Can A Song Really Save Your Life? : All Songs Considered Thoughts on when music might actually stand between life and death.
NPR logo The Good Listener: Can A Song Really Save Your Life?

The Good Listener: Can A Song Really Save Your Life?

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside a backup pallet of kennel-grade cat sedatives is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives. This week: thoughts on when music might stand between life and death.

Ann L. writes via email: "Can a song really save your life?"

It's easy to imagine music standing between life and death. Vladimir Vitek/iStockphoto.com hide caption

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Vladimir Vitek/iStockphoto.com

It's easy to imagine music standing between life and death.

Vladimir Vitek/iStockphoto.com

To answer your question in the most general terms, I'd suggest coming back to this page after it's been published for a few days. Scroll down to the comments — it's not often that I give this advice! — and you're bound to read anecdote after anecdote about how a given song has lifted someone out of despair at just the right crucial moment. If you're looking to crowdsource responses to the question of music's life-saving properties, I'm fairly certain that enough people will answer, "A song saved mine!" to give you a decent answer.

Of course, there's more to it than that. "Saving your life" can be read a number of ways: There's saving your life in a figurative sense ("It was a real life-saver for me — there when I needed it!") and then there's the idea that a song might actually cause a listener to take a step back from a far more dangerous brink.

The latter is an extremely charged and multifaceted issue, and it's important to recognize that suicidal impulses come from many sources — many of which have nothing to do with sitting around waiting for someone to come along with just the right airtight argument in defense of living. For the purposes of this discussion, it's best to think instead about the way songs can arrive when we're feeling hopeless and bottomed-out, and appear to set us on a course toward a better place in our lives.

In that way, songs have the capacity to function as crucial catalysts; as the first glowing embers that lead our way out of darkness. Songs can awaken our resilience, trigger sense memories that redirect our perspectives and help us snap out of despair; most music fans have had a version of that experience at some time or another, in a way that can trigger intense feelings of gratitude.

Which is where such powerful language ("That song saved my life!") comes in. What we're talking about, really, is the way certain songs can help us locate the strength within us. Really, the music itself is emblematic of a larger and more complex process that can't be so easily generalized and contained; of friends and family who gave support, the resolve we found inside ourselves and a million tiny comforts and distractions that helped speed along the passage of time.

A song may or may not ever truly stand between life and death. But when it feels that way, distinctions between literal and metaphorical salvation hardly matter. The song did its job, and then some.

Got a music-related question you want answered? Leave it in the comments, drop us an email at allsongs@npr.org or tweet @allsongs.