Music is medicine.
One of the most effective medicines for pain medicine, in my experience, is music. Not the listening to, but the participation in. I suppose it is to be placed in the “Laughter is the very best medicine” and “Early to bed and early to rise” category of psudoscientific platitudes that feel good but are repeated in a half-joking manner.
However I am not joking. Music is medicine.
I also realize that music, whose mere existence consists of loud sound, may be an ironic or even anachronistic choice for treating sound-sensitive migraines. I will admit that there are certain times in which I cannot turn to music because of the severity of a headache. But when that is not the case my music is a powerful tool in migraine prevention.
My musical history is a long and rambling one. It all began one night when I was in grade school. There was a small music store in my town, and my family went there because my sister wanted to learn how to play guitar.
I looked at all the instruments on the walls, a row of acoustics and a smattering of electrics if that store’s current selection is any indication, and my tiny self made a life changing decision. I wanted in.
My family walked out with two guitars that night, and scheduled lessons with a teacher every Saturday.
He didn’t really teach me to play chords, nor did he teach me to read music, so I can’t lead worship at your church in a normal way, nor can I really serenade a girl on a moonlit night with a harmoniously strummed pop song. But boy can I shred me some Led Zeppelin, because he taught me how to rock and to roll. Which is a skill I am proud of, and I personally think is cooler.
I left his teaching when I was in High School. My dad and I had gone to Guitar Center (a big guitar store for readers who are where Guitar Centers aren’t) and we found a beautiful find. We’d go together to look at the guitars; by his own admission the rocker he was in High School was living vicariously through me.
Anyway, we found a Cordoba classical guitar on sale for a price that continually lowers as I remember it, marked down from a price that continually grows as I remember it. It was a steal though.
You may be thinking, “Ah, you quit lessons to find a Classical Guitar teacher?”
I wanted to play Renaissance guitar, so my father purchased me a book of Renaissance guitar, all in musical notation that I could not read, and took it to my teacher. I learned a few songs, some John Dowland, some Jean Bésard, and learned some primitive fingerstyle techniques.
But in the end, I exhausted my teacher’s abilities, and really, who can blame him? I started with Rush and Boston, and finished with the Madrigal Composers of Elizabethan England (you don’t have to pretend to know who the Elizabethan Composers are, they are obscure). So after many years, I went off on my own. I couldn’t read music, but I could only play the songs I knew when I was looking at the page of music notation. Its still that way with those Renaissance songs. I have heard that it sounds like a musician’s purgatory. I laugh, because I have tablature.
And I basically stopped playing guitar, except for those few Renaissance songs I knew, and my Led Zeppelin, which as everyone ought to know is just Renaissance music on electric guitar.
My headaches were in full swing, and my guitar was rather loud, and I just had no motivation for learning new stuff.
So I quietly sat and plucked the same Renaissance songs over and over again on my fancy guitar: The Parliament, Espangoletta, The Branle Gay, Tanz, and Wilson’s Wilde.
Seasons passed. Summer turned to fall. Fall turned into Winter. It was California so Winter gave spring a miss and went straight into Summer. I went to and graduated from High School. I went to college. And then…
It was my junior year. I lived in a house with a Musician called Maxton. He’s a conductor now; I am quite proud of him. He saw me pull up with a guitar, and then was elated when he saw that it was, in his words, “not another chord smasher”.
Then I started playing the Parliament, and he looked at me and said, “John Dowland?”.
I put my guitar down slightly and said “Best composer that ever there was”
He then pulled out his iTunes on his laptop. “I really like this.”
“That’s not John Dowland though,” I said.
“You can tell the difference between the Elizabethan Composers” he said to himself.
“How much do you want to own a real Lute?” he then asked.
“I’d pay its weight in gold,” I replied.
I was watching TV and I saw a commercial. It was a Sam Adams beer commercial. Probably the most influential commercial in my life. It inspired me to spend lots and lots of money. And Sam Adams got none of it.
The commercial had the song Shipping up to Boston by the Dropkick Murphys playing in the background. I already liked Irish music, and this was guitar Irish music. I wanted in.
“Its mainstream enough, maybe somebody took the time to post the tablature of it online”
I got on Google, and every tablature I found was written for an instrument with four strings.
“Must be for violin?” I said.
“I’ll have to show Maxton. Maybe he could at least play it for me”
I showed him the tablature the next night when we were watching Spongebob. He looked it over, his eyes darting behind his glasses.
“This isn’t for violin,” he said, “Its for mandolin.”
I knew what a mandolin was. The first Warner Bros. cartoon was released in 1931 and was called “Lady, Play your Mandolin”. It introduced WB’s first cartoon characters, Foxy and Roxy. Also Jimmy Page shredded on a mandolin for his ode to Tolkien “The Battle of Evermore”.
