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music is a good choice

August 26, 2021

I’ve been thinking a lot about music this week.

It’s been a rough couple of weeks. Details don’t matter; we all know what rough feels like. What matters is that, when things are tough, I try much harder than usual to seek out moments of joy – because I need them that much more.

I don't think I'm alone in that.

The first thing I usually turn to when things get hard is music. I could never quite articulate to myself why that’s been the case. All I know is that when I feel down, and listen to music I love, I feel less of the bad things and more of the good things.

When I was 20, I dated a guy who turned out to be pretty controlling. We’d go out to eat wherever he chose; I never got to decide. We’d spend time with his family, never with mine. We’d hang out with his friends, not my friends. If I expressed a different opinion from his, he’d throw a fit, even if it was over something minor.

He was the relationship; I was along for the ride.

One thing he’d do that I particularly hated was slap my hand if I tried to touch the radio dial in his car. I get that it was his car and his radio. But he refused to let me drive anywhere. I figured the best scenario was one in which both of us enjoyed the music we were listening to, and that could only happen if I got to touch the radio dial. But no. He had to be in control of the wheel, he got to choose where we were going, and he was the only one who could decide what we listened to while we were driving there.

Over the three months that we dated, his expectations became increasingly rigid. His demands more off-putting. His behavior more controlling – and eventually scary.

So, I ended it.

It didn’t feel great. Breaking up with an asshole still hurts.

At first, I felt heartbroken and confused. I perseverated over what happened, what went wrong, why things panned out the way they did.

But then I thought about that damn radio dial. And I got angry.

Screw him, I thought. I decide how this goes down.

So, I went to the record store. I was broke, because I was still in college, but that didn’t stop me from buying 15 cassette tapes in about 15 minutes. I grabbed music that my controlling ex-boyfriend introduced me to but wouldn’t let me hear when I wanted. I also bought other music I loved and wanted to listen to whenever I chose to hear it (this was before music went digital, of course).

I went home and immersed myself, memorizing every instrumental detail, getting swept up in the vocals and the lyrics. For months, it felt as though music was my closest friend. And I learned that it was a great friend, because it made everything ok.

Since then, when I feel down, lonely, or stuck in something hard, I pull myself out of it by choosing music. Even when I run errands I hate – like grocery shopping – I’ve got pods in my ears and I’m listening to music.

And if I don’t choose music, it is usually in my option set.

Now, research has an answer for why music has such an impact. Psychologists studying the effects of music on the brain have discovered that it can release dopamine, targeting the same pleasure centers that are associated with food, drugs, and sex.

No wonder.

I don’t know how music fits into other peoples’ lives. I talk to my friends about musicians we like, but we don’t talk about what music means to them, or how it helps them push through. I don’t know if I’m a weirdo relying on music so much – sometimes more than I rely on people. All I know is that it’s there, and hopefully always will be.

And it is always a choice.

These days, things feel tough for everybody. I hope that when they’re tough for you, you choose music. If someone you care about is going through a rough time, encourage them to decide on music – or to at least make music an option. It may not always do the trick, but I swear to you, it never fails.

And that is all.

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