Music is a powerful tool. It can make us smile or cry, inspire anger or peace, even create feelings of romance or enlightenment. Music in society channels someone’s emotions and thoughts into a universal medium, relying on complex sociological interconnections that allow two individuals from different walks of life to have two unique experiences with the same song.
The power of music has been used throughout history to soothe life's ailments, and depression is historically no exception. Since depression affects over 17 million adults in the U.S. in any given year, the songs listed below are meant to help find the right direction for depression assistance. Hopefully, you can find what is right for you – and hopefully, you will keep reaching out until you find it.
National Helpline - a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders.
“My Sweet Lord” – George Harrison
The #1 tip for depression help is simply finding calm and peace – "How meditation helps with depression" by Harvard Health Publishing claims that meditation can assist that process. This meditative calm allows for the control of anxiety and reduction of stress with regular practice. Along with this, a few musicians in recent history have tried to incorporate that concept into their music, and George Harrison's first #1-charting solo record frequently attempts to capture the peacefulness of meditation.
In “My Sweet Lord,” Harrison deliberately integrates his views on the intimate and ascendant qualities of spirituality into the repetitive song's vocal phrases and simple structure. Though this spirituality is constantly present, it does not distract from a soothing atmosphere and catchy melody combined with his typical songwriting genius. Regardless of your views on meditation or religion, one cannot deny the wholesome power of "My Sweet Lord" as a beautiful and healing song.
“Strawberry Fields Forever” – The Beatles
The idyllic beauty of nature was a far more common songwriting topic at the height of folk music in the U.S., but many psychiatrists agree that the outdoors still have an impact on human life. The inventive twist on psychedelia demonstrated in “Strawberry Fields Forever” still stands out to modern listeners as one of the best Beatles songs.
Though the band’s catalog has many typical happy songs like “Hey Jude,” “She Loves You,” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” this song has more dynamic shifts throughout, preventing the potential pitfalls of banality found in repetitive pop songs. Using distinct transitions to minor chords, this song proves the calming nature perceived from minor keys, despite traditionally being associated with sad emotions.
“Don’t Know Why” – Norah Jones
While many generally associate sad music with depression, the question of “why” still has yet to be answered. Some psychologists suggest instead that it is the calming effect of traditionally sad music that creates the attraction, rather than the sadness of the music itself. Individuals suffering from depression may feel annoyed by happy music instead of joyful when exposed to it, as stated in "Why Do People With Depression Like Listening to Sad Music?" by Research Digest of the British Psychological Society.
Norah Jones’ music frequently illustrates this point. In “Don’t Know Why,” the warm, jazz-inflected songwriting fits perfectly with the major key opening, while the lyrics blend beautifully into the minor key chorus. This heartbreaking tale does not take away from the elegantly stunning arrangement, one that soothes and inspires the lonely heart.
“So What” – Miles Davis
Jazz and isolation go hand-in-hand since many perceive it as an elitist and alienating genre, but Miles Davis’ 1959 album Kind of Blue contrasts this notion with warm intimacy and a relaxing atmosphere. The musical interactions between Davis and his bandmates are disarming and inviting, creating an engaging environment that draws in its listeners with intricate composition and improvisation that never elude even the casual listeners.
“Heartbreak Hotel” – Elvis Presley
Alternatively, some studies do show a correlation between sad music and improving the effects of depression. According to "People with depression feel better after listening to sad music, research suggests" by the Verge, subjects said that sad music they heard actually made them feel better than listening to happy music. While there’s no telling which stance is the correct one, Elvis Presley crooning “I get so lonely, I could die” never fails as the definitive ode to isolated sadness.
“He Stopped Loving Her Today” – George Jones
The greatest country artists are the ones that can make you cry. George Jones is one of few that you can easily call "great," and "He Stopped Loving Her Today," a song about love taken to the grave is perhaps his most moving performance ever.
“(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” – Aretha Franklin
Depression is well-known to severely grow in the absence of human connection. "The Connection Between Mental Health and Intimacy" by rtor.org states that closeness in a relationship affects (and is affected by) depression. Music that outlines this form of affection shows the power of fulfillment that love can bring, as this Aretha Franklin song professes the joy of feeling “natural” with your partner.
“Let’s Get It On” – Marvin Gaye
Another characteristically intimate song, Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” gives a new meaning to passion in music. Though many have tried to capture the same energy with the “slow jam” archetype, Gaye’s classic remains the standard for all that follow.
“God Only Knows” – The Beach Boys
One of their most magnificent creations, Brian Wilson’s elegant production and songwriting stand the test of time for beauty in popular song. At once calming and stunning, “God Only Knows” is simply one of the best songs ever written, and perfect for any relaxing mood.
“Pagan Poetry” – Björk
To further complicate this issue, Icelandic artist Björk is included on this playlist to illuminate the difficulty associating relationships and depression. Playing out as a battle between the freedom of her desires and emotional commitment, she questions what exactly will fulfill her true self. Relationships and affection can be far more multifaceted than they appear from the outside, and while intimacy is certainly beneficial to aiding depression, it can lead to dependent or unsupportive behavior that can cause more damage than good.
If you are a victim of a troubled relationship, to any degree, your depression can worsen. Any individual who suffers from domestic abuse should reach out for help (here is one option: National Domestic Violence Hotline). Further, listen to your partner and encourage them to communicate if they have depression - supporting another’s mental state could be the answer to beginning the healing process.
“1901” – Phoenix
In the standard vein of “music to help with sadness,” Phoenix’s agreeably pleasant indie rock has all the modern pop/rock stylings that classify happy music. According to "Choose Music to Boost Happiness" by
Everyday Health, listening to upbeat music with the “intention of becoming happier” can help to improve your mood. While some might disagree with this application in regards to clinical depression, Phoenix’s song “1901” undoubtedly gives the listener a comfortably cheerful vibe that will be inoffensive to the ear.
“White Winter Hymnal” – Fleet Foxes
Fleet Foxes are the premier indie-folk band of the last decade, so their unmatched mellow splendor is bound to put a smile on one’s face. Despite some oddly gruesome lyrics, “White Winter Hymnal” has one of the most gorgeous melodies of its time, holding up as a song worth singing along too.
Bonus: “Irene” – Ben Watt
Always wanting to include some new music to check out, I need to highlight wistful singer/songwriter Ben Watt as well. His new album Storm Damage balances many of the moods described above, focusing on comforting and mournful songs like “Irene.” Using a band of real instruments with various electronic sounds mixed in, Watt hits all the right notes to affect the listener with music of great depth and significance to its creator.
Dealing with depression is difficult but essential in modern society. For anyone reading this, there is a friend, relative, or other loved one you know that is surviving their depression one day at a time. Help and encourage them to find what healing methods work for them.
For the rest, I sincerely hope something on this list can lead to your aid. I believe in the power and ability of music to make this world a better place. Believe for yourself that something out there can help you, too.