“Do you know where I could get one?” I asked as a sort of Hail Mary pass. Maybe he knew a mandolinist. The question was worth a shot, at least.
“I have one under my bed.”
Five minutes later I had a mandolin in my hands. It was smaller than I expected, and it had eight strings. But it was shaped like a lute.
“Think of it as being a four string instrument” said the Bard.
“Can I use any pick?” I asked.
Maxton pulled out his phone. “A guy on this mandolin forum says that using any pick other than a mandolin pick will make the instrument burst into flames. Also I use a jazz guitar pick”
I found the aforementioned pick in the mandolin’s case. It was far too small for my taste, so I opted for a larger pick I (ashamedly) sometimes use on my Classical. No flames have occurred yet.
I ran my fingers over the strings, and began to play discordant notes. It ranted and roared, and the tiny steel strings bit my fingertips.
But the sound, o the sound! High pitched but deep, piercing but soft, full but hollow. It felt as if me, and my discordant notes, had fallen through the waves of time and were now sitting someplace Else–a Narnia, a Middle Earth, a Fairyland.
“Like it?” Maxton asked. The dream was gone, and I awoke in California.
“Can I borrow this for a while?” I asked.
“As long as it doesn’t leave our house without my permission.”
“Fair trade,” I said.
I sat in my blanket fort–yes, my Junior year I turned my bed into a blanket fort. It would have been the apple in Edward Longshanks or William the Conqueror’s eye. Anyways I scrolled through my iTunes. The Dropkick Murphys no longer were interesting. I could play honest to goodness folk music.
So I scrolled through my iPod, reviewing the collection of Irish music I had been amassing for a few years at that point, and Googling the titles that interested me, searching for tablature. Glory be, the internet was full of Irish folk tablature, and it was all free.
I first learned my (then) favorite Irish song, the Star of the County Down. The ultimate love song. Or is it a breakup song? The ending is perfectly open to interpretation. Either way, its a song for any mood. And if you are tired sick of love, as it is perfectly acceptable to be, the song can also be “The Fighting Sixty-Ninth,” a ballad about the 69th New York Irish Brigade in the American Civil War. I have their regimental flag on my wall.
Using my rock and roll background (which has a large similarity to folk) I taught myself Irish mandolin. I then started learning Scottish music, then English music, and then Sea Songs that I originally learned from the exquisite music of Spongebob Squarepants (let it be known that the music directors Derek Drymon, Mark Harrison, Stephen Hillenburg, and Blaise Smith resurrected forgotten centuries-old songs for their show. They also have the BEST version of Drunken Sailor in my opinion, and I have listened to many covers of Drunken Sailor.)
I have seen many studies that say music is therapeutic. But, I am not a man of science. I have yet to see compelling evidence that elves and trolls do not exist, and I will sound like a fool if I presume to talk scientifically. It would turn me into two children in a trenchcoat, one on the shoulder of the other.
I have seen a marked improvement in my headaches when I am playing on my mandolin, even more so than when I am playing on my guitar. I think the sound and the forced concentration, as well as the release of stress, combine to make me forget my migraines and instead focus on the sounds I am producing. In addition to that, the cheerfulness of the songs adds to my general disposition. I must admit, I am happiest when I am listening and playing centuries old folk music. It’s all in the experience, you see. The people who wrote these songs lived through tough, hard times, and wrote songs as a way to help them get through their days, and they do the same trick for me years later.
To me, that all reads like the same thing a few ibuprofens can do, only better.
And now, to conclude and to finish disputes, I am moving and sent my mandolin (ok, mandolins, I have since purchased instruments designed for British and Irish folk) away for a while, and I have been forced to play my folk music on my classical guitar. And to my elation, it now works just as good. Here is my rendition of “Spancil Hill”, from the great site The Traditional Music Library. It was instrumental in my learning of mandolin.
I am now attempting to learn the arrangements of the English song “Misty Moisty Morning” and “Spotted Cow” by my favorite band Steeleye Span. I may update you on that endeavor in the future.
I think, therefore, the key is the mindset. So if you are going to approach music as a stress relief or a way of managing pain, you gotta approach it with a good attitude. Approach it with a “this is fun, and mistakes are ok” attitude. Don’t strive for perfection, strive for relaxation. Don’t mind what people will think–if you have to, imagine your audience is a bunch of squirrels who don’t care if your fingers slip. If you do that enough, eventually your fingers won’t slip and you won’t mind people listening. But best of all, your problems won’t seem as big.
In fact, you’ll likely be merry enough to greet your problems with a sing-song “How do you do, and how do you do, and how do you do again?”