The first part of this article dealt with why we are drawn to sad songs of heartbreak and their benefits.
Ahead of our event Navigating Heartbreak and Loss Through Song Writing, we now delve into the musician’s mind and see why they are so attuned to write about heartbreak.
Studies have shown that musicians’ minds develop to be bigger and more sensitive than non-musicians, which makes them more attuned to capturing and writing about heartbreak and loss in life.
We investigated whether this has resulted in a broader mental health issue with musicians dealing with a mind ultra-tuned into emotions and asked Music Victoria’s dedicated mental health clinician Bree Stewart some questions.
How widespread are mental health issues among musicians?
When I first started, I was sure I’d be dealing solely with the immediate impacts of COVID19 – musicians struggling with loss of identity, the inability to perform and financial anxiety due to lockdowns. Those factors were at play, but I was struck more so by the immense struggles many musicians had with chronic anxiety and self-doubt.
It was evident these mental health symptoms were around long before COVID arrived. Many people in our music industry are navigating some form of trauma, a few industry related (i.e., sexual harassment and assaults) which informs collective anxiety.
Our First Nations artists navigate a range of mental health challenges. Anxiety and depression relating to systemic racism (both in the music industry, and outside of it) has been an ongoing trauma obstructing good mental health. When Support Act released their mental health and wellbeing survey earlier this year, it cemented everything I had observed.
The survey shows that musicians in Australia experience anxiety and depression twice as much as the general population, alongside a range of other mental health challenges.
Do you think there is a sense that there is a need for the connection between sensitivity and creativity – that you need bad times to make great art?
Totally, it’s such a beautiful thing in so many ways. I note the highly sensitive nature of all artists, even beyond music. As a creative myself, I am always fascinated by creativity and sensitivity working in tandem.
Sensitivity is so stigmatised in society as it has long been perceived as ‘weak’ rather than ‘vulnerable’. I consider vulnerability to be pure strength. To be real and to remove your societal mask, what’s stronger than that?
Often when working with artists I notice they curate a very strong ego, particularly the performers. I often wonder if this is to protect their sensitive selves from being harshly judged by others in the industry.
We know that highly sensitive people experience the world with a greater ‘saturation’ of emotional meaning. Musicians especially can take very basic life events and turn them into a colourful story (Frank Ocean literally wrote a song about riding his bike; yet the song itself is cyclic, layered and emotionally drenched).
Many of the people I support in the music industry start counselling and become fearful they will suddenly become crap musicians. “If I don’t have painful experiences, my music suffers”, it’s a legitimate fear. Pain tends to alchemise into great art, touching its audience deeply.
Thankfully, with a bit of creative coaching in the mix, we have found ways to ensure our artists uphold good mental health without the side effect of creative blocks.
To what extent can music be a coping mechanism for dealing with life?
Music can be a coping mechanism for all of life’s events, any form of creativity – painting, sculpting, cooking, gardening – can. I truly believe every human has creativity within them, you see it every day.
Even our athletes have creative strategies to ensure best outcomes on game day. Making art as a form of mental health support became prevalent after World War II when it proved immensely effective in resolving the symptoms of PTSD.
Sometimes language and words are not the right conduit in making sense of life, at times healing needs to be done somatically. Art of any kind is a powerful outlet in truly understanding who we are, and the meaning of the world around us.
Scientists have known for a while that making and listening to music can reduce stress levels, essentially soothing our autonomic nervous system. I believe it can also serve as a conduit for self-understanding.
My background is drumming, this is super helpful for my mental health when I feel angry or stressed. Beyond playing an instrument, even curating my Spotify playlists, that is telling me a story about where I’m at in life. Is this week’s playlist full of heartbreak, grief or is it founded in joy? Music is one of life’s more understated mirrors.
Music Victoria offers the Victorian music community FREE and confidential mental health support services with support from the Headway Program funded by the Victorian State Government.
Ahead of his discussion, we pried the mind of renowned Melbourne songwriter, musician, writer and broadcaster Giuliano Ferla to get the musician’s take on how they can use songwriting to deal with heartbreak and loss.
Can you remember the first time you used lyrics as an outlet to express yourself?
I’m wracking my brain but for the life of me I can’t remember. I was a pretty arty kid so I was always drawing or writing or playing something. It made me happy to be able to express myself creatively using whatever medium was available.
It wasn’t really until I was in my late teens and I started playing in bands that music became the predominant outlet. And it was perfect timing. I mean, in my late adolescence when all the emotions were turned up to 11, music was the best possible way of channelling them.
But — and I think this is important to know with songwriting — it’s not all about the lyrics. Lyrics are important, sure, but a song isn’t sad just because the lyrics literally talk about sad affairs. A song also communicates sadness because the music itself, through its expressive power, imparts the feeling.
When I write songs I find the lyrics very rarely come before the music. Most of the time the music comes first along with the raw feeling. That might be a melody, or a chord progression or even a simple rhythm. The lyrics then find their way. Maybe I’ll catch myself singing one or two lines again and again, and from that little germ the rest of the words will sprout. Or maybe I’ll have an idea of what the song is about, but it’s not until it’s structured and demoed that I’ll sit down and write the words. Very, very occasionally I’ll write music to pre-written words. And even then I cheat.
How do you deal with the vulnerability of putting real life experiences and emotions into your lyrics?
I think there’s two ways to read that question. The first has to do with me making myself vulnerable to myself in order to express the emotions in the writing process. By this I mean that in order to express an emotion I first have to feel it. And in order to feel it I first have to trust myself. I have to trust that I’m not going to be dismissive or judgemental or neglectful. I have to be a good friend to myself.
The second way to read that question has to do with being vulnerable in front of other people. I’m very fortunate to have a handful of people around who love me no matter what. I can’t really control what other people think of me, but as long as I’ve got that handful of people then what other people think of me doesn’t really matter that much.
Hear more from Ferla in The Mind Room’s special Australian Music Month event, Navigating Heartbreak and Loss Through Song Writing, where psychologist and songwriter Mike Hines and musician Giuliano Ferla talk about processing loss through songwriting and the sense of meaning and catharsis it can bring.
Experience stories, tips and insights into processing grief through the art of songwriting and other creative outlets.
Venue: The Mind Room – 28 Wellington Street Collingwood
Date: Saturday 19th November, 12:45pm to 3pm
Tickets: Navigating Heartbreak and Loss Through Song Writing
Article The beauty of death metal — The Mind Room
Support Act Mental Health – Support Act
Music Victoria Mental Health Services and Resources – Music Victoria
Ausmusic T-shirt Day Ausmusic T-shirt Day – The Mind Room Team
The Songwriting Prize – Listen Up Music – songwriting competition dedicated to songs about mental health