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Context Matters: Lesson 2 from “Some Nights”

Heartbeat and music notesLast week I wrote about the profound experience I’ve been having with the song “Some Nights” by Fun during the Body Flow classes at my local Y. The first lesson had to do with how amazing it feels to move to music. Yes, it feels so empowering to warrior poses to this incredible music with words that…

…well, I really don’t know.

“What’s that?” you say? “You don’t know the words to this meaningful, empowering song?”

No, I don’t really. That’s the funny thing – my understanding of this song is totally built on my experience of the song in the context of this exercise class.

So here it is.

Lesson #2: Context Matters

I first paid attention to this song in the Body Flow class, but it turns out that this song was kind of a hit. Released as a single in the summer of 2012, “Some Nights” slowly climbed the pop charts over several months, peaking at #6 on the U.S. charts. It was even covered by the choir on the TV show “Glee.”

Until I started browsing the web for some information, I had no idea who performed the song or what it was supposed to mean. I don’t know the songwriter’s back story. I don’t know what ambiguous feelings the songwriter is conquering, or the skeletons hiding in his closet.

But guess what – the background still doesn’t matter to me. In this case, the context in which I experienced the song is what matters.

So, the words that stick out for me are the only ones I really hear:

Some nights I stay up cashing in my bad luck

Some nights I call it a draw

Some nights I wish that my lips could build a castle

Some nights I wish they’d just fall off

But I still wake up, I still see your ghost

Oh, Lord, I’m still not sure what I stand for oh

What do I stand for? What do I stand for?

Most nights I don’t know anymore…

This is where I find the core meaning of the song. I don’t really “hear” the rest of the lyrics, and goodness knows the official music video has no connection to what I picture when hearing this song.

I don’t know what this song is supposed to mean, but it is still incredibly meaningful for me.

We music therapists often start with songs from a particular decade or genre that seems to be fitting for the client we’re serving, but we can’t predict what songs or musical experience will be most important in the therapeutic process.

It’s often the songs that have a special meaning for that particular client that make the deepest impact. Sometimes, though, it takes a lot of time and musical exploration to find those important songs. In fact, this is true for clients with memory impairments as well as adults without significant cognitive issues. We all share the experience of a particular song hitting us “out of the blue” – all of a sudden, that song takes us back to a time, place, or feeling that we weren’t necessarily looking for.

What does this mean for us?

If you are seeking music therapy for yourself or your loved one, I have two tips for you:

1. Think about yours or your loved one’s musical background, and write down what you know. This is a central part of the music therapy assessment, and it is an important place to start the musical exploration.

2. Trust the process. Please know that it might take some time to find those songs and music experiences that are meaningful, in which connection and healing can occur. It’s tempting to think that we can figure this out right off the bat, but it can take some time. That’s okay.

If you aren’t looking for music therapy at this time, you can still explore the role of context in building musical meaning. Try this exercise:

Think about the last time a song hit you “out of the blue.” What song was it? What memories did it bring up? What feelings did you experience? Being aware of how you experience these songs will help you to be more conscious in finding the songs and experiences that help you cope and feel strength, just like I do with this song.

What songs make you feel strong? Please leave your comments below!

5 comments… add one
  • Love that you find the song meaningful though you are unsure what it means. Sometimes music just resonates with us. The older I get the less I enjoy all my favorite music at just any time. There are some selections I love that irritate me to hear in certain situation. Knowing what resonates when is powerful.

    • Yes, I understand feeling irritated when hearing a song in the wrong situation. One example for me is that I love the opening of “Carmina Burana,” but I don’t much like hearing the tiny clips in commercials!

  • Rachelle,

    One song that hits this mark for me is “Imagine”–I love it most of the time, and it fires up my hopeful, optimistic side, but when I hear it in more commercial contexts, I am bugged. Thanks for another illustration of why a trained music therapist can really help better understand the meanings of music.

    Warmly,
    Ann

  • Hi Rachelle – I trained in expressive art and movement, and I love the feel of songs, and its odd to me when sometimes I finally hear the words and its not what I thought!

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