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The Possible Therapeutic Benefits of Joni Mitchell Music Print-ready version

Cincinnati Edition Radio Talk Show

by Mark Heyne
WVXU-FM Cincinnati
August 20, 2015

Some research shows the music of Joni Mitchell is a useful tool in treating patients with mental or neurological problems.

Mark Heyne with guest, Dr. Gary Dick

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Transcribed by Pete Christensen

Mark: This is Cincinnati Edition on 91.7 WVXU. I'm Mark Heyne. Later in the show: a preview of "Cincy Summer Streets." But first, many people experience it at one time or another: you're listening to a song and suddenly feel as if the music or the lyrics are speaking directly to you, capturing your mood or conjuring up a memory that makes you happy or sad. Music has that ability, that power. It can brighten our mood, it can energize us, or it can turn us melancholy. And continued research shows music has true therapeutic value as well. Joining us this afternoon to discuss using the music of Joni Mitchell to treat patients facing mental problems is Dr. Gary Dick, professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Cincinnati. What songs give you a boost when you need it? Join the conversation at 513-419-7100, email or find us on Facebook or Twitter. And, Gary, good to see you today.

Gary: Nice to see you, Mark.

Mark: Gary, so we're talking about using the music of Joni Mitchell to treat people. We're talking about a form of psychotherapy, correct?

Gary: Exactly.

Mark: What is psychotherapy and how does it differ from counseling?

Gary: OK, most of the time, people come into psychotherapy with some long-standing issues. There's been some conflict. And oftentimes the symptom that would bring somebody into psychotherapy is just the tip of the iceberg. In other words, there's a number of underlying dynamics that may be feeding into that symptom. And so, in psychotherapy, it's more of a long-term therapy. We really try to get into the underlying dynamics that created that conflict. Counseling is very similar; however, most of the time it tends to be very short-term, very focused. It's very problem-centered, trying to help people get back to a good state of well-being.

Mark: How do you determine whether psychotherapy or counseling is appropriate for a patient?

Gary: Well, that's a very good question. Oftentimes it depends on the person's ability to be reflective and to be psychologically minded. I think most of the people that enter into psychotherapy have a deep need to really feel understood and to be internally known; and they have the time and the psychological awareness to go down that sort of adventure of exploring themselves.

Mark: When we talk about music as a form of therapy, what is it about music in general that makes it an effective form of therapy?

Gary: I think many times people might have an awareness that there may be something bothering them or they've got an idea about a conflict, but they can't say it. Cognitively, they just can't embrace it. And that's where I think music can come in, because sometimes songs and lyrics can say to the person exactly what it is that they're struggling with that they can't say to themselves.

Mark: Going back to the idea of psychotherapy, can you give me some examples of health issues that would be treated by psychotherapy?

Gary: Most often you see people with depression and anxiety. Oftentimes, too, the anxiety comes up in so many different ways of life, in different domains. So it might inhibit relationships; it might inhibit work relations, work productivity. And yet, when we start using psychotherapy we're trying to not only deal with those symptoms, which you certainly would in counseling, but we're trying to get to some of the etiology behind it: where did this begin in the first place?

Mark: So what is it about Joni Mitchell in particular? Why Joni Mitchell as a form of psychotherapy?

Gary: Well, one thing about Joni Mitchell's music is it's so universal. Some people have described it as it's classless, it's raceless. One person remarked - they said to Joni Mitchell one time, "You paint pictures in my head." I think that Joni Mitchell has a way in her music and in her writing to talk about life in ways that, in some of her albums are pretty much a self-analysis, but it gives the listener an opportunity to relate to that music in a way that makes meaning for them. She talks and writes a lot about the polarities in life. And by polarities, I'm talking about those universal issues that we all struggle with. For example, a great theme of her music is commitment versus freedom. Another one would be continuity versus transformation; being creative versus selling out; the illusions of life versus the reality. Most people that are psychologically aware can really relate to her music because they relate to those universal issues in life, those existential issues.

Mark: What about growth versus stagnation? That's another theme of hers, isn't it?

Gary: Yes, very much so. And I think that, for a lot of people, stagnation in some ways, it's a limit. And we have to think - if you go back to the song of "Both Sides, Now," in the song she talks about clouds got in her way. In psychotherapy, "clouds" is a metaphor for a number of things that may get in people's way that would inhibit them from growing. And I think that, from a self-psychological perspective, we all know internally our potential and we're all trying to reach that. We're all - you know: we want to be creative; we want our talents, our skills, our ambitions to come alive. And sometimes clouds get in the way. Is it the way we were raised? Is it societal standards? What is it? Is it the environment that we're in, the relationships that we're in? But people then become in conflict with what it is they internally know they can achieve versus where they're at in life.

Mark: So does the patient have to be a Joni Mitchell fan for this treatment to work or does it still work for them?

Gary: Oh, not at all. More recently, I was using one of Joni Mitchell's songs and the person that I was treating was a musician. And they listened to the song and their first remark, they said, "I didn't hear any of the lyrics, I just heard the tunings, and her tunings are different." And I said, "OK." The following week, they came back and they had heard every lyric in that song and it really touched them in the deepest, most profound way.

