eroica- aka Beethoven's 3rd symphony. 1804
Ludwig Van Beethoven was one of the most amazing musicians in history, if only because he produced so many masterpieces while losing his hearing, something unthinkable for any composer. Beethoven also struggled with depression and a host of physical problems, now thought to have been linked to lead poisoning. With all that against him, he produced symphonies that have inspired the world. Eroica has been voted by some as his best, and I must admit listening to the entire hour-long piece transports me to a place of peace and beauty. Classical music has been touted as a great learning tool, but the "Mozart effect", that listening to it improves learning especially in children, is still unproven. Because of the lack of lyrics in classical music, it is thought to be calming, relaxing, and stress-relieving.
4- Bridge Over Troubled Water Written by Paul Simon sung by Art Garfunkel 1970
This beautiful ballad has its roots in gospel, where Paul Simon got his inspiration. It won 6 Grammy awards and topped the music charts for many weeks. It merges stringed instruments with simple vocals and gives a soothing message about helping those who are down and out. Simon sang the song at a benefit concert for victims of 9/11 in 2001 and again in 2005 for victims of Katrina. It remains the duo's most famous and popular song, and has been covered by dozens of other artists from Elvis to John Legend.
5. You've Got a Friend - written by Carole King, performed by Carole King and James Taylor 1971
There have been a lot of songs written about love, but this one celebrates friendship and love better than any other I've ever heard. It's a beautiful ballad about friendship in dark times, and it came from Carole King's remarkable Tapestry album that made her a superstar. Oddly, the version sung by her platonic friend James Taylor went on to be a bigger hit, but they both do an excellent job with the vocals. Both King and Taylor won Grammy's for the song and it has lived on and inspired many lonely and sad people.
6- I Can See Clearly Now- written and performed by Johnny Nash 1972
This upbeat, beautiful song has become something of a mental health anthem. Johnny Nash wrote and sang this song, and it has been covered multiple times by other artists- most famously by Jimmy Cliff in the movie Cool Runnings. Nash just recently passed away in 2020, and this was his most famous song.
"I can see clearly now the rain is gone I can see all obstacles in my way Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind It's gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day It's gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day
Oh, yes I can make it now the pain is gone All of the bad feelings have disappeared Here is that rainbow I've been praying for It's gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day
Look all around, there's nothing but blue skies Look straight ahead, there's nothing but blue skies"
The video below has been watched nearly 10 million times.
7- I'm Still Standing- Written by Elton John and Bernie Taupin, performed by Elton John 1983
This upbeat song is one of Elton John's best, and one of the best breakup songs ever written. The song is about a breakup and how Elton is still standing better than he ever did. That can apply not only to romantic breakups but to just about any bad event that happens to us. If you see the movie Rocketman with Taron Edgerton playing Elton John, you can see how this song was his anthem against adversity.
8- Walking on Sunshine -Written by Kimberley Rew and performed by Katrina and the Waves, 1983
Not much I can say about this popular single except it is joyous, catchy, and a great dance tune. It has been covered by many artists and it's appeared in many movies. It captures the euphoria of being in love with life perfectly. The You Tube video below has nearly 60 million views.
9- True Colors Written by Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly, performed by Cindy Lauper 1986
Cyndi Lauper was the Lady Gaga of her day, and she sang this song to perfection. Billy Steinberg wrote this song about his mother, but it applies to anybody. This song has been used in movies like the Trolls movies and in a famous Dove commercial promotion. It's lyrics speak specifically to the depressed and discouraged.
You with the sad eyes Don't be discouraged Oh I realize It's hard to take courage In a world full of people You can lose sight of it all And the darkness inside you Can make you feel so small
But I see your true colors Shining through I see your true colors And that's why I love you So don't be afraid to let them show Your true colors True colors are beautiful Like a rainbow
10- Good Vibrations- Written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love, performed by the Beach Boys. 1966
This has been voted one of the happiest songs ever written, and there's not much to the lyrics except that a guy falls in love with a girl's good "vibrations," a term for aura inspired by Brian Wilson's mother. This became one of the Beach Boys biggest hits and has been praised for its inventive music. It's a great feel-good song for the summer or any time of year.
11- Mr. Blue Sky Electric Light Orchestra 1978
This song was on of ELO's most popular hits and has been voted the happiest song on Earth. In a one-of-a-kind study by a researcher in the Netherlands, Jacob Jolij developed a "feel good formula" to determine the happiest song ever. He studied 126 songs over 50 years and asked 2000 people, and the winning song was this one. I had never paid attention to the lyrics of this bouncy, upbeat song, but here they are.
Sun is shinin' in the sky There ain't a cloud in sight It's stopped rainin' everybody's in the play And don't you know It's a beautiful new day, hey hey
Runnin' down the avenue See how the sun shines brightly in the city On the streets where once was pity Mr. Blue Sky is living here today, hey hey
Mr. Blue Sky please tell us why You had to hide away for so long (so long) Where did we go wrong?
12- I'm A Believer- The Monkees/Neil Diamond/ Smash Mouth 1966
This song has had many lives. Written by Neil Diamond for a fake rock band on a tv show, it shot to the top of the charts and helped propel the Monkees into real rock star status even after their show was cancelled within two seasons. The Monkees broke up and reunited many times, but always with this song as one of its main attractions.
The lyrics are a testimonial to the power of love and infatuation, but the melody is what makes it one of the most uplifting songs of all time.
I'm A Believer got new life in 2001 with the release of the movie Shrek. A new version was recorded by Smash Mouth and provided the joyous ending for a bunch of fairy tale characters and introducing the song to an entire new generation. It was included in a Broadway version of Shrek later that decade.