Guest post by Douglas MacGregor
My mother died when I was only seven years old, but I never grieved. It was not until twenty-five years later that all that suppressed grief hit me. The experience took over my life for a year and, as a musician and composer, I naturally turned to music to help me through.
At the same time, I was doing a Masters in ethnomusicology at SOAS and I completed my dissertation in the cross-cultural role of sacred music in grief and death rituals where I linked the ‘dual process’ psychological model of bereavement to musical practices around the world.
The culmination of these two experiences – one highly personal and emotive, the other more objective and researched-based – led me to found a new project called Songs of Loss and Healing, which aims to explore further the connection between music, loss, grief and healing.
Music and loss
The link between music at times of death is virtually ubiquitous: from David’s biblical dirges and the myth of Orpheus to modern pop music, from hymns and requiems to traditional laments, folk songs and ritual musical practices the world over. Ethnomusicologist Steven Feld even pondered whether some of the earliest forms of music would not have been primitive polyphonic laments upon death.
Through my research, however, I noticed that despite the ubiquity of the link between music, loss and grief, very little was actually understood about the role of music. We might all have an inkling of how music has helped us with our own losses, but there is very little formalised or academic knowledge, especially when it comes to what is happening on the emotional and psychological level. Non-academically, there also seems to be little music-related information or guidance for those in times of loss save for a handful of articles and a few playlists.
In traditional societies, music has almost always been tied to rites and ritual surrounding death. It often harnesses raw emotion and channels it into the ritual outcome, bringing communities together in shared sentiment around collectively held beliefs in death and the afterlife. Numerous ethnographic studies indicate that many of these musical ceremonies have a very real psychological effect in helping the participants cope with loss and grief.
The Yolngu, aboriginal people in Northern Australia, for example, have highly performative musical funeral rites that last for two weeks. Women spontaneously start singing weeping songs upon a death and, over the coming days, these songs turn into personalised narratives of the deceased taking in kinship and ancestral connections and totemically related landscape. These rites lead the bereaved along a path from raw emotional outpouring to a culturally negotiated grief, separation from the dead and re-integration of bereaved back into society. Remembrance is then possible through such songs of place and kinship.
In modern Western societies, many have turned away from traditional systems of belief as funerals, grief and remembrance become ever more personalised and idiosyncratic. But this does not necessarily mean that people have found equivalent replacements, especially so when it comes to overwhelming experiences of grief.
Indeed, many taboos on death and grief persist, and the belief that grief is or should be highly personal leaves many alienated and suffering alone. Furthermore, low death rates mean that many have little or no experience of death while the secularised individualism of West often means for fragmented communities and scattered families. When death does strike, individuals and families may simply lack the necessary tools, community or guidance.
Music, however, is one of the most powerful tools we have in times of loss. Understanding the role it can play can help artist and listener better utilise and direct this power.
Firstly, music is a legitimate space for grief – even extended forms of grief that last long after society deems it acceptable to talk about. Art has always been a space that can communicate past taboo, express the unsayable, give new perspective and open dialogue.
Music therapists have long known that music can help externalise hidden feelings, help regulate emotion, and give that emotion direction. Furthermore, in music, emotion can be communicated, allowing for a sharing of experience – it shows us we are not alone in our internal worlds and can bring us together. Music can also simply allow us to feel a connection with someone lost and remember them.
Music is so fascinating as it finds itself on the border between articulable and the inarticulable elements of consciousness; on one hand, the intellectual and narrative, and on the other, the emotional experience, the subconscious or the soul. Especially in times of loss when we may most keenly feel our emotional undercurrents, music helps us connect with and discover ourselves. It can potentially bridge the gap between intellectual and emotional responses.
My personal experience
When I experienced delayed grief quarter of a century after my mother died, music not only helped me discover, explore and express what was just beyond my conscious view – grief, trauma, half-forgotten memories, intangible senses of place and presence – it also helped me to process those feelings, gain ownership of them, and direct them gradually towards a place of healing.
By the “end”, I had written 7 pieces of solo guitar music, manifestations of and meditations on grief, memory and healing. Each piece is being recorded and filmed in a different specifically chosen non-studio location. The pieces are being released each month along with an accompanying text designed to contextual the music and explore the role music played for me.
Songs of Loss and Healing
It seems to me, however, that a much wider conversation needed to be had and much more exploration to be done. The project Songs of Loss and Healing aims to open up that conversation, to explore this musical connection further, and simply to reach people through music.
In the modern world, our relation to death and grief is changing. With that, musicians and composers should be at the forefront, engaging with, responding to and re-interpreting the ancient link between music and death. For readers of this blog, it might be of particular interest, for example, to see a classical pianist such as Igor Levit in his new album ‘Life’ talk so directly about his personal grief and remembrance through classical music.
In grief, the more we discover and accept, and the more we allow ourselves to feel non-judgmentally, the more likely we are to experience grief as healing. Whether we want to feel and express the existential torment of grief or whether we would like to spiritually re-connect to the departed through song, music, with its keys to the transcendent and to our emotional inner-worlds, is uniquely placed to help us cope with loss. Music can be a consolation, but it can also be much more.
Songs of Loss and Healing aims toexplore and spur this on with a series of interviews, articles, podcasts, releases and collaborations across genres and cultures. It also aims to develop a community engagement angle by providing online resources, organising events, and raising awareness on the potential of music in grief.
Songs of Loss and Healing is still in the early and exploratory stages. Right now, we are looking for artists with relevant experience who would like to contribute or be featured.
Douglas MacGregor is a composer and guitarist. Read more