Whenever I feel afraid.
I hold my head erect.
And whistle a happy tune.
So no one will suspect I’m afraid.
The lyrics acting as epigraph might be familiar to many us. They are the opening lines of the first number in Rodger and Hammerstein’s The King & I.
The charming, sliver of a tune is one of countless songs engaging in meta-commentary on our relationship with music. And although few of us will have Anna Leonowens’s experience of being an English Governess in Siam, to many students the beginning of a new semester can often feel similar to exploring a new world. Strangers in a strange land, that first lecture of the semester, first seminar, or first paper due can all fill us with crippling doubt.
Music is such a constant part of experience as contemporary young adults, its significance to our lives at university sometimes goes by without us thinking.
I posed the question to a few University of York students while mulling on this topic.
Symone, a postgraduate student in the English and Related Literature department confessed, “When I’m stressed out and need to escape for a while, I’ll put on music and have a solo dance party in my room for an hour or so. It helps me clear my head.”
Symone’s experience is representing of a larger subset of humans, not just students, who use music to cope with stress.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. In 2013 Amy Novotney reported on the use of “music as medicine” and for university students in the millennial age, earbuds always at the ready, phones always in hand, our proximity to that medicinal beat has never been nearer.
It goes beyond the specifics of music as an antidote. Music is always in our reach – we can have our music when we eat, when we sleep, when we’re exercising and critically when we study.
Maya, a Human Rights MA student currently working on her dissertation at the University of York depends on the BBC Radio 1’s Essential Mixes when she’s working on her writing. “Sometimes, it’s what gets me through the long day in the library.”
It’s music as a coping strategy that’s such an interesting consideration here. Chances are if you pass a fellow student in the café, or on the bus, or in the library they have their earplugs firmly in place. It’s part of a running joke of millennials denying interpersonal contact and being tied to their gadgets.
But beyond the question of “what” they’re listening to (trashy, and terrible contemporary music the “experts” will say) few seem to consider just why they are listening to it.
Malou, another MA student jokes, “Listening to gangster rap gets me through anything in life.”
Within Malou’s levity comes the rub, though. The modern world, with all its blessings and faults, comes at you fast.
In this quick-paced world, finding a coping mechanism is essential.
Think of the public places where we find music – music playing on the phone when we’re on hold at a business, a busy café that has some soothing music on the radio, a romantic café with music on for those broken-hearted lovers who may potentially be stood up, or the taxi driver who puts on the radio to avoid an awkward lull in the long taxi drive.
Beyond our own enjoyment of music for its own sake it’s obvious that in the public sphere, music serves to fill a gap. As we are able to manoeuvre technology closer to us, students can depend on music to fill the gaps in their own lives.
Who has not dreaded the idea of going for a jog when our earbuds burn out on us? The burn of exercise is just a little more difficult to cope with when there’s no music to act as a balm, in the same way that no one wants to be trapped on a transatlantic flight without some music to cope.
And although the idea of needing something to “cope” might suggest an unhealthy dependency, it bears credit to consider that there’s little unusual or unnatural about this.
Think of a baby’s first, deliberate, contact with music. It comes with lullabies as sleep time, a proven item of therapeutic value and one which strengthens mother-infant interactions.
From infancy, then, we are encouraged to equate music with peace and calm, it’s just that our tools are changing.
So, when after a stressful day of writing we go home to our bed and plug in our headphones. As we fall asleep, we millennials are not doing some subversive, lazy thing of depending too much on our gadgets. We’re just making the most of our music, in whatever way we can get it.