Even the 'angsty' bits can be a musical refuge for mental health

347214 20190529 a sad woman presses her hand against a rainy window
Sad music -- or any kind of art that is sad, melancholy or heart-rending -- serves the purpose of validating our own emotions of sadness, grief, loneliness or even depression. Milada Vigerova/Unsplash

Editor's note: As part of our Call to Mind initiative, classical host Steve Seel explains that even the "angsty" bits can be a musical refuge for mental health — and if that wasn't the case, the blues or classic country wouldn't exist. Check out Part 1 and Part 2 if you missed them.

Part 3

I'm going to let you in on a little secret about classical music on the radio.

Roughly 25 years ago, some people did some research on how to "grow the audience" for classical music on the radio — particularly, on public radio.

The listeners were asked, "What experience do you want from classical music on the radio?" Their answers usually boiled down to some version of these:

• "To feel good."
• "To relax."
• "To escape the noise of the world."

In interpreting this research — which was hardly airtight (nor done without bias) — it was decided that classical music on the radio needed to be bright, cheerful and basically the sound of a musical sewing machine all day long. In essence, this:

LISTEN Geminiani: Allegro from Concerto Grosso in B-Flat Major

As I mentioned, the research was not without its major flaws, in both execution and interpretation. The result was that in the 1990s, some classical radio stations around the country conflated the idea of "a refuge from the noise of the world" with "creepily cheerful" — and the end result was a kind of artificially happy, Stepford Wives pleasantness all day long.

Well, a lot of longtime classical music listeners blanched — and not just the ones who were doctrinaire traditionalists. They sensed something was missing.

Why? Because it was.

These classical music radio programmers had misunderstood the task at hand. They'd taken the idea of "companionable" radio — a noble and worthwhile cause — and turned it into a drably flat landscape that was all rainbows and unicorns. When questioned about this, programmers would shoot back, "You can't say what we're doing is 'shallow.' It's Mozart, the most profound composer of all time!"

But the point wasn't that Mozart was shallow; it was that the programmers' motives with his music were. And this was made obvious by the fact of what was missing: Mahler, late Beethoven string quartets, Schoenberg's Transfigured Night. In short, the music of beauty that had an ache in it. Pain was to be feared.

But this was an utterly silly mistake.

Psychologists know that one of the most powerful forces in therapy and healing is human connection. Indeed, sometimes, it can be the single most effective thing a person suffering with mental health challenges can encounter. (In fact, it's increasingly believed that one of the reasons that 12-step programs can be so effective in helping people overcome addiction and substance abuse problems is that one of their core components is the social aspect of coming together in "the meeting," to bond with fellow sufferers and offer mutual support.) When a person puts a human face on others who are going through the same thing — often at the same moment — the effect can be profound.

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It's not just the music that helps us have "a good cry," however, that's important to hear. Claudia/Unsplash

Similarly, sad music — or any kind of art that is sad, melancholy or heart-rending — serves the purpose of validating our own emotions of sadness, grief, loneliness or even depression. When we hear that a composer has put something gut-wrenchingly elegiac into a piece of music, we are reassured that this is an experience that exists out there in the world, not just in our own heads — and other people have been through it, too. Someone might even be going through it right now, we might think, as they listen along with me to this piece of music at this moment. And this can be enormously comforting.

This is why pain is important in the experience of art. It brings us together. We all know the visceral reaction we can have from listening to Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings. It might make you break down and cry. But in most cases, that's not an experience you probably feel averse to. We "enjoy" it because it helps us feel our humanity, and thus our connection to our fellow men and women, who have suffered the same sadness.

It's not just the music that helps us have "a good cry," however, that's important to hear. Even something like Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5, with its strange, queasy, "triumphant" finale. It's the sound of totalitarianism forcing a nationalistic smile onto the face of an oppressed citizen, while crushed under the sole of a boot. It's chilling, and we recognize that evil when we hear it, as well. And that sense of shared recognition is also a bonding experience with our fellow humans.

Again, this is not music that's "uplifting" in an overt sense, by nature of cheerful tempos or major-key structure. But it does, paradoxically, help us feel good — by uniting us in our common experience of life on this Earth.

No one has ever questioned the way a traditional blues tune (sometimes described as "a good man feelin' bad") or classic country (the songs about your marriage going down the tubes) have been pillars of successful artistic communication in the United States for generations. That's because we all know that sad music affirms and validates our experience of sadness.

For me, returning to classical music as a host at this particular time in the United States — when things are extremely tense, and even frightening — has been a balm for my soul, because it has given me a way to connect with art that has mass. In an age when we can feel so untethered, getting a firm grip on a piece of artistic granite that has been around for a century or two and that acknowledges life, death, permanence and impermanence can be profoundly anchoring.