Grief and music – more than a playlist of sad songs
One of our co-workers, Michael Roderick, shares a music pick with the team nearly every single day. His shares are occasionally unusual and often thought provoking, and he takes care to describe any history or circumstances that will add meaning as we listen. So, when we wanted to come up with a song that would be a good companion to the grief our readers are experiencing, we should have known we’d get WAY more than a song or simple playlist. Here’s what Michael wrote when we asked him:
If you were going to grieve to music, what would you grieve to?
I could just send you a couple of tracks and say, ‘these make me feel sad’, or ‘this music seems cathartic’, but I do not think that would end up being very helpful when the question is given due consideration.
One reason this doesn’t work is that grief differs based on the event, person(s), or circumstances that bring it about. One may be considered to be grieving over a range of afflictions anywhere between the loss of a job or life opportunity and the death of one’s spouse of forty years.
Another reason is that…
“Music serves as one of the ways that we share our grief and enable others to grieve with us, as death – the archetypal grief – has always been enveloped not only with solemnity, but in communal ceremony by human civilizations.”
Recorded music is barely a century old; for most of history music has been less a ‘personal’ thing with earbuds and more a ‘community’ thing with hands, feet, and voices.
When we share music, especially in public performance, to both grieve and help give voice to the grief of others, our choices will likely differ – for various reasons – from what we might put on when alone in our rooms during a weekend rainstorm in November.
A third reason why a brief and simple response to this question doesn’t work, at least as far as my own understanding is concerned, is that a genuine grief is not a passing mood as much as it is a protracted affliction and experience that may easily last weeks, months, or even years (though of course the accompanying emotions will vary and may be much stronger at some times than at others).
Broader Cultural Considerations
But for the sake of the question, let’s consider the paradigmatic example already mentioned: death.
“I don’t know whether there has been another culture in human history that has done more in the attempt to avoid, put off, ignore, or outright deny death than modern western society.”
Despite its relentless presence, we have amassed an arsenal of distractions beyond even the wildest dreams of those who lived only 200 years ago. By these and other helps not only is the profundity of death and real grief kept largely out of the public imagination (despite the constant flood of accounts of murders and war that are fed to anyone who has a regular ‘news’ intake), but these realities are additionally overpowered by what I can only describe as a practical worship of youth and its accompanying marketing that encourages people to desire to look young, act young (usually meaning to act in an immature way), feel young, and, in general, live as though there will be no end to living.
Death (of another) then becomes a violent, aberrant interruption of the typically comfortable and safe western existence only when it gets close enough to home to force a person to reckon with it individually, out of love or out of responsibility.
“We are raised in the west to consider our world as a world of options where we are the choosers, and death is one of the few cases where what we now call ‘reality’ (which is basically seen as the opposite, or the end, of options) breaks in and causes us to take notice.”
I promise you that this is headed toward the question you originally asked, though I might seem a little far afield at the moment.
In the past, culture itself – from the same root word as ‘cultivate’ – was considered to be a legacy that was passed from one generation to another with the implications of responsibility to maintain and to pass down again. It was a way of life in every sense of those words, the knowledge and rhythms of which were often essential to pass forward because the life of the whole community that shared the way of life depended on it.
“Part of what was passed down from one generation to another were views of death, funeral ceremonies, and all the art and artifacts associated with grief.”
Such has been the case, at least in part, with every agrarian society on the planet up to the present day (which includes the vast majority of humankind).
Since the early 20th century or so, particularly in the US but across what we would call the inheritors of western civilization all over the world, the very meaning of ‘culture’ has shifted from this idea of a weighty legacy one inherits and is responsible to embody to a set of commodities one chooses for oneself largely by means of purchases and voluntary identity associations. To put it another way, culture is now lifestyle, and everyone in our society is invited as a consumer to practically become a ‘culture of one’. As a society, and even in local communities, we share less and less with one another by default. Our experiences of being human become more idiosyncratic, more ‘personal’ (or ‘personalized’), more individual, and more voluntary.
And it is only in this kind of society, with the array of technologies we now possess via the combination of music recordings, cheap and widely available speakers and sound equipment, and ubiquitous internet, along with widespread disagreement about the purpose of life and the meaning of death in general – not to mention the isolated culture-of-one phenomenon I just brought up – that the question “What music do you grieve to?” even has any meaning or makes any sort of sense.
So, Am I Going to Answer the Question?
Maybe. Or, in a way. But I am going to reach into the past, perhaps a bit anachronistically, in the attempt. The reason for this is that in the present, it is easily demonstrated that a culture capable of asking “What music do you grieve to?” is a culture that routinely produces artifacts (music, among other things) that trivialize or over sentimentalize grief. And, by way of reaction to the evident lack of humanity in those artifacts, some people produce others that ‘overdo’ grief, death, and suffering by presenting a grief without hope.
(As examples of these two ends of a spectrum I would call to witness, on the one hand, countless popular songs, particularly from country music but represented across the gamut, that trivialize the grief of broken relationships or even of death itself; on the other hand, the music of a kind of darkness without deliverance that runs through a great deal of modern ‘rock’, lots of metal, and even more mainstream recordings like Radiohead’s “Kid A”.)
Of course, if the world we live in is merely material, as is claimed by a significant portion of our comfortable peers, and neither life nor death has any inherent significance other than that which we temporarily assign to it, then death cannot help but be tragic and absurd in the long view and it is difficult to argue against those who are painting the blackest pictures. Now this is not a view of the universe to which I subscribe, but getting into those details would require a much longer discussion. Suffice it to say that I believe that the art that best answers to the genuine human condition – that is most in accord with who we really are, what life is and means, and that resonates most profoundly with our hearts – is art that is honest about what I would call the ‘fallen’ or ‘broken’ condition of the world as it stands, but that does not stop at a stark depiction of the broken and fallen but at least begins to rise from that depth toward picturing a kind of redemption, whether that redemption is realized in part or only anticipated.
I say all that in order to notice briefly that this kind of artistic depiction or progression is very difficult to achieve through the use of the vehicle of popular music because of the constraints of the form itself. Even what I would point out as the better examples of pop artists using pop forms to address this theme (say, Peter Gabriel’s “I Grieve”), despite having moments of beautiful insight or powerful simplicity (in the song just mentioned, the line “the news that truly shocks is the empty, empty page”) fall far short of profundity, of solemnity, of an accurate portrayal of deep human grief without a loss of hope.
“Let me make clear that I do not generally view this as a failing on the part of the artist, but as a limitation of the form itself; popular forms of music evolved not to express deep and complex human emotion, but essentially as light and diverting entertainment.”
They are typically too short and too simplistic to convey anything complex or multi-faceted, or to be able to take the time necessary to move through a wider emotional space or structure, and to the credit of the artists, most of the time they do not even try. They are especially ill-suited in the case of grief because it is the nature of grief to be prolonged, sometimes subtle, other times breaking out in painful and surprising ways.
In the past, we in western societies had communal ways of expressing and sharing grief based on widely-held assumptions, or a common view of the world, which has now been fragmented into a million pieces. (We can talk about some of these things another time if anyone is interested, it would take much too long here even to open all that up.) But the parts of that view of the world that I believe to have been most accurate, most truthful, were absolutely essential to the production of what we now almost universally celebrate as the greatest artwork (music and otherwise) in history. And this includes (in some form or other) the views of God, mystery, life, death, love, sacrifice, and affliction that used to be shared across what we could call Christendom.
The musical vocabulary that emerged in the classical tradition, influenced largely by the form of Christian liturgies (patterns moving from the praise of God through the confession of sin toward forgiveness, reconciliation and redemption), arguably has been and is still the best vehicle we have for the expression and sharing of grief and other complex human experiences and emotions. This ‘vocabulary’ of sound and structure has survived to this day, even though the view of the world that was instrumental in producing it faded from popularity well over a century ago in the west. And it is this conclusion that drives whatever answers I would try to provide to your question.
This is not to say that popular songs or hymns do not have a place; only that their place is typically subordinate unless the music is of the greatest craftsmanship for its form / genre or has a special relevance to the life of the person we are grieving over in death.
So, here we go with a partial list of potential answers. And to further muddy my reply…
“I would also have to say that, as a musician, the music most likely to privately accompany grief in my life (if I have access to a piano) is my own improvisation, expressing what words and other means cannot.”
List / References
Rooted in the Classical Tradition
This is a sampling of music I believe would serve as a good companion during a time of grief. At least, I would have it close at hand if possible. By no means is it an exhaustive list, of course. The list, made more or less off the top of my head, unintentionally shows my piano bias due to many years at that instrument. And I didn’t even put any Chopin in the list.
You might have heard this in a film or two; I think it was used at the end of Platoon, but I haven’t seen that in a long time.
Requiem Mass settings
- B Minor Mass
- St. John and St. Matthew Passions
Lots of keyboard music… for example:
- Hammerklavier Sonata
- Late String Quartets
I played this one years ago, wish I still could.
- Preludes and Fugues: E minor, Bb minor, G# minor, D minor
I played this a very long time ago, Shostakovich composed it shortly after the death of his father.
- Lots of other stuff – see the “Sanctuary” album
- Prelude, Chorale, and Fugue
Pop / Folk
So, you don’t think I’ve snobbishly left this sort of thing out, here are a few popular-style songs or hymns I have been asked at one time or another to play for funerals (stylistically altered to be setting-appropriate, of course):
- ‘Come Ye Disconsolate’, arr. Greg Wilbur (from “My Cry Ascends”, no YT)
Just for reference, a few of the best popular or folk songs I can think of that try to address death, suffering, and/or grief:
Not a great recording audio-wise, but a more intimate interpretation than his album version.
Close to my heart… sort of a late love letter to Beethoven, grieving over a musician’s going deaf at a young age and other things.