Mark: So, what music speaks to you? Give us a call: 513-419-7100. Gary, how did you come across this idea of using Joni Mitchell as a form of therapy?

Gary: Well, I think most people that listened to Joni Mitchell's music, going back into the early 1970s - I think she started really hitting the national scene in 1968-1969 but by the early 1970s ('73-74) she was pretty much mainstream. It's when she made most of her commercial hits. But she spoke to me. I mean I made meaning out of her lyrics, out of her songs. I felt always like there was certain music that really spoke to the deepest part of who I am at that particular time in my life.

Mark: But it's not just you. A lot of other therapists have noticed this, too.

Gary: Absolutely, absolutely. When you really get to talking to other therapists, Joni Mitchell has a way of talking about life, a way of talking about relationships, inner conflicts - as well as, she has really been a social consciousness for America in terms of the environment, politics, war. Actually, in the book that I edited, Social Work Practice with Veterans, I was trying to describe the social environment in the late 1960s with the Viet Nam War compared to the war today; and I had to mention the music of Joni Mitchell where she talked about the Paris peace talks, where "they just won't give peace a chance."

Mark: Is it all of Joni's music or just certain pieces that work the best?

Gary: Well, I think what happens is, Joni Mitchell changed a lot in her career. She went from first being known as this sort of folk singer, then moved into rock and roll and then into jazz. And a lot of people - as she changed and grew and continued to be creative, some of the people that liked the early Joni Mitchell songs did not like the rock and roll or they did not like the jazz. However, my experiences then, whatever genre of hers you get into, if you then began to listen to the other music that she short of shelved, I think people can find meaning and relate to that music as well.

Mark: Well, let's listen to an example of this. This is from "Amelia."

[Sound Clip]: People will tell you where they've gone,
They'll tell you where to go,
But till you get there yourself you never really know.
Where some have found their paradise
Others just come to harm.
Oh, Amelia, it was just a false alarm.

Mark: OK, Gary, what's the therapeutic message here?

Gary: Actually, one of the great values of Joni Mitchell's music is, when you first listen to it, you might not understand it. In this particular set of lyrics, in some ways she's talking about the entire process of psychotherapy. "People will tell you where they've gone / they'll tell you where to go / but until you get there yourself you never really know." It's almost as if one's personal quest - to work out their internal struggles, to find their authentic self and to deal with their issues - is something that you have to do; nobody can tell you how to get there. And at the same time she talks about "where some have found their paradise / others just come to harm / Amelia, it's just a false alarm," I think here she's beginning to get into falling in love; and sometimes people will fall in love with people that cannot fall in love with them and they end up in harmful relationships.

Mark: So, did Joni Mitchell build this into her music intentionally or how did this happen? Was it coincidental?

Gary: When you read the interviews with her, she talks about creating music almost spontaneously from wherever she's at. It could be pumping gas - one of her songs is about pumping gas in the middle of the night in Los Angeles. It's something that comes from deep within her. She has this ability to be reflective in terms of her own internal world and yet she is socially aware of what is going on around her at the time. So she's sort of this internal/external world - this perspective as a way of writing her music.

Mark: OK, let's listen to - there's another segment of "Amelia" that we wanted to point out, so let's listen to that.

[Sound Clip]: A ghost of aviation,
She was swallowed by the sky
Or by the sea, like me she had a dream to fly
Like Icarus ascending
On beautiful foolish arms.
Amelia, it was just a false alarm.

Maybe I've never really loved.
I guess that is the truth.
I've spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitudes.
And looking down on everything
I crashed into his arms.
Amelia, it was just a false alarm.

Mark: There's a deep message there.

Gary: I think one of the reasons probably Joni Mitchell decided to include Amelia Earhart in this song and title it "Amelia" is in many ways they are both extremely strong, independent women that blazed their own trails. And she also talks about she had a dream to fly. I think that gets back to kind of a self-psychological perspective of potential: she had a dream to fly; she had a dream to become whoever she wanted to become. And then she begins to talk a lot about, "Like Icarus ascending on foolish arms / Amelia, it was just a false alarm." She's talking about (at that point, it's very self-analysis) of falling in love - and "into foolish arms," and wait a minute, "Amelia, it's just a false alarm" - this is really not the love that I want or I need.

Mark: We'll have more with Gary Dick about Joni Mitchell and the therapeutic power of music. You can join us at 513-419-7100. This is Cincinnati Edition on 91.7 WBXU.

This is Cincinnati Edition on 91.7 WBXU. I'm Mark Heyne. My guest this afternoon Dr. Gary Dick, professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Cincinnati, as we talk about the therapeutic value of music. What's your favorite mood-enhancing song, Joni Mitchell or otherwise? Give us a call at 513-419-7100. You can also email or you can find us on Facebook or Twitter.

And, you know some Joni critics, Gary, will point out how sad or down her music is; and listening to music can certainly alter your mood. Is there a chance that any of this makes you wallow more and makes you more depressed than you were originally?

Gary: Well, there are some songs that may do that, but I think that there are so many other songs, like "Help Me," "Raised on Robbery," "Big Yellