Out of Phase: What if the Restoration of our Soul and Spirit through Music is a Fundamental Need?

In modern, post-industrialist, rationalist, materialist, late-capitalist society (can you tell I’m not a fan?) we tend to think of art as a luxury item. We appreciate it as life-enhancing, sure, but not fundamental. For basic survival, the prevailing belief is that humans must have shelter, food, water, sleep, clothing, safety, and personal security, before we have the leisure time to even begin to think about making a piece of art to express ourselves. Yet anyone who has intuitively searched out their favorite album to soothe a heartbreak, sung a chant at a yoga class, put an iPod into their ears to rev up a morning run, or danced their way out of a depression with pop music (here’s one of my favorite playlists for that) is familiar with how therapeutic and life-enhancing a companion music can be.

But what if the solace and regenerative powers of music are not merely a secondary benefit or incidental function, but one of the core purposes of music? And what if that healing mechanism suggests that there is a non-vertical, holistic approach to human needs? What if we can actually meet our needs “out of order”? How would a shift in our thinking about what purpose the arts serve contribute to not only better appreciation (and funding) for the arts, but also perhaps help facilitate a shift away from our materialist, competitive values?

Certainly, music is not the only art form with therapeutic benefits. But there is something special about music. (I mean, of course, as a musician I am inclined to believe, as Frank Zappa did, that “music is the best.”) In musical experience we have a particular type of integration between the body, voice, and sound vibration that is unique amongst the art forms. This special trait of music is true across all genres; whether the sound vibrations comes in the form of songs, chants, instrumental jams, a pulsing dance floor at a sweaty club, concertos, barbershop quartets, or choirs, all of this integrates physical movement, breath, spatial awareness, and pattern recognition, which makes for a healing elixir par excellent for our brains, bodies, and emotional selves.

I always felt this as part of my inward reality, and saw that it was a general shared experience amongst other humanoids. But in my work as a Teaching Artist with Urban Voices Project, a nonprofit that provides music programs to people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles, I had a visceral lesson in just how fundamental music truly is for human well-being.

In our workshops at UVP, we use songs and instrumental jams as a jumping off point for creating a communal setting where people can sing or play along, improvise, or just observe. Throughout the workshops, members can share what the music means to them and how it affects their emotions and mood. We facilitate just to provide structure, but not to “teach” (an orientation that required some ongoing adjustments for me, having come from many years teaching piano, music theory, and technique). One of the basic tenets of the program is that in these spaces people who are typically dehumanized, and even criminalized, for being on the street get to restore a sense of personhood through the chance to meet the need for expression, connection, community, validation, and identity. Too, I think that those of us who are housed in these spaces also get to disabuse ourselves of the false idea that people who are on the street are less human; we are not rescuers swooping in to save people from their suffering, we are simply showing up in a room and remembering, all together, that we’re all human.

The only real musical skill is listening; everything else is just preparation.

What I learned in these workshops is that regardless of whether a person is housed or not, regardless of whether they have a place to sleep that night or know where their next meal is coming from, they can still find significant emotional and spiritual restoration through musical experience.

In one lesson, one of my beginning guitar students, who has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, kept nervously shifting in her chair and shared that she was being wracked by aggravating thought loops that were distracting her from the activity we were trying to focus on. We refocused again and again, and as she got a few repetitions of the chord progression in, something clicked.

“Oh okay, the chords are like a loop, but a nice one,” she noticed.

Using breath to help focus her thoughts, the simple pattern of switching between two chords became a new loop that had a more friendly, positive feel than the negative, harassing mental patterns she was used to. I thought I was simply showing her how to play a chord pattern, but the music demonstrated something about what it could do for the student, and the student explained what the music was doing for her, in a way that I wouldn’t have anticipated or predicted.

Two of the kids who are more advanced musicians were talking one day about how it’s difficult to make time or have enough privacy to practice their music on the streets, or to take their mind off chronic concerns about getting enough food and where they will sleep that night. All of the attendant “adulting” that kids in their late teens and early twenties have to reckon with, these kids are dealing with in hyper-drive, with zero systems of support outside of circles of friends they know on the street and, thankfully, the support organizations available (like Safe Place For Youth). As one counselor said, one week is like several months on the streets, because daily life experience is so full of obstacles and stresses.

And yet, still, all of these young artists light up with esteem, confidence, and even spiritual transcendence, when they share their musical gifts and have those gifts affirmed and celebrated by others. They might not know where their next meal is coming from (root chakra, survival needs), but they are evolving emotionally, psychologically, and most definitely in their self-realization, nonetheless. 

These are all examples of why the only real musical skill is being able to listen; everything else is just preparation that may or may not be useful at some point in the future.

