Down The Line: Don’t Let The Darkness Eat You Up

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about the personal varying affect of art in general, be it the written word, a piece of music or stenciling on the wall. It’s kind of interesting to get into the motive (as much as one can ‘get into’ the motive) of the love and affectation of any type of aesthetic stimulus. Why do we gaze into any object for an extended amount of time? It can be used as object of analysis, as a stepping stone to greater inspiration for our own output, or lastly, what I find to be the case most often with myself: its amount and height of mental and emotional affectation.

As a musician myself, the vast majority of music I enjoy stems from one of the above: critiquing a performance of Chopin’s Valse Op. 64 No. 2 to better my technical grace as a pianist, listening to acoustic ditties (otherwise known as masterpieces) by Sufjan or Joanna in attempt to improve my songwriting, or dancing around to the Arcade Fire because, well, sometimes a little “Rebellion (Lies)” is all you need on the way home from a tiring day.

However, there are the occasional hidden gems one stumbles upon from time to time that kill in all three categories and beyond. I’ve found “Down The Line” by Swedish-Argentine José González to be one of these. As object of analysis, it’s rhythmic and percussive accents, simple vocal line and walking bass are perfectly fitting. As inspiration, I’m not sure I need to go into much detail here- it’s the concept of ‘beauty in simplicity’ at its finest. In “Notes of a Dirty Old Man,” Charles Bukowski says An intellectual is a man who says a simple thing in a difficult way; an artist is a man who says a difficult thing in a simple way.” José has done this. I can’t and won’t begin to disclose what these unadorned verses mean to me, but maybe you can see for yourself.



I see problems down the line

I know that I’m right.

There was a dirt upon your hands
doing the same mistake twice
making the same mistake twice

Come on over, don’t be so caught up
It’s not about compromising.
I see problems down the line
I know that I’m right

I see darkness down the line
I know it’s hard to fight.
There was a dirt upon your hands
doing the same mistake twice
making the same mistake twice.

Come on over, be so caught up, it’s all about colonizing.

I see problems down the line
I know that I’m right.

Don’t let the darkness eat you up  

She’s Lost Control: Amygdala Hijack?!

She’s Lost Control

In considering the why, and now the how of better implementing tools made available in music psychology, I am consistently struck by how very complex our musical preferences and responses are as humans.While avoiding the attempt to craft any groundbreaking expository theories,  I’d like to visit a motivation of mine in the field whilst bringing attention to an old Joy Division favorite. First, I will disaggregate the various schools of thought that overlap in this field of music psychology.  What do the following have in common?

1. Existential and phenomenological psychology

2. Jungian personality dichotomies

3. Psychological resilience

4. Malabou’s concept of neuroplasticity

5. Psychoanalysis

6. Advances in the neurological study of fear

7. Critical understandings of cultural and societal treatments of emotion

8. Music

In addition to composing the framework of my greatest motivators toward an existential understanding of life, I’d posit that not only do they contribute to the eventual pragmatic method I seek to establish in a clinical therapeutic setting, they are necessary in totality. The more I engage a dialogue regarding the concept as a whole, the more I am struck by just how much need be taken into consideration as well as shedding some light into my peculiar distaste for ‘music therapy’ as a solitary solution. Though music therapy practices have occasionally been proven effective for various wellness processes in young children as well as adults, I remain skeptical. I would argue that one need explore deeper into the psyche, history and personality of the patient. Far too often we see music therapy studies carried out on young adults in particular that prove completely blanketed – with the total exclusion of considerations such as gender, individual neuronal histories and variance in personality.

To come quickly to the point, I recently posed a vital question: In the occurrence of a (negative) amygdala “takeover”, what is the immediate goal? Is it to utilize music to objectify the patient’s feelings, or to quickly placate and soothe the individual’s distress (particularly if the patient suffers a history of auto-destructive behavior)? My response to the above is both, but objectively more as well. Here are a few thoughts to consider which barely skim the surface in composing the process of discerning what type of method and music should be used:

  1. History of Mental Illness (i.e. What are the immediate concerns? Has the patient demonstrated a capability or propensity for harm to self or others?)
  2. Medical and Psychiatric History (Has there been any type of surgery or modification in brain chemistry or anatomy?)
  3. Socioeconomic Background (What types of music to which the patient been exposed as a part of their ‘nurture’ upbringing, and the extent of music appreciation in their cultural worldview?)
  4. Religious/Familial/Educational background (i.e. unconscious and conscious conditioning-in what context has the patient learned or been taught to treat music? Is it a daily ritual, mainly a social luxury, rite of a religious tradition, utilized in education, etc.)
  5. Personality (What characteristics of extroverted or introverted personality types are being displayed?)
  6. Musical Preferences and Affect Regulation (How and to what extent are they affected by repetition, unfamiliar versus familiar rhythms and meters, Eastern/Western depictions of consonance and dissonance, ‘major’ versus ‘minor’ tonalities, etc.)
  7. Musical Propensity and Skill in Practice or Performance
  8. Existential values and spiritual/moral motivations of the patient

On the tip of the iceberg of gaining a general understanding of the patient, we see already that the answer lies beyond sitting down with a troubled teenage male, playing a bit of Mendelssohn and assuming to illicit the disclosure of an exhaustive account for discord with his father. Establishing a rapport and fluency over the course of time, making the effort to implement music he responds to, and eventually gain an empathetic understanding of how to meet him on his level, however, is something I’m interested in.

