The Glee Club

Your brain on the holidays: Pry apart the significance of your favorite traditions and learn to cope with December stress.

Why Holiday Music Can Hurt

Christmas music doesn't bring everyone cheer.

It took less than a week living in my first apartment as a new board certified music therapist and soon-to-be graduate student to be cornered in the hallway by a neighbor asking a music-related question.

When I divulge that I am a music therapist, most of the time I get responses such as "Music therapy? What's that? I haven't heard of it!" or "Oh how wonderful! Music makes me feel so much better" or "I had a(n) (aunt/parent/child/friend/acquiantance) get music therapy before and it really helped him/her."

This question was different. Mr. New Neighbor asked why it was so hard for him to listen to the songs he used to love now that his wife had passed away. It had been six months. When would he be able to enjoy music again? Especially the music that used to bring him joy. Listening to this music now just made him sad, and it made him sadder still to know that he could not take comfort and joy in a pasttime he used to love.

I think of Mr. New Neighbor on occasion, but more often around the holidays. Not because I met him or talked with him around the holidays, but because of the music dilemma he faced. Though many people associate music with happiness (a comment I hear on a regular basis), music can also evoke other, more negative feelings in a powerful and hard-to-control way.

I recently started reading Brene Brown's book "Daring Greatly." In an early vignette, she describes vulnerability as being both exquisite and excrutiating, depending on your perspective.

I think the same can be said of music.

Music can be exquisite. It can excite, it can calm. It can overpower us with emotions, it can keep us serene. Music comes in all sorts of flavors, shapes, and sizes. Experiencing music can be simultaneously personal and intimate, but it can also be a shared, collective, engaging encounter.

However, music can also be excrutiating. It can be painful and unwelcome. It can flood our memories and our systems with unwanted thoughts and feelings. It's this side of music—what may perhaps be the dark side of music—that is not commonly acknowledged or discussed. It's this side of music that Mr. New Neighbor was trying to understand.

I view the dark side of music as being closely connected to loss and grief, which is intimately connected to our memories and emotions. Music is second only to smell for its ability to reach inside and trigger our memories, emotions, and emotional memories. It can remind us instantaneously of a person, place, and time. It can trigger memories of happy times, of events, and of people that bring us joy. But it can also remind us of sad times, of times we were angry, in denial, struggling, and fighting. Music can do this without our conscious effort. All we need to do is simply listen to a song and the memory and emotions associated with that memory are evoked.

So why bring this up around the holidays? Not everyone associates the holiday season with fun, joyful, family-related memories. Holidays often evoke complex emotions. We miss those we lost and we mourn relationships that have changed.

But regardless of our personal relationship with the holiday season, holiday music is everywhere. There is no escaping it. It's on the radio, the TV, the shopping malls, the internet. We are inundated with music and through that, the assumption that the holidays are a time of joy. But for those with a complex emotional history associated with this time of year, the music around them can hurt in a very real way, reminding them of their loss and grief.

For the rest of us that do not hold those associations, it may help to know that they exist. To know that not everyone will react with smiles and warm fuzzy feelings when hearing "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" piped through the airwaves for the zillionth time.

But as I told Mr. New Neighbor in the corner of that hallway so many years ago, it's okay—necessary even—to pause the music and allow yourself time to heal. It is not weird or wrong to need a break from the music. With time and the appropriate support, you may again feel the joy that music can bring.

Holiday or otherwise.

Follow me on Twitter @KimberlySMoore for daily updates on the latest research and articles related to music, music therapy, and music and the brain. I invite you also to check out my website, www.MusicTherapyMaven.com, for additional information, resources, and strategies.

The Glee Club