If music soothes the savage breast, then why is it always heavy metal for those living with PTSD?

Russ wearing an electric guitar, holding up rock-n-roll horns, backstage at a Linkin Park rock conce
Russ rocking out backstage at a Linkin Park concert

It’s not always heavy metal or even hard rock, but it is usually very loud, with a driving beat. Why? What is it about that thumping bass that veterans, at least in our circle of friends, seem to love blasting at top volume?

Is it their battle cry?

Their war drums?

It’s no secret I enjoy music. I mean, I get to sing on stage and sometimes even get paid to do so! I’ve always had a connection to music. I started with piano, then cello, and then trombone, my great-grandmother’s trombone to be exact. She was a professional vaudevillian and I inherited her trombones. Playing brass in a high school band meant marching band in the fall. I hated those wool/polyester blend outfits in the high heat of August and September. But, I digress. All of those marches, much like military marches, have a driving full-time (4/4) or half-time (2/4) beat with big drums, toms, and brass flourishes. It is a pattern, a rhythm to march to, literally. It is very easy to get excited when the rest of the crowd is chanting and cheering along to the beat of “Wild Thing” or “We Will Rock You.” Those rock anthems get or help keep crowds excited – they set the mood.

We are all familiar with the power of music to affect our mood. If you have watched any film or television, yes, even sports, then you have heard a soundtrack. Whether it was foremost in your mind or now, there is music all around you. In my younger days, I’d head to the club to dance the night away. I still enjoy some Daft Punk or Avicii when I’m working out to help me stay positive while sweating. In film and television, there are gentle melodies for romance, intense full orchestral pieces for dramatic works, bright pop for rom-coms, and loud rhythmic brass and drums for sports. There is that over-used Dun dun duuun! sting, like in the dramatic chipmunk video. The three simple chords of A minor, C♯ minor, and E minor, let the audience know they should be shocked by what they just saw. The music informs your intended emotional response.

If music has the power to persuade your emotions, then I understand why music therapy is important.

Music heals. Not just for musicians. Music changes your brain (Musical Healing for TBI and PTSD). You may already know that listening to music can have neurological benefits. Simply listening to a song you like can make you feel good. There are even music tracks on YouTube to help you focus or calm your nerves. Music is therapeutic.

So why, then, is screaming death metal the music of choice for so many of our veteran friends? Don’t get me wrong, I like my share of heavy metal; I just can’t listen to it as loud as my husband likes it. One day, I asked him about it, and he said, “It helps drown out the thoughts.” It is no wonder, then, that veterans enjoy something with a hard and fast beat. It is loud enough to silence any thought. It is also often angry – perhaps to match the mood.

While I played low brass, I also sang in various choirs and chorales. I usually sang soprano 1, but sometimes as low as tenor. I am particularly fond of Renaissance music. Before you ask, yes, I have played a sackbut (medieval/renaissance trombone), but I prefer to sing. Singing has both neurological and physical benefits. The deep breathing required for good singing calms your autonomic nervous system. Renaissance music has dense chords and long melodic tones that overlay and play with each other. We have to really know our parts and each other’s in order to really sing well together. The mood it creates for me is ethereal and almost spiritual.

Singing is my way of drowning out my negative thoughts. I'm forced to concentrate on the lyrics and music and can't think of anything else. I know when I am off pitch and try not to be, even when singing along with the radio on long drives. I allow the music to change my mood.

So, here’s a little song list to help set your mood. These songs hold different meanings for me, so I tried to give you a little reason why I like each song:

The King's Singers: Gaudete (arr. Brian Kay) – One of my favorite Renaissance era pieces to sing. The harmonies are dense and I float on top when singing soprano, but I’ve also sung tenor and alto on this.

Muse: Butterflies and Hurricanes – “You’ve got to change the world and use this time to be heard!” My favorite song from my favorite rock band. This one sneaks up on you. It has a gentler start, then it is driving rock and roll with a classical piano and string interlude.

Linkin Park: One More Light – This is about caring for those with suicidal ideation. My husband and I had the immense pleasure of meeting Linkin Park at an event hosted by Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). They were the kindest, coolest hard rock band I’ve ever met (and I’ve met a few). This is one of the last songs released by Linkin Park before lead singer Chester Bennington took his own life.

Elvis Presley: I Want You, I Need You, I Love You – Our wedding song from the King of Rock and Roll. The lyrics are still true, even after all these years. And Elvis’s voice is butter.

U2: One – My favorite band throughout middle school, high school, and college. The song about love and heartache and carrying each other has always spoken to me.

Bastille: survivin' – “Cause I’m not gonna lie and say I’ve been alright
Cause it feels like I’ve been living upside down
What can I say? I’m survivin’
Crawling out these sheets to see another day
What can I say? I’m survivin’
And I’m gonna be fine, I’m gonna be fine, I think I’ll be fine...”  
Some days are harder than others, and I definitely feel like I’ve been living upside down. But I keep going.

Snow Patrol: Chasing Cars – “Would you lie with me and just forget the world?” Russ and I would sing this to each other over long-distance calls. Even through multiple deployments and difficulties, we always had each other.

Avicii: Hey Brother – “Oh if the sky comes fallin’ down for you, there’s nothing in this world I wouldn’t do.” A song of hope, connection, and love.

OK Go: This Too Shall Pass (Rube Goldberg Machine) – “Let It Go, This Too Shall Pass” is just a portion of the very helpful lyrics to channel our inner Elsa and not hold on to that which does not serve us. Plus, nerd alert! This video is an AMAZING Rube Goldberg Machine!

MIKA: Grace Kelly – A song about Grace Kelly and Freddy Mercury and realizing it doesn’t matter what others think of you with driving piano and MIKA’s incredible vocal range? Yes, please!

Kate Bush: Running Up That Hill – You never know what someone else is going through. “And if I only could, I'd make a deal with God, And I'd get him to swap our places.” This song finally made it to the top 10 thanks to its poignant inclusion in Netflix’s Stranger Things. Isn’t the music industry funny?

Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus: Requiem, K. 626: Sequentia, Lacrimosa (20:51) – The Lacrimosa still moves me to tears, no matter if I am listening or singing. This is said to be Mozart's final piece before his death, in which he asks for forgiveness. This is often argued to be his best work, and I agree. Please note: this link starts in the middle of the Requiem at the Lacrimosa. Feel free to listen to the full Requiem if you like.