People hate a break-up, but they love a break-up song.
Ahead of our special AusMusic Month Event we ask: Can songwriting help you cope with heartbreak and loss?
The most popular theme of Spotify playlists are breakups and heartache, numbering in the millions, their trends expert told Time magazine “Heartache is what motivates many artists to write songs in the first place”.
Apple Music’s most popular playlist is introduced with: ‘There’s no point denying it having your heart broken really, really sucks. Sometimes during those moments, music is the only thing that makes sense of it all’.
So can music make sense of heartbreak? And why are musicians the best people to help us through it?
Psychotherapist Mark O’Connel explains that music allows us all to experience our collective heartbreak and loss ‘in a way that is safe, contained and shared’.
When we experience heartbreak or loss, it affects our pain and addiction centres of the brain. Dr Mike Dow, author of Healing the Broken Brain, explains that listening to a song about the emotion can cause ‘a cathartic experience’ helping to rewire the brain by immersing ourselves in the feeling. ‘By recalling a painful or traumatic event, you help the brain to reprocess the memory… and go ‘through something instead around it’.
Listening to music that resonates with you also releases dopamine and oxytocin, which helps reduce anxiety, and creates feelings of closeness and togetherness. Hearing lyrics about loss or heartbreak also makes you mindful of experiencing that emotion, and gives you that feeling of sharing and dealing with your loss, especially when part of a crowd, communally listening to someone singing a sad song.
Another study found that listening to heartbreak-tinged songs gave your mind four different cognitive rewards from music-evoked sadness: the reward of imagination, emotion regulation, empathy and allowed you to stand with your feelings with no ‘real-life’ implications as if it was someone else’s pain not your own.
The theory of catharsis can be called upon to explain the benefit of delving into musical melancholy, an application of Aristotle’s theory to music is that:
The negative emotional tone of sad music offers listeners the possibility of a controlled purification from a certain amount of a negative emotion afflicting them.
Heartbreak songs are big business. A study of the number one songs from the Billboard charts from 1946 to 2016 showed that heartbreak themed songs were top of the pops with 52 out of the past 71 #1s and 14 out of the 15 most listened to songs of the last 30 years – including the 10 million plus selling mega hits Cher’s ‘Believe’, Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’, Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You’ and Gotye’s ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’.
The list of whole albums inspired by, and dealing with, events of great loss is vast (see below for a small sample).
In 2015 Nick Cave’s 15 year old son died after falling off a cliff. Cave channelled the event into writing his album Ghosteen, as well as inspiring a greater connection with his fans both during live performances and his own Q & A Red Right Hand Files newsletter. A process he said transformed him, giving him more empathy towards others, and a feeling of an absolute understanding of their suffering.
This comes after Cave describes the creative tumult that he poured into an album following his break up with fellow songwriter PJ Harvey with ‘but never one to waste a good crisis, I set about completing The Boatman’s Call… The break up filled me with a lunatic energy that gave me the courage to write songs about commonplace human experiences (like broken hearts) openly, boldly and with meaning’.
Queen’s Brian May described the difficulty in writing Innuendo, what would be their last album with Freddie Mercury, who was succumbing to HIV/AIDS at the time, and writing the lyrics to the song ‘The Show Must Go On’.
... I always felt it would be important because we were dealing with things that were hard to talk about at the time, but in the world of music, you could do it.
Studies have actually shown that musical performance actually increases part of the brain that is receptive to emotion.
It was found musicians have bigger and more sensitive brains than people who do not play instruments, with the auditory cortex – the part of the brain concerned with hearing – containing 130% more “grey matter” in professional musicians than in non-musicians as well as enlarged Heschl’s gyrus – that deals with our inner voice.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described this effect with “Creative people’s openness and sensitivity often exposes them to suffering and pain, yet also to a great deal of enjoyment”.
Stay tuned for part two where we delve into musician’s minds and why they may be the best people to write about heartbreak and loss.
Join us at The Mind Room in Collingwood for a special intimate event as we hear personal stories, from Giuliano Ferla and the latest psychology-based methods and tips for processing heartbreak and loss, from clinician and singer-songwriter Mike Hynes and get creative as we guide you into pouring your pain into lyrics through a songwriting session.
No prior songwriting experience necessary, some previous heartbreak required.
Venue: The Mind Room, 28 Wellington Street Collingwood
Date: Saturday 19th November, 12:45 pm – 3:00pm
Secure your spot today!
LISTEN (Heartbreak & Loss Albums)
Ghosteen – Album by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds | Spotify – written in the wake of Cave’s sons accidental death and the loss of former bandmember Conway Savage
Blackstar – Album by David Bowie | Spotify – The star man’s musing on his own death, released three days before his passing from cancer in 2016
Funeral – Album by Arcade Fire | Spotify – The album was given its title because several band members had recently lost members of their families
Lemonade – Album by Beyoncé | Spotify – ‘Meet the furious glory and magnificent articulation of a woman scorned.’
Soul of a Woman – Album by Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings | Spotify – a striking album that confronts mortality, released posthumously after the passing of singer Sharon Jones.
The Positions – Album by Gang of Youths | Spotify – an album dealing with lead singer Dave Le’aupepe’s wife diagnosis with stage four cancer.
Back To Black – Album by Amy Winehouse | Spotify – honest and dark document of someone in the grips of heartbreak and spiralling self-sabotage.
Tonight’s the Night – Album by Neil Young – this album is grief and loss in pure, unadulterated form.
Electro-Shock Blues – Album by Eels | Spotify – written in response to singer Mark Everett’s sister dying of suicide and mather passing from cancer.
Devotion | Laura Jean – the distillation of a lonely coastal childhood resonating through adult life.
Shannon McArdle – Summer of the Whore – McArdle lost a partner and her band when her husband left and turned the heartbreak into her first solo album.
The Soft Bulletin – Album by The Flaming Lips | Spotify – in the wake of losing both parents to cancer, singer Wayne Coyne wrote this uplifting album about happily accepting that death exists.
Personal Hotspot – Album by FERLA | Spotify