How Music Affects Our Lives and Minds. (And Our Kids.)

A child psychiatrist tells us why angry, defiant music may not be so bad for kids.

concert crowdConcert crowd photo via Shutterstock

A few weeks ago, sitting in the Garden and watching The Who, I was a teenager again. If I had gone to the bathroom and actually looked in the mirror, the fantasy would have ended. I would have gone there to carefully comb my hair, and in fact, I would have seen a 46-year-old man who lacks hair altogether, and whose fighting days were pretty much over. And then I looked around and I saw them…a few to my left, some to my right. They were everywhere. Kids, 14-years-old, maybe 15, with their parents, checking out the crowd and smiling, and, perhaps most important to me, mouthing the words to the songs.

In an era of hyper-produced pop music, here were adolescents who knew and liked the stuff I liked when I was their age. What gives? How can the angry, crashing lyrics, the defiance inherent in the very themes of rock music itself, make us smile? What in the world could be therapeutic about a loud guitar and the corresponding urge it creates to challenge and push back against conformity and bland authority?

It is as simple as this: Music is nostalgia.

Rock music, we know, has been blamed for happenings as nightmarish as school shootings and mass suicides. Susan Villani wrote a somewhat controversial review of the literature with regard to all forms of media and violence among teens in the April 2001 issue of the Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. She noted data that suggests some kids feel more violent or depressed after listening to popular music and especially after listening to more extreme forms of metal music. Similar findings have been consistently reported. A 2009 article written by Canadian researchers Miranda and Claes (published in the journal Psychology of Music) found that some teens who turn to music in order to cope with difficult feelings actually feel worse after listening to the very music that they identified as helpful.

Music alone cannot be implicated as the cause of the development of pathological emotional unrest among kids; otherwise, given the rate of music consumption, we’d expect the psychological states of our youth to be profoundly more disturbed. Still, I’ve been reminded of certain songs when I sit with my patients, and if a patient tells me about a band that he or she enjoys, I always listen to the music of that band and wonder with the patient what it is that they like about the music. What right do I have, especially in my role as a child psychiatrist, to celebrate this much-maligned cultural phenomenon?

Well, it turns out also to be the case that music itself is immensely healing. I’ve joined colleagues in writing about the sense of inclusion that rock music can create among young people. Some articles have even celebrated the role that controversial singers like Marilyn Manson can play in the eyes of some of our patients. In the book Media Violence and Children: A Complete Guide for Parents and Professionals, researchers note that for some children, the defiant music and lyrics are empowering and positively received. They note as well that the sound of the music, rather than the lyrics themselves, seems to correlate more robustly with negative emotional effects.

The challenge, then, is to reconcile the angry, defiant optimism characteristic of bands like The Who (and other, more recent bands like The Clash and modern groups like Of Mice and Men) with the therapeutic capacity for music in general to help adolescents with their own identity formation and self-confidence. I think we can achieve this reconciliation using what we know of adolescent development. During adolescence, the brain is rapidly developing white matter connections and at the same time starting to decrease , to prune, the neurons themselves. We lay down powerful and long-held beliefs in adolescence that are ingrained as a result of these brain changes, and from an evolutionary perspective this is thought to be directly related to the need for our brains to absorb the information necessary to prepare for procreation and self reliance.

So, as any parent of an adolescent will tell you, we have perfect storm of nature and nurture that brews with abandon throughout the teen years. Adolescent brains are preparing for self-agency, and yet the adolescents themselves encounter a societal infrastructure that seems to tell them continually what they cannot do. Add to this the incomplete insulation of the regions of the brain that allow for clear and meaningful decision making, and we have a set up for bad outcomes.

The Who (and all rock music) paradoxically give the adolescent listener a relatively safe experience in contrary expression. Teens can scream, pump their fists, exclaim, as they do in the signature song on The Who’s rock opera Tommy, “We’re not gonna take it.” But for most kids, it stops there. Most kids do take it. The vast majority of kids conform just enough to negotiate the treacherous waters of puberty and emerge all the better on the side of adulthood. The music gives kids a voice.

And having a voice is good. Daniel Dotter of Grambling State University wrote in 2005 that Pete Townshend’s music is especially useful in understanding how the modern self views itself through the lens of mass media. He argues that the Townshend’s songs and lyrics combine to create a unique voice for otherwise potentially disaffected kids.

In fact, there are literally thousands of studies showing what happens when we refuse our brains an independent voice. Silence us, especially when we’re kids, and it isn’t pretty. I’ll take an angry, smiling voice over no voice at all any day if we’re talking about keeping ourselves and our teens healthy.