You feel sad. A heavy, aching stone is weighing down inside your chest. Repressing the stone makes it grow bigger, but giving in to the pain may tear you apart. Unable to process the raging buzz of emotions, a sense of numbness crawls in. Most would call it heartbreak.
Breaking up or losing someone dear is not easy. Your existence and future visions are unimaginable. The stone becomes too heavy to be carried. You need something to set you free. You need a song. But what song? Happy? Sad? Both?
‘Happy Ending’ by Mika paradoxically expresses the very opposite of a happily ever after, yet its melody sounds bright:
‘This is the way you left me, I am not pretending,
No hope, no love, no glory, no happy ending’,
sings Mika in an uplifting tune while your pain intensifies until the stone breaks, and you start to cry.
‘This is the way that we love like it’s forever,
then live the rest of our life, but not together’,
continues the singer, humming this sombre, profound truth wrapped up in melodic cheerfulness, and suddenly you feel it all at once. A complex emotion of pain and refuge, sadness, and hope result in catharsis – an emotional cleansing of the soul.
In Ancient Greece, ‘katharsis’ meant cleansing of the digestive tract. The doctors used the term when prescribing medicine for their patients to clear their digestion. Today, we experience catharsis metaphorically when something gives rise to our bottled-up emotions. Once released, the emotions come to us in a mighty wave, washing out all the tension brought upon us as we hid them beneath the surface. Finally, we find relief.
We heal our broken hearts through catharsis in the same way we build immunity through a vaccine. Our body can defeat the virus only when we inject it in small doses. Otherwise, a virus would be too strong for the body to overcome. Similarly, a sudden outburst of our built-up emotions could cause us emotional damage. Through catharsis, we only evoke a small dose of our intense emotions that we can process and free ourselves from their heaviness.
Nussbaum (1986, 388-389) suggests that catharsis does not wipe our emotions out but purifies them from the burden. In doing so, we can treasure our recollections in the back of our minds without suffering. It is like revisiting a picture in our album of emotions; although sentimental, it does not hurt us anymore. Moreover, our emotional images can shape us into a better version of ourselves.
So, how do we achieve catharsis through music? It all comes down to what emotion we want to recall. Taruffi and Koelsch’s study (2014) identified that we instinctively listen to music that reflects how we feel at a particular moment. Sometimes, our emotion is complex and hard to identify, but other times, we may feel a specific emotion that we can immediately pin down.
When we want to release a complicated emotion, we look for songs that blend contrasting features. The joyful, upbeat tunes in ‘Hey Ya!’ (Outcast) that sings about a dysfunctional relationship, or a saddeningly touching melody of ‘And I Love Her’ (Beatles) that expresses love for one’s partner display an opposing atmosphere between their melody and lyrics. Mori and Iwanaga’s research (2013) shows that combining various moods in a piece of music generates complex polyvalent feelings that we find enjoyable and calming. The painfully resonating lyrics under the lively melody put our distress and despair into words while wrapping us in a warm bear hug. It is this bittersweetness that provides us with an intangible understanding and voices what we cannot.
Another time, a foggy cloud fills our chest, and we may need a good sad song. ‘Glimpse of us’ from Joji is a beautiful, melancholic example of reminiscing about one’s ex-partner and finding their presence in the eyes of a new partner:
‘Cause Sometimes I look in her eyes, and that’s where I find a glimpse of us’,
sings Joji in a slow, heart-pouring confession. In the rawness of that feeling, we realise that even a seemingly obvious emotion hides a realm of sub-emotions. Taruffi and Koelsch (2014) note that sad music can produce multiple emotions in a listener. Hence, we can also achieve catharsis by unfolding the layers of a single emotion.
Accordingly, when it comes to musical catharsis, less important than the song’s mood is whether it matches your desired feeling. When you want to relive one strong emotion, you listen to music that gives you its closest resemblance. On the other hand, when you carry a mix of emotions you cannot identify, you need a magical potion – a fusion of various desires in its melody, lyrics, and performance.
People achieve musical catharsis in different ways, whether it is by creating, crying, dancing, performing, or listening to music. Of course, catharsis can also be experienced in other arts and activities – screaming, writing, exercising, or going to nature are just a few examples. All of us are unique and have different processes when dealing with our emotions. We just need to remember that our prefered action helps us free our emotions, not suppress or ignore them.
Music can serve us as a natural medicine in times when we feel emotionally broken and stuck. Actually, musicians are very much like doctors who practise their own techniques on themselves. Song-making is cathartic to them since they often write from their own experiences. But they do not pour their hearts out in vain – instead, the music-making heals their wounds and, eventually, the wounds of their listeners.