The idea of a linear ordering of fundamental needs versus non-fundamental ones is of course not endemic to modern capitalism. To look to Maslow on this topic, belonging, esteem, and self-realization only enter the picture after the lower tiers of the pyramid of needs have been met. Maslow’s hierarchy is in some ways a sort of compressed, simplified version of the Eastern chakra system of seven energy centers; Maslow’s hierarchy has five sections, whereas the simple version of the Eastern chakra system has seven. But regardless of the system, the general idea in many cultures modern and traditional is that we have to meet certain baseline, foundational needs before we can fully self-actualize.

But maybe it is a mistake to relate to any model of human health and needs in a strictly linear model, where energy only moves in one direction. And although Maslow’s Hierarchy is extraordinarily useful in many applications, even groundbreaking in its day, it can also be beneficial to reorient ourselves to a nonhierarchical view of needs — especially when such large numbers of our population are experiencing a profound emergency of one category of needs not being met.

Traditionally, the throat or fifth chakra is thought to correspond with music, singing, and public speaking, but we also activate the root chakra with repetitive drumming or rhythmic patterns, or the sacral chakra with dance, and so on. You could wager that root chakra-stimulating music, for example, can help with root chakra-oriented needs (basic survival), but my experience is that these processes are nonlinear and do not operate according to any type of verticality.

humans often intuitively figure out how to meet this need, even if it isn’t charted in official diagrams. 

There is something profound about being a part of a musical experience where people are getting fundamental needs met through song and movement in such a transparent way. Too, there is considerable value in seeing someone who often feels marginalized and disenfranchised get to enjoy a sense of accomplishment and excellence at creative expression, even while struggling with the everyday requirements of surviving in a capitalist system.

Music may not be directly helping these kids survive on a material level, but it is nonetheless fundamental to their survival. None of this is to minimize the homelessness crisis, but simply to help us remember that there are values and needs that can and do operate outside of the materialist value system. Imagine for a moment that alongside our capitalist reality there is a parallel reality where, despite capitalist values not being achieved in their prescribed linear progression, human realization is still occurring — in real time, on the streets, all around us, throughout the city.

DEAR JONI

It is an understatement to say that I am a lifelong fan of Joni Mitchell. More like devotee, reverent student. At twelve years old, I discovered “Blue” and “Song to a Seagull” in my mom’s box of old records, and ever since Joni Mitchell has been like a family member to me, the High Priestess presiding over my dawning musicianship from the very beginning. I even had a dream once where Joni, my mom, and my grandmother and I were all sitting in a circle talking, and Joni turned and looked at me, like, “What are you up to in your life?”; though I’ve never even been in a room with her, she is family to me, connected through that silver cord of sound that can link the heart and thoughts of one person to another across time and space. 

I still remember when I first heard “A Case of You.” I had started learning guitar earlier that year, but when I tried learning a few of Joni’s songs, it turned out the “Blue” songbook in our piano bench was only reductions with oversimplified chord progressions, and it didn’t sound right. I went to the music store and left with the Joni Mitchell Anthology, which for the most part had the real tunings she used for each song. I never looked back. 

Learning Joni’s songs was like following a treasure map to all these sonorities that were completely outside the music on pop radio. On her use of sus chords, which she called chords of inquiry, she expressed the open-ended questions in her life (see Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words). This openness to the grey and in-between is what she has also called “the poetic stance.”

Though she was often critiqued for veering towards jazz later in her career, she actually grew up on jazz (see Herbie Hancock’s book Possibilities for a great story on their collaborations, or check out her collaboration with Charles Mingus: Mingus). Though Joni was drawn to folk music to showcase her lyrics, deep down, she was always a jazzer in her harmonic sensibility and her forms.

Of course I had no idea about any of this as an angstful preteen writing bad poetry; I just knew I heard something in her music that felt true to me, and I had to follow it. That feeling propelled me down musty thrift store aisles, pawing through bins of old records trying to find all her other albums Clouds, For the Roses, Court & Spark, and Miles of Aisles: each album an entire world to get lost within. In addition to the distinct musical sound, there was also the visceral and visual spectacle of her lyrics: her frank account of multiple love affairs, her independence, her politics, her commentary on the various pop culture movements and the cultural revolutions of the times. None of this is often represented with much accuracy or intelligence in much of popular culture, whether in the 70’s or today.

Of course, I didn’t understand all of it as a preteen, and today when I hear any of it, but when I hear any of those songs–“Michael From Mountains,” “Cactus Tree,” “Both Sides Now,” “For the Roses,” “Blue, “A Case of You,” (it’s too long a list)–I can’t hear any of them without crying at some point. The video of that brilliant “Clouds” performance from her 2000 tribute concert is for some reason not playing from YouTube, but you can watch it on her website: https://www.jonimitchell.com/library/video.cfm?id=7; if you’re built like me, it’ll be waterworks within about four seconds as she walks onstage, before she even starts singing. 

