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Music as medicine

What is the science behind music and its ability to soothe us? How can it be utilised in our toolbox for mental wellbeing in 2021? Indigo Project head psychologist Mary Hoang has the answers.

Mary Hoang

Mary Hoang and composer Rich Lucano will run the 'Funeral for 2020' guided sound workshop as part of All About Women 2021. Hoang will also appear on the panel of the 'Life: A Survival Guide' talk alongside Christine Jackman.

When my father passed away a few years ago, it was music that was my therapy. Not that I didn’t talk to my psychotherapist at length, practise mindfulness or find solace in nature – it was that music was able to provide the safety, space and release that these practices offered, and all I needed was a pair of headphones and a quiet room.

2020 was tormenting, yet necessary. The global pandemic brought the bullet train of the world to a halt, lifted the veil off our busy lives, and brought our attention to what was most needed and important. It forced us to recognise what was superfluous, and to let go of the habits and parts of our lives that were unsustainable. This was the journey of painstakingly rearranging the Jenga of our lives to orientate to the purposeful and meaningful; towards slower living, intentional behaviour, community and connection. Although I was grieving the loss of my father, I recognised that we were all grieving and tunnelling through the same process; this collective grief, the sadness and anxiety produced by the recognition of uncertainty and loss, felt by all.

It’s hard to know how to handle 2021. The clock striking midnight did not wipe the slate clean – the work is yet to be done. In the wake of the explosive, mind and life-altering year of upheaval that was 2020, we are in need of tools to help us navigate our inner, and outer worlds… and our grief. This is the grief of parts of our lives that we’ve outgrown but still hold onto, of relationships past their expiry date that we find ourselves attached to, or habits that no longer serve us – that we are still addicted to.

The Indigo Project Founder and Head Pyschologist Mary Hoang

When life gets messy, we need tools to manage our emotions, yet we also need to stretch and create a vision of hope for our future. This isn’t easy. Our thoughts and feelings can seem overbearing and overwhelming in times of flux, birthing behaviours that seek to distract us from the discomfort of sitting in the unknown; we reflexively reach for the remote, the food, burying ourselves under emails and To-Do’s. To be with difficult emotions and feelings, is harder. 

There are many reasons we tend to avoid difficult emotions and pain. Societal and cultural values encourage us to be happy all the time. We pursue happiness, yet research shows that chasing happiness only makes us unhappier. This leads us to avoid being vulnerable with friends in fear of being a burden, and we are determined to ‘get over’ life’s difficulties as fast as we can. I am guilty of this too, despite being a therapist and knowing the ‘tools’: I work too hard. I eat to numb myself. I jam my schedule and “busy” myself. I help others, to distract myself from me. Yet these coping mechanisms did not work when my father passed away. I needed to feel, cry and be vulnerable. I had to stop covering everything up with a giant throw, and four bowls of pasta. 

And this is where music came in. It was one of the only things that met me where I was. That didn’t try to make me ‘feel better’.  I didn’t use music to change my feelings, but rather, to honour, and acknowledge them – which eventually paved the way for the feeling of more spaciousness in my life. With headphones on, I let music move me, and heal me. 

“Societal and cultural values encourage us to be happy all the time. We pursue happiness, yet research shows that chasing happiness only makes us unhappier.”

Over the last four years I have been working at the intersection of music, psychology and experience creation, experimenting with the use of music in the therapy room to help clients access difficult emotions. I collaborated with composer Rich Lucano, to design hour-long sound baths for groups of up to 60 participants every month, attempting to mimic the process – and emotions – of therapy: taking people from contraction to expansion, and through curiosity, fear, anxiety, sadness, hope and acceptance. We became ‘ambient DJs’, designing ‘sound journeys’ with music from artists like Nils Frahm, Max Richter and Hammock. Or we would find instrumental albums that mirrored the emotional narrative we wanted participants to experience. And sure enough, the tears would flow. People would cry, dream, relax and find space to process their emotions, with many expressing the experiences to be like a psychedelic journey, and ultimately cathartic. 

Our experimental music sessions led to two research studies to uncover the effects of using music in therapy and in groups with The University of Melbourne and music psychologist Dr Amanda Krause. Variables that contributed to the cathartic nature of the experience were: a darkened room, a safe space, the permission to feel, minimal vocals in the music, and music that triggered a range of emotions (rather than just ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ music exclusively). These experiences were underpinned by principles of active listening, mindfulness, rites of passage and emodiversity, a concept researched by Jordi Quoidbach and his team from Pompeu Fabra University Barcelona, which suggests that feeling the full range of emotions predicts mental and physical health, such as decreased depression and doctor visits.

Max Richter performs his 'Sleep' album in the Opera House's Concert Hall Northern Foyers. Image: Prudence Upton.

“Choose music that meets you where you are at, or where you need to be. Recognise that it’s not about feeling better, but learning how to feel.”

But what does all of this mean for you in the face of 2021, through the inevitable change and transformations of this year? How can you harness music to help you let go and bring in a new vision? 

To become empowered in using music in this therapeutic way, you need to be willing to meet yourself where you are at. You must recognise the grief that you may be holding and acknowledge what needs to be let go – whether that be painful circumstances from the past, unhealthy relationships, or unhelpful habits. You must acknowledge the possibility that there are emotions that you have withheld that you would like to release. You must recognise that envisioning a future that you are excited about is part of your transformation. This will help you choose music that can help you feel deeply, but also expand you.

Start by asking yourself: What do I need right now? Do I need to sit in some difficult emotions? When was the last time I cried? Do I need to release any sadness? Do I need to express some anger? Do I need to relax? Do I need to be uplifted and energised? Choose music that meets you where you are at, or where you need to be. Recognise that it’s not about feeling better, but learning how to feel.

Mary Hoang's new book 'Darkness is Golden' - available here.

The dose: be deliberate and intentional in your use of music. Turn the lights off. Close your eyes. Give your full attention to the music. Give yourself at least half an hour to immerse yourself. Notice what it feels like in your body when you listen. It’s ok if your mind wanders, it’s not a meditation. Don’t be afraid of facing the past, but also allowing yourself space to dream. Choose music that stimulates a variety of emotions. Let music move you to tears, and to joy. 

There is no strict formula, we are our own doctors when it comes to prescribing a dose of music, but the intention and attention you give it is important. Recognise that by listening to music deliberately and therapeutically that you are engaging in a caring, compassionate act towards yourself. That you are taking some time with yourself, to listen to your needs and inner world. In doing this you are honouring your true emotions, and connecting with yourself. When we pay meaningful attention to ourselves, accepting who we are in the moment, the effect is often relief, space, clarity, release.

To help you on your way I have created a Spotify playlist designed to help you get in touch with your emotions. To take a journey into some of the more transformational experiences composed and created by Rich Lucano and myself, listen to these audio experiences. Here you will find a range of audio experiences to help you to relax to, let go and create vision. 

Remember, when you are actively listening to music, you’re also listening to yourself. Giving yourself a little attention can make a huge difference to how you feel. 

Mary Hoang is Founder and Head Psychologist of The Indigo Project. Her new book 'Darkness is Golden' was released in January 2021 and is available here.

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