I’d like to now return for a moment to the ultimate motivator and the necessity for this type of process. When I speak of the amygdala hijack, I am referring to the very instance in which the fight or flight response occurs. Although the ‘limbic system’ was long perceived to be an emotional center of the brain, the amygdala has been found to be the main ‘limbic’ area involved clearly implicated in the processing of threats. A ‘hijack’ occurs when our brain responds to threats; devoid of reasonable consideration or logic. Typically, when we are presented a stimulus, three events occur: we sense (visual, aural, olfactory, touch, etc.), we process, and we react. These occur in rapid succession. At the moment the threat is processed, the amygdala can override the neo-cortex, a center of higher thinking which deals with sensory perception and motor commands, and initiate an impulsive response (which holds the potential of negatively producing instances of destructive behavior and emotional irrationality). Because it is easier for the amygdala to control the neo-cortex by arousing various brain areas than it is for the neo-cortex to control the amygdala, the ability to shut down anxiety producing hormones and emotions is no simple feat, and proves an exquisite challenge in undertakings of crafting a therapy.

One theory (enter elements of LeDoux, Goleman and Damasio) is that if we can slow or somehow manipulate this hijack process, we may buy ourselves the time it takes to properly process the stimulus, and respond in an appropriate, healthy fashion. LeDoux was hopeful about the possibility of learning to control the amygdala’s impulsive role in emotional outbursts: “Once your emotional system learns something, it seems you never let it go. What therapy does is teach you how to control it – it teaches your neocortex how to inhibit your amygdala. The propensity to act is suppressed, while your basic emotion about it remains in a subdued form.” My theory? We can do it with music.

In closing, I’d like to briefly provide an example of my conviction that the above considerations are essential for a beneficial psychologist/patient relationship. It would seem safe to assume that were we to randomly sample a group of 1,000 healthy, typically functioning women age 18-30, and narrow from there the women who have an extensive knowledge and listening history of the English ‘post-punk’ band Joy Division, we would be presented with an entire spectrum of emotional affect regarding participant’s specific and individual musical associations. Obviously this study is strictly hypothetical primarily in that were we to stop there, the comorbidity and variables would be obscene. My point is, it is almost guaranteed that there will be few in this clinical group who associate exclusively a strictly negative or strictly positive sentiment, and valence and arousal reaction to any one specific selected musical styling of Joy Division. Human experiences, associations and implicit reactions are unique, thus requiring a highly individualized method of interplay. I leave you now with a narrative appropriate to the study itself, with the hope of one day creating a methodical approach designed to alleviate the anxious and distressed of this very sentiment.

Sleep Gets Your Ghost

Since the commencement of this blog, I have attempted to somewhat remain on task (“task” being the broad field of music education, research and psychology), mainly because I have a prior blog where I’ve long expressed more personal content, including musical/artistic/poetic/academic recommendations. As The Spirit Wanes was created largely to facilitate informal research and stimulate preparation for grad school. However, I have consulted the gods, and now feel it’s okay-appropriate even-to share something of this caliber when I come across it.

The following was shown to me by an old friend a couple of weeks ago, and I must admit my initial impression was somewhat indifferent, at least as far as Dyer’s vocals were concerned. I’ve recently given it another go, and find I can now listen to little else. From intro forward, its syncopated melodies and play on a popular progression are undeniable. It is rare I find chromatically dissonant harmonies more intoxicating, creatively pleasing and yet somehow undemanding.  If that is not enough, the vocals, which I found initially unimpressive, are assertive and secure. It has reminded me of one of my greatest strengths and ultimate failures as a vocalist-I am far too harsh the critic. And for the lyrics? I’ve been slain. Beautiful.

Sleep Gets Your Ghost” – Buke and Gass

Who says i’m dying in the lack of luck and love
Convinced that seeing does a better job believe me
Feels so weak it starts to wear out at my feet
Don’t just whine about the way it works out now
You gave up, how sad
You gave up, how sad
How could you say to me I couldn’t wait for you?
I couldn’t wait for…

Ghost in my head when I dream
Ghost on my tongue in between sleep
I am afraid I’ll never wake up
I am afraid I’ll never wake up 

Wake up when the stars are high
Are you ready for the world? 

For our live-lovers, the entirety of their Tiny Desk Concert may be found here.

St. Vincent on her time at Berklee

“I think that with music school and art school, or school in any form, there has to be some system of grading and measurement. The things they can teach you are quantifiable. While all that is good and has its place, at some point you have to learn all you can and then forget everything that you learned in order to actually start making music.”

-St. Vincent on her time at Berklee College of Music

“Roslyn” – Bon Iver and St. Vincent


St. Vincent (Annie Erin Clark) has collaborated with Sufjan Stevens, The Polyphonic Spree, Bon Iver, and The New Pornographers.