Music can provide a form of relief from pain, according to Dr. Russell Hilliard, founder of the Center for Music Therapy in End of Life Care and a senior vice president at Seasons Hospice & Palliative Care in New Jersey. “Music is directly connected to our central nervous system and our limbic system,” Hilliard explained. “This is why we have such strong emotional reactions… Music cuts through language [and] allows us to have this emotional expression from deep within our soul, deep within our subconscious.”
Hilliard has used music not only to help ease the transition of patients in hospice, but also to help those left behind to connect with their feelings. In bereavement groups, he’s often found adults to be guarded about their emotions. Playing a song that evokes their loved ones, he noted, almost inevitably releases a flood of tears but often leaves them with a warm smile on their faces.
“This is the process of grief,” Hilliard said. “It is releasing the pain, which music allows us to do; in fact, it usually makes us do it. It connects us to the person who died through memories, reminiscence, life review, in a way that music can prompt in a nanosecond. And it gives us hope for the future; hope that they’re okay, hope that their afterlife is the way it’s supposed to be, hope that I will get better, hope that I will be with this person in some other form someday. That can all happen in a three-minute song.”
Chris Dingman recently released Peace, a five-hour album of solo vibraphone music that he played for his father while he was in hospice care. Dingman would set up his vibes in his parents’ basement and play while Joe Dingman rested in his bedroom directly above. “The way I ended up pursuing the music was like a meditation,” said Dingman, who has long practiced meditation and sought higher purpose for his musical activities.
“I’d start playing and go inward, and I’d play with the intention of creating a peaceful atmosphere. It was often very stream-of-consciousness for me. I would have just spent the whole day with him, so I’d be very aware of what he was dealing with and whatever we were going through together. In a way an instinct kicked in: I need to help and this is what I can do.”
“I know the feeling of accepting the heartache. It’s not about pretending it’s gone, but about making space for this awful feeling that you have.”—Jimmy Greene
According to Hilliard, the act of creation in any art form is ideal for channeling those overwhelming emotions. “You can’t go through life without experiencing pain,” he said. “For musicians and artists, the only way they know how to make sense of it is through making their art. And thank god. Listen to the majority of Top 10 songs in any genre and you’re going to find a lot of pain involved. The reason is our words fail us when it comes to expressing emotion. The depth of human emotion is too powerful and too broad to be expressed with words. We have to have music to do it.”
Greene echoed that statement. The three albums he’s released since the murder of Ana Grace Márquez-Greene have traced the evolution of his grief process, from the raw emotion of Beautiful Life (2014) through the joyful reflection of Flowers (2017) and the more wide-ranging expression of last year’s While Looking Up, which touched fleetingly on his daughter’s memory amid a communal reunion with a host of longtime collaborators.
“Being a musician isn’t something that you turn on and turn off,” he said. “It’s who you are… The best thing you can do as a musician is be honest. If I’m genuinely talking about who I am through music—and that’s a gift—I can’t separate the music that I play from the person that I am, nor would I ever want to. So whatever I’m dealing with emotionally or physically is going to be reflected some way in the music. In what way I can’t tangibly tell you, but that’s part of the beauty of it as well.”
Cellist Erik Friedlander also evoked the intangible ways that music can reflect the memory of a lost loved one. After his wife, Lynn Shapiro, died from complications of breast cancer in 2011, he crafted the music for Claws and Wings (2013), featuring pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and electronic musician Ikue Mori.
“It’s not a one-to-one relationship, feelings to music,” Friedlander said. “I wasn’t completely out of the grief hole that I was in, but I was feeling strangely optimistic and felt that it was time to create something with some of the feelings I had processed. I was still imbued with everything my wife was about and I wanted to be as sincere and as honest as I could be… What I realized after Lynn died is that after you’re a couple for a long time, you start parsing the world as a two-person unit. When all of a sudden you’re without that additional sensor, it’s shocking. But I get a little return of that feeling when I hear the music.”