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The Mysterious Power of Comfort Songs

By Barbara Lewis April 24, 2022 Lifestyle

When I was in my early 20s, I rented a room in a sprawling mansion-turned-rooming-house that was in a beautiful part of Vancouver, Canada. Lots of tall, old trees lined the sidewalks. The area had a luxuriant park-like atmosphere. Looking back now, I realize that I should have been more impressed by the fact that I, as a young university student, had a lovely and affordable place to live while I went to University. 

Still, all the “rooms” were very small studios. And there was a shared bathroom that made the activities of your neighbouring tenant pretty audible. So in that respect, it was more like a student dwelling. 

Sound travelled easily through the shared bathroom, so I quickly learned the music-listening habits of the older man who lived next door. He was likely about the age I am now – in his late 60s. He asked me to call him Bob. I saw him as very old. Ancient, in fact.

But Bob was a kind man and respectful of our shared bathroom. He had his specific times to be in there. I had mine. He left it clean. So did I. It was a peaceful cohabitation. Except for the music. 

Soldiers on the March

Bob listened long and loudly to the music of marching bands like Philip De Sousa. Or maybe, because we lived in Canada, it was the Band of the Royal Regiment (which was formed in Toronto in 1863). But the music from both sources was the same.

It conjured up brave soldiers marching to war or coming back from war or in support of other soldiers who were marching into danger. I marvelled at its consistent rhythm. And I was profoundly annoyed by it. I could not see how anyone would choose to listen to Bob’s big bands for hours at a time. 

I was a music student at the nearby University of British Columbia. When I wasn’t listening to classical vocal works by Schumann, Brahms, Debussy etc., I was deeply engrossed in the songs of our Canadian song-writing treasure, Joni Mitchell. Her most famous album at that time was Blue.

She spoke to my heart and mind. She made me feel hopeful. I could listen for hours. But to do that at home, I had to sit outside on the precarious balcony to hear her plaintiff melodies and colourful lyrics, The volume of Bob’s bangy music was unrelenting. 

Too Much, Too Loud

One day, when the sound had gone on for a long time, I decided to speak with him about it. I knocked on the door in the bathroom that led to his apartment. The door creaked open. But he had not heard me come in. He was sitting in the one chair that graced his spare, lonely-looking room. His eyes were closed.

He had a beatific look on his face as the music poured over him. In that moment, I realized that he was as transported by his songs as I was by mine. As he sat there, I imagined that he was no longer alone in his unadorned, little studio apartment. He was miles away. Happy and serene. Deep into the comfort of another life. Another time. I backed out quietly and left him to his joy. 

What I learned from Bob that day was a gift for a young woman studying music. I understood, by witnessing, how powerfully music can lift us up and comfort us. I imagine that each of us has our own musical entry or portal into those feelings of pleasure and comfort. 

For Bob, it was military music. For me at that time, life made more sense after listening to deep musings of Joni Mitchell or the political originality of Bob Dylan.

Perhaps you have your own treasured music? Songs that take you to a place where no other human-made resource can lift you? 

The Human Brain on Music

In the years since that time, a lot of research has been done about how music can affect the brain. In the book The Power of Music, Elena Mannes wrote, “Scientists have found that music stimulates more parts of the brain than any other human function.” In other studies, music has been found to reduce pain, to improve memory and to enhance the delicate pathways of the brain itself.

Now, after more than 60 years of focusing on music and singing, (these days I perform those Joni Mitchell songs…), the thing that still surprises me most about listening to music is how it can evoke powerful emotion so quickly.

For example, just hearing the first few measures of a song by Voces8 can take me into a place of deep peace. My breathing immediately calms down. Thoughts become fewer. Hope rises. As I listen, I feel that if humans can create this kind of sublime sound, then there still may be hope for our troubled world. The effect of music on we poor humans can be like a miracle.

As a singer and vocal coach, I often ask friends and students, “Does music have this kind of effect on you? And if so, is there a specific style or a certain artist that grabs your heartstrings?”

The Feeling of Being Truly Alive

My good neighbour Bob moved away from the house a few months after I observed him zoning out to music in his room. Before he left, I had the opportunity to ask him about his daily march-fest. Why that music, I queried?

As I expected, he said that the songs re-connected him to his war-buddies – to that specific time in his life. And though he didn’t say exactly this, I got the feeling that it was a time when he felt he was the most alive and purposeful. Danger was nearby. And the “work” of being a soldier had so much meaning for the world.

Perhaps many of us are looking for that glorious feeling of aliveness these days when the outer world is in such turmoil. Music, like nature, with all its variety, offers it to us without cost or judgment.

How does music affect you? Which type of music brings you to a special place? How often do you listen to this music?

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The Author

Barbara Lewis is a Montreal-based singer, speaker and inspirational vocal coach who offers concerts, talks, voice lessons (in a Montreal studio and online). Barbara believes that “Singing is a powerful doorway to our happier, more peaceful selves.” Her concerts and teaching are central to this understanding.

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