Lyrics & Well-being
“Don’t worry about a thing cuz every little thing’s gonna be alright. Singing don’t worry about a thing… this is my message to you.” – Bob Marley “Three little Birds”
“…this is my message to you”
This song and its message have made their way into many living rooms, cars, movies, mp3 players and more. Chances are after reading those lyrics you heard the music and even read it with the “you-ooh-ooh” rhythm that the melody provides. But would this song be played at the same time and in the same context if the message were different? What if the lyrics were about a sandwich? Or War? Or building a wall?
I am fascinated by lyrics and the impact they can have on our well-being. From a very young age, I was encouraged to listen to the lyrics of songs and would carefully select songs for my mood, or the mood I wanted to be in. I also made up entire musicals while playing on the swing set and later found a guitar and became a singer-songwriter to create stories or songs that filled a need to express. As a career, I’ve worked with kids/teens to write and record songs about their lives; from cancer treatment, to end of life care, to drug and alcohol recovery. The impact from these experiences led me to be curious about lyrics and the message they give us, for better or worse. Inspired to learn more, I earned a master’s degree in applied positive psychology and wrote my thesis on this very topic.
Before I got into the research I was positive I would find study after study confirming my belief, that lyrics influence well-being. Turns out… it’s barely been studied at all. Well, not from a lyrical standpoint anyway. We have so many great studies on how music influences our emotions and well-being but most of these studies don’t mention whether the music included lyrics.
Let me say that again because it just blew my mind…. They don’t even mention if the music in the studies had lyrics or not. What?! Both the songwriter and the academic in me was shocked.
I understand why, in a way. It is really difficult to figure out which has the impact: music or lyrics. To separate them and accurately pinpoint the elements of each that have an influence on which, and in what way… to put it scientifically… it’s complicated stuff. But the truth is that they coexist, so it isn’t a one-or-the-other situation. They work together to influence us. Bringing it back to Bob Marley’s song, if the melody to the song were different, lets say heavy metal or opera, would the peaceful and encouraging lyrics have the same affect? Maybe, but maybe not! It’s worth talking about.
Yip Harburg, a social activist and songwriter (maybe you’ve heard of a song called “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”? Yeah… that was him.), put it beautifully when he said, “Words make you think, music makes you feel, songs make you feel thoughts.”
Let’s say the songs we listen to make us feel something. Do we want to decide what we feel? Do we want to at least know if that’s true or not? If artists had the ability to make us feel thoughts, do they have a responsibly to do so ethically?
And that is what this section of my website will be dedicated to; a conversation about this very topic. I’ll re-write parts of my capstone and share my thoughts on different angles. Feminism and lyrics, the music industry and well-being, writing lyrics verses listening to the lyrics written by somebody else, censorship and lyrics, an artist’s responsibility (or not) to well-being, and more!
So whether you agree, disagree, or fall on the fence… join me with your comments and topic suggestions, and lets start a global conversation about lyrics and well-being.
If you would like to read my thesis you can find it here.
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