09/08/2014 11:44 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Upset? Sing a Tune


Photo: I.Rimanoczy

Does it ever happen to you that you catch yourself humming a tune without even noticing it? Perhaps you should pay attention to it, because there may be a message in it for you.

There are two possible reasons behind your unconscious humming. One is connected with you having recently heard a fragment of that song or music, and following the Law of Closure, which was identified by psychologists of the Gestalt school, our unconscious mind tends to complete what is left incomplete, and so we will pick up the song and continue it, without intentionally deciding so. That's just the job of our unconscious mind, which works unbeknownst to us.

But there may be another reason to your humming that is particularly interesting. While we are dealing with our day-to-day activities, there is a background process in place, which is occupied with feelings and emotions triggered by thoughts, encounters or events. In other words, the way your computer runs a program in the background checking files for viruses, our unconscious mind is busy processing "stuff." So when you notice that you're humming a song, you may want to pay attention to the words or title of that song. Your background processor may have selected that particular tune because it is trying to work through some particular feelings. I have caught myself singing "Don't go changing, to try and please me" and I realized I was actually upset with someone trying to change "the way I was." (I must have selected Billy Joel as a better option to what was happening to me). Or another time Carole King's So Far Away -- "Doesn't anybody stay in one place anymore?" as I was feeling saddened by some friends moving out of the country.

Music can help us work through feelings and also can help change how we feel. Taking taxis in the busy city of Buenos Aires has given me some food for thought. Some drivers listen to radio talk shows, commenting on the political dramas of the day, adding exponentially to their stress level. And then there was that driver who was as calm as if we were at a Zen retreat -- he was listening to some classical music -- that created a very special atmosphere inside the car. You may have expected that this would be a stark contrast with the honks and aggressive driving during rush hours on narrow streets, but that was not the case. Actually, everything that happened in the outside became less intense, softened by the musical context he created.

Back in the 1960s, as the Inter-American Bank was just created, officials were visiting a small Indian village on the Bolivian altiplano, studying the feasibility for a hydroelectric dam. As they realized that they hadn't used their full budget, and noticing the poverty of that village, the officers assembled the local chiefs and offered the money as a gift. "What project would you like us to fund with this money in name of the bank?" they asked. Alan Weisman in his book Gaviotas tells how the Indian elders went off to discuss the offer and after returning said, "We know what we want to do with the money: We need new musical instruments for our band." The bank's executives tried to explain themselves better. "What you need are improvements like electricity, running water, sewers, telephone and telegraph..." However, the Indians had understood well. "In our village everyone plays a musical instrument. On Sundays after mass we all gather for a concert in the church patio. First we make music together, then we can talk about problems in our community and how to resolve them. But our instruments are old and falling apart, and without music, so will we."

Imagine a culture where instead of weapons, we had music. Costa Rica, one country without an army, has over 400 orchestras in a population of less than 5 million. Not surprisingly, this is where the first University of Peace was founded.

Next time you're upset or stressed out, start singing. And if you have bad pitch, just find some music you like and give yourself the gift of a few special minutes -- I can assure you that your feelings will somehow shift.