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Music and Mood

Aside from the constant noise of piano and voice lessons that my mother taught when I was growing up, music wasn't a huge part of my life. I enjoyed music, I would listen to it on the radio when I was old enough to drive around town--when I wasn't listening to Rush Limbaugh--and I enjoyed watching musicals, but it wasn't a vital part of my life. Not like it was for my mom or my siblings. Maybe it was the fact that I limited myself in selection, only listening to oldies and classical because everything else was the devil's music, but it wasn't until I started writing a historical fiction novel which revolved around a musician that I began to feel that music was truly part of my life.

By the time I moved to Vietnam after law school I was in the habit of listening to music when I sat at the computer. It helped me get through the long days of doing nothing at my job, while at the same time usually hungover. I don't remember what kind of music I was listening to at the time. That was before Spotify and Youtube so I usually listened to online radio stations. It wasn't important to me then what I listened to, just that I listened. Probably Social Distortion when I could get it. I'd been introduced to the band in college and Mike Ness, et al., had become my favorite band by the time I moved to Asia. I was listening to a lot of punk, Social D, Rancid, Green Day, but increasingly old time black music, blues and early jazz before bebop. Stuff I picked up in my explorations of history for my novel, people like Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, and Lightnin' Hopkins.

And then I had my second major psychotic break. Spent two weeks wandering around Phnom Penh listening to voices and running away from embassy personnel. During the bar exam I'd written a musical using the songs of Social Distortion. After their last album came out I updated the script (which I lost during all my craziness) with the new songs. I had a printed copy that I included in the small number of things I took with me when I left Phnom Penh. Lucky thing, too, because the monsters in my head were intent on erasing all of Social Distortion's songs from my brain. The only way that I could save them was to read the script of my musical out loud, especially the lyrics, as I sat on the plane winging towards South Korea. So I read intently, whispering underneath the roar of the engines, desperate to save the songs, they were that important to me.

In the first hospital, there was a radio in the common room. A Social Distortion song came on and I began to jump up and down doing my impression of Krunking in the middle of the floor. No one seemed to notice, they released me--still crazy--the next day. When I got to New York I heard Social Distortion again playing on the radio in the comfort room and I think I cried. One of my good friends called the hospital one day and I told her, in a very serious voice, how they'd stolen Social Distortion songs from me. I eventually got them back with the onset of effective doses of medication, but I did not intend to let them ever be taken again.

After I got out of the hospital, and a brief stay at a friend's house in Utah, I moved to Laos. I'd lost my hundred plus gigabytes of music I'd collected when my hard drive was stolen and I gave away my laptop in Phnom Penh. It took a couple of months before I could afford to buy a laptop, but once I did I began to rebuild my music collection. My interest in black music had only grown at that point and I began to deliberately gather blues. I began research on the blues, importing a bookshelf worth of books about the music. I wrote a novel about a bluesman. I had so many books about blues and blues culture that my boss, when he came to my apartment for a visit and saw my bookshelf, asked me how long I'd wanted to be black. Music, its history, and the people who made it were quickly becoming my passion.

I was now listening to music all day at the office on my headphones, getting through the interminable hours of trying to occupy myself when I was depressed and hungover and given nothing to do. I lived each day for the hours after work when I could read my books about music and history, drink wine, and eventually pass out before waking up the next day to do it all over again. Music became a part of me and I wanted to know more about it and the musicians themselves. I spent thousands of dollars on music and books. And though I lost the library to pests in Laos, I still have the music. And the music is still vital to my life. Today I listen to music at work, all day, and when I go home I turn on Spotify until I go to bed. I listen to music at least twelve to thirteen hours a day. It's part of the reason that I manage to get through each day.

I'm not the only one, either. The other seriously mentally ill person I know is just as passionate about music. He listens to it nonstop. Probably more hours of his day than I do are spent listening to music as he sleeps less than I do.

But why is music so important to me, to him, to all of us?

There are several studies that have been conducted, both medically and psychologically, that have demonstrated a concrete link between music and mood. I'm going to focus on the medically relevant studies because none of the psychological ones I can find are terribly straightforward. The most recent, for example, found that music lifted mood over a period of several weeks, but at the same time the subjects of the study had to try to lift their mood. It may show that music helps, yes, but it also fails to separate music as the only cause. Therefore, I want to focus on the two studies that have found dopaminergic responses to music.

Why dopamine? I don't want to go into a long discourse about dopamine because that would require more research on dopamine. Suffice it to say that dopamine is the chemical the brain releases when good things happen. It's the way the brain tells the body that it's okay to celebrate. When dopamine is released, then, we feel better and our mood improves. Many recreational drugs affect the dopamine levels in the brain, that's why they're so frequently abused, because they produce an artificial high of dopamine. I'm particularly keen on dopamine because the drugs I take for my schizophrenia (or maybe bipolar depressive) negatively affect the levels of dopamine in my system making it harder for me to feel the rush of goodness that comes from natural levels of dopamine. Anything that naturally increases the dopamine levels in the brain, then, is a big plus for me. And music, according to two studies, naturally increases dopamine.

In the first study, conducted back in 2011, scientists in Montreal took PET brain scans of 10 subjects while they listened to music. In particular, they scanned their brains when they experienced a shiver, or musical frisson, at the peak of a musical performance. They found that the areas of the brain related to dopamine lit up in such a way as to demonstrate that the chemical was being released. Particularly, they found increased activity in the dorsal and ventral striatum, two regions long associated with pleasurable stimuli. Because they limited the study to subjects who experienced frisson during instrumental music without lyrics (one of the reasons the sample size was so small) they were able to eliminate the possibility that the dopaminergic response was because of a reaction to the words. While not conclusive due to the small sample size and the difficulty of linking brain activity to actual dopamine release, it was a major milestone in linking a physical response to musical stimuli.

The second study was conducted in 2019 at the University of Barcelona. In this study, scientists manipulated the dopamine levels in the subjects by giving them drugs that either increased or decreased the levels of the chemical in their systems before having them listen to music. Then, they measured their response to the music by asking them how much they would be willing to spend to buy the album they were listening to. Those who had increased dopamine were willing to spend more money on the album than the control group while those who had decreased dopamine were willing to spend less. The scientists concluded that dopamine, then, directly affected the level of the subject's enjoyment of music.

Personally, I don't need studies to demonstrate what I know anecdotally. I know that music makes me feel better. My focus improves and my ability to get things done increases. I'm more effective and most certainly happier when I'm listening to music. That this is a common and medically certain response only helps to solidify my motivation behind listening to music.

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