This is music that stays with you and grows with you over a lifetime, and it points us to the whole point of music in the first place: connecting with something beyond the mundane, materialistic, ego-driven goals of the everyday world (and, definitely, beyond the falsified world of social media stats, most of which are just another form of advertising these days as they’re all paid and have long since stopped representing anything “organic” or “authentic” about people’s relationship to their audience, anyway). Music is about plugging into our souls, and for any generation who wants to listen, Joni has the cord and the outlet.  

Through her sound and her words, Joni introduced me to a different universe; it was like getting the keys to explore who I was and come into my own being, something beyond the uncomfortable beginnings of adolescence, the oppressive regime of junior high, the turbulence of my family. I didn’t have language around it at the time to know what to call it, but now I look back and realize this was the beginning of my experience of the interiority of the soul, through poetry and music.

Please also visit Joni’s website and deep dive into the excellent gallery they offer including all the lyrics and artwork that accompany each of these albums: https://www.jonimitchell.com/music/

Aside from my dad, I have always thought of Joni as the only guitar teacher I ever had. As a newbie guitarist, this new allegiance to alternate tunings also put me in a weird place amongst my friends who played guitar, as it was much harder for me to “jam” or pluck out chord progressions in altered tunings. Or, I wasn’t very interested in doing that anyway. Changing the tuning of the strings beyond their normal tension makes the guitar more fragile, and I was always weary of retuning the Ovation electric/acoustic my dad bought me for my 11th birthday back to standard and then back into my slack tunings too often. But the loss of the social communion and the extra instrument maintenance seemed worth it, as I got so much emotional solace and intellectual stimulation through exploring all those different sonorities. This is the offbeat but enriching musical path that Joni pointed to, like the Hermit holding the lamp on the darkened woods: it may not buy you much purchase with the masses, but it takes you to a real place in your own spirit.

Over the years I’ve heard many opinions as to why Joni hasn’t received the place in history she deserves as a musical giant. First, Joni never had the slew of pop tart radio hits of the bigger rock bands — but music aficionados aren’t supposed to be charmed too much by popularity stats, so to me it has always felt like there are other cultural reasons she didn’t get the recognition she deserved. Some people have argued her chords are too complex, so the average musician has a harder time covering her and her songbook thus remains less familiar; she gave up a baby for adoption to pursue an artistic career (a no-no for women, especially back then), which led people to exclude her as a pariah amongst women in some generally sexist way; her jazz and folk affiliations have meant her music is appreciated more by audiences that are African-American and/or female, an audience demographic that doesn’t have much influence on the (mostly white, male) rock critics and their often narrow lens on music culture. 

As writer Linda Grant theorized more recently, Joni also suffers from a more introverted, quietly reverent kind of fanbase, so she didn’t have these legions of fans following her around the country like the Dead or canonizing her every performance and every artistic incarnation like Dylan. Too, like her jazz friend Charles Mingus, Joni has always had a bit more prickle to her personality (which is part of why she’s great). 

Too, though she has serious technical chops, Joni’s music is not about the chops for their own sake, the playing fast and hard and Wow-look-at-me. Hers is a less showy, more intellectual type of musicianship, a different but equal kind of mastery. Though often undersold as an influence on only female singer-songwriters who look the part or sound distantly similar, she is actually in everybody’s musical DNA, her Laurel Canyon male folkie and rocker contemporaries included.

Joni Mitchell NY Magazine February 2015
Joni Mitchell NY Magazine February 2015

Joni has been in the press more recently, starting with a New York magazine article where she discusses how she is trying to fix her legacy after decades of an understandably bitter relationship with the music press. Even though Joni has always maintained she’s not a feminist, (“I’m just looking for equality, not to dominate“) her fight against invisibility and male-defined descriptions of her music is an undeniably feminist one. But either way, with the recent health scare and the resulting social media outpouring of love and appreciation (WeLoveYouJoni), maybe now she is finally getting a taste of the recognition she has long deserved.

Regardless of the attention she receives on a mass culture level or not, Joni is a matriarch of the spirit, a goddess of the intellect and the soul, a preserver of the independent self in a culture that worships profitable carbon copies. Though there is an entire generation of musicians today who have never heard of her, amidst the glut of navel-gazing self-promotion, obsession with metrics, and surface-level swim on offer in today’s music world, Joni represents everything that we need right now: heart, mind, musical chops, poetry, an I-don’t-give-a-fuck-what’s-popular mindset, and most importantly, something to say.