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Questions and Answers About Music and Self-Care

by Bill Protzmann


Many of these questions and my answers were transcribed from a Connected! presentation that was given for caregivers and cared-for in April 2010. The questioner’s anonymity has been preserved. There have been a few additions since then, too!

Q — Is there any evidence that music can trigger memories?

A — (Plays the melody to “Twinkle twinkle little star” or “A B C”) — When you learn or memorize with music, the information is learned faster and retained longer. Practically, music is being used to help treat stuttering or recover language skills after a stroke — singing the words rather than speaking allows the verbal communication to be plain.

The music unlocks the ability to communicate verbally.

Nostalgia — songs that we remember from our childhoods or significant times in our lives — is very powerfully embedded in our memory. Using music to wake that memory up and connect on that level can be very useful. I have been able, for example, to connect on the level of shared experience through music with people suffering from dementia where “normal” verbal communication was not possible.


Q — I had lung cancer and had a lung removed in 1994. After the surgery, I never took any medication. I used earphones and listened to music and evidently the message of the pain didn’t get to the head. It worked for me. Evidently music can also stop certain messages that we don’t want to deal with or “hear.”

A — The overwhelming release of the hormones that you get out of music is more powerful than the pain messages.


Q — I like very different kinds of music depending on the time of the day, what I’m doing or whatever. What surprised me is that at nighttime my favorites are standards — Frank Sinatra, that type of thing — that literally make me annoyed, nervous and irritable if I listen to them during the day. Why would that happen?

A — It’s just us! There’s no real reason for it…it’s just how we’re wired! I like to take different music and try to make myself listen to it — alternative rock and roll and head-banging music — I love that stuff because it’s so incredibly complex and rich. It’s fun to build a sort of daily soundtrack. So my answer is to go with it and give yourself a soundtrack that works for you throughout the day.

I spend some time playing for Veterans who come back from the war with post-traumatic stress. On the front line, you want something that’s going to fire you up, but when you get back and you’re dealing with the emotional results of that you want a completely different kind of music. If you know this about yourself, you can use it to give yourself support throughout the day, or, if you’re curious like me, you can sort of intentionally annoy yourself with music to see what happens.


Q — Is it correct that there are certain tones that are better in the morning for someone than in the evening?

A — I have heard music therapists say this. I’m not a music therapist — I function more as outreach, to try to get you to do something more than just sit with what you have. I think there’s merit in that, but I haven’t found that playing things in a particular key does something differently than others. I’ve been told that each of the seven tones in the scale corresponds to a specific chakra.

My observation is that love songs tend to be in the “flat” keys (A flat, E flat). Chopin wrote lots of beautiful melodies in the flats; when Chopin and Beethoven wrote tortured, angry music it tended to be in the “sharp” keys — still, there are lots of popular love songs in A and G and D and lots of angry or melancholy music in the sharp keys. You really experience the flats and the sharps differently. If I played a piece of music in a key other than the one used in a popular recording, you would notice a difference, even though you might not be able to explain it. I believe that we remember tonality and pitch and that it effects us, but I don’t believe that there’s any “perfect pitch” for you that’s different from my “perfect pitch.”


Q — Can you make any comment on what differentiates us from the animals in that humans have music and animals do not?

A — I’d just be speculating! What I can say is that my cats respond differently to different kinds of music. For example, as I was rehearsing for a particular program, one of my cats would always come up to the piano at the same point in the program each time and want attention. Other than that, I don’t have a comment….


Q — I’m a caregiver in our family for three different people. Why is it when you’re a caregiver you want to listen to sad music? I find myself not wanting to hear happy upbeat music. I will turn on the radio or CDs and listen to love songs or sad songs. I do not want to get whoop-de-do’d up and it’s hard to get out of that whoop-de-do feeling when I have three cancer patients in the family. I had a nervous breakdown too, but I’m doing pretty good. Why do I not want to dance around and go to functions and listen to happy music?

A — I have an answer from my own personal experience. I grew up in a family where emotion was not expressed on a very wide range. We were not allowed to be too sad and we were not allowed to be too happy. I really believe that the only reason I came out anywhere near as good as I did was because I had a way of experiencing those feelings that were acceptable. I could go to the piano and the feelings that I wanted to feel deeply I could experience through the music. I’ve since learned that this is an actual practice that exists in a lot of the Eastern traditions, and the practice is this: to identify a feeling and to go fully through to the very bottom of that feeling. This, as it turns out, is something that a lot of therapists use in their practice of psychotherapy. I’ve been doing it all my life. Some people would call it meditation.

The best music — for me — for doing this are the ballads and the slow songs. I would just encourage you to keep listening. What you can do with that is love it, and put on those songs, with headphones especially, and try to find the very bottom of that emotional experience, whatever it is. If it sadness, if it’s despair — if it sounds like it might be a “bad” thing, just go with that — nothing’s going to happen to you; you’re sitting there in your chair with the headphones. And when you’ve found that bottom place, I promise you that you will also find the gold that’s buried there.