Music Moves

Perspectives & Insights from a Local Music Therapist

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“It’s so funny, ah-ha-ha!  Please excuse me, ah-ha-ha!”

So begins the English translation to the chorus of one of my favorite arias, the “Laughing Song” from Strauss’s Die Fliedermaus (you can see a clip with just the chorus here).  The character singing the aria is mercilessly mocking her scene-mate in public for the purpose of embarrassing him, but I’ve always loved the song for its portrayal of infectious laughter.  The kind that you try to keep down as long as humanly possible before it just bursts out of you and all those around you can’t help but laugh with you.

There are songs about laughter (like “I love to laugh” from Mary Poppins) and even more songs that utilize laughter in their lyrics, as the Mary Poppins song does, but they may not come up in a Google Search.  The one-hit wonder “They’re Coming to Take me Away” by Napolean XIV comes to mind in that category, as does Alanis Morisette’s “All I Really Want” , though it could be argued on that latter song that the “Ah-ya-y-a-y-a-ay-ay” that doesn’t typically appear when you search for the song’s lyrics may not be Alanis laughing at all, but perhaps crying, yelling, or just spouting nonsense syllables.  Maybe it’s all of the above, each “Ay” serving a different purpose each time, or perhaps every “Ay” is a laugh, a cry, a yell, and a little bit of nonsense all rolled into one sound.  Regardless it makes me smile every time I hear it, and laughter serves that many purposes (and more!) in our lives.  We laugh when we’re happy or excited, we laugh when we’re embarrassed (or at other people’s embarrassment), some people even laugh when they cry or when they’re angry.   So what, if any, effect do the things we laugh about have on our tastes in music (and vice versa)?  How does laughter affect us generally?  And how can laughter be utilized as a therapeutic tool, specifically in Music Therapy?

I’ll confess to being an occasional “stress response” laugher.  Lines like Morisette’s “Why are you so petrified of silence – Here can you handle this?” followed by approx. 3 seconds of silence (an eternity for those of us who can’t stand it!) really make me chuckle, but not for the cleverness of the lyrics – I laugh whenever I hear that passage because I’m trying to fill the silence, which is funny (or not so funny, depending on how you look at it) in itself.  So whether I’m feeling clever and confident, or stressed out an insecure (both feelings you’ll note in “What I really Want,” and other song lyrics across Morissette’s discography) you might find me listening to an Alanis Morisette Song because the duality of her lyrics elicits laughter from me that serves dual purposes as well, to either validate my current feelings or console them.

As you’re probably gathering, I’m a big fan of irony, but not just in lyrics.  Ironic or odd pairings of lyrics and the music they’re set to really get me going too – that’s part of why I enjoy Mashups so much.  Lyrics about one thing paired with music that makes you think of the complete opposite make me laugh, and I love to share these kinds of songs in my sessions with teens whenever I feel we could use a light discussion.  Covers of popular (or at least infamous) songs like  Richard Cheese’s Lounge Piano version of the Metal Song “Down with the Sickness” have become favorites for the sheer ironic placement of angry, profane lyrics in one of the most relaxed styles of music on the planet (so be warned, you and any passersby may not find it so funny if you click on that link with your volume all the way up in a public place).  Everyone’s view of lyrical and musical humor is different, and so everyone’s view on what makes a funny song will be too.  I feel bringing (or finding) songs that make me and my clients laugh helps me to learn more about them, and that’s a valuable part of the relationship necessary for any therapy to achieve results.  I’d be interested to hear some of your favorite funny songs as well!

So what benefit does laughter have for our lives?  This fun little page from cites a few interesting ways in which laughter affects us, that, not surprisingly, music offers too:

1. Laughter reduces the level of stress hormones and can help release the “feel-good chemical” Dopamine (Waddya know? So does making and listening to music!)

2. Laughter can be a workout, particularly for the abs (singing, anyone?)

3. Laughter can connect us with others (Remember my posts on Making Music as a Family? Am I starting to sound like a Sitcom Flashback Episode Yet?)

Note that third benefit of laughter (and of music) is of particular importance.  Laughter can connect us with others.  Laughter can also be hurtful, restricting, and invalidating.  It’s important to me as a therapist that I am none of those things to my clients, so I am careful to utilize laughter only in such a way that it celebrates the unity a client and I or a client and their peers might feel in any given moment.  For example:

A few days ago, a speech disorder client of mine was singing through the old song “Don’t sit under the Appletree” when the unfortunate placement of an “h” in the word “sit” changed the meaning of the song entirely.  Typically when such mis-placed sounds happen, I will stop the song to go back and correct it, but I thought to myself “I must have heard her wrong, that can’t have been what she just said,” and moved on, hoping it wouldn’t happen again.  But it did, and as I felt that familiar giggle rising in me (as it did when I learned what the French word “derriere” meant in 7th grade) I knew I had to stop the song and correct the error.  So at first I tried to do so without telling the client what the error was, I just stopped and said “Let’s go back to ‘sit,’ I need to hear don’t sit under the Apple Tree.”

“Why?” my client asked, “What was I saying?”

I paused.  She asked again, looking slightly nervous.

Then I told her.

Her hands flew up to her mouth and I cringed.  “It’s ok!” I said quickly, “no big deal-”

But then I realized she was laughing.  Genuinely, hysterically laughing.  So I smiled and let myself laugh with her.

“I guess you wouldn’t want to do that either!” she said after her laughing subsided a little.  We were outright rolling then.  It was a good time.  We were laughing together.  That’s the best benefit of laughter in music for me: the way in which a slip of the tongue creating a silly lyric, or other incidental moments in music (making it or listening to it) can bring us together.  That’s how I like to use laughter in my sessions – as a tool, planned or accidental, that celebrates our common joy and frailty (there’s that irony again!).  It’s like a comedian whose name escapes me once defined good humor: it’s the kind that reminds us we’re “all in this together.”

This coming Wednesday (March 16th) is St. Patrick’s Day.  A lot of Irish ditties have a little air of the silly about them – I’ll be using songs like “Michael Finnegan” with many of my clients this week.  I encourage you to find a silly song this week as well.  Irish or not, I think you’ll find the release from laughter to be quite liberatin’!

One last thought: to those readers who have contacted your Senators thus far about HB 1352 to create a Music Therapy Registry on the North Dakota Century Code, Thank You!  Testimony before the Human Services Committee occurred this past week, but the bill does still need to go to the floor for an official vote, so check out last week’s blog post for more details if you’d still like to get involved – input from citizens like you is what helps to make bills like that (and blogs like this!) make it.  We Music Therapists couldn’t do what we do without you!


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