Blue Notes

The life-giving link between mood and musical expression

| November-December 2008

This article is part of a package on the psychological power of music. For great writing on the transformative and emotional power of music, read Science of Music: Literary Interludes . 

I’ve never met Garnet Rogers. For all I know, he’s a very nice man. Like his late brother, Stan, he sure can sing. But 10 years ago, Garnet nearly killed me at the Canadian Tulip Festival in Ottawa, and I’ve wondered ever since whether certain musicians shouldn’t issue statements at the beginning of their concerts. “Warning: This performance contains vocals, lyrics, keys, and chords that may induce debilitating sorrow in some listeners. Listener discretion is advised.”

I don’t remember the actual song, only the abject melancholy that flooded through me upon hearing Rogers’ spare guitar and soulful baritone waft over the crowd of happy, paint-faced children, batik peddlers, and poutine eaters wandering amid the waving tulips. No one else seemed particularly bothered by the dissonance between song and scene, but all I wanted to do was escape down to the riverbank and weep.

It wasn’t the first, nor last, time a piece of randomly encountered music would ambush me and amplify my sadness, almost unbearably. Once, it was the mournful saw of violins accompanying a video at the Canadian Museum of Civilization about early logging. Or it could be a Rufus Wainwright song sneaking up on me from the car radio. I soon became hypervigilant at recognizing that first down spiral of mood and adept at the quick lunge for the off button. Music, once a comfort and a source of pleasure, had become a minefield.

Sensitivity to sad music was just one troublesome symptom of what was eventually diagnosed as clinical depression. It was only after many months of taking citalopram, an antidepressant known as a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, that I realized the sad-music thing wasn’t happening to me anymore. When I was puttering in the kitchen one morning with the radio on, the sound of a violin stopped me. It was “Field of Stars,” by the late Oliver Schroer, a song recorded during his seven-week walk along Europe’s ancient pilgrim trail, the Camino de Santiago. His wailing fiddle, echoing through an old stone chapel, made me sit down and cry—but they were the cathartic, opening kind of tears.

Soon I stopped fearing music, maudlin TV commercials, and Animal Planet programs about cruelty to chimpanzees. I was still able to feel sadness, but I was not so overwhelmed by the emotion. And I became curious; exactly what was going on in my brain to make me so vulnerable to music in the first place—and why was a pill able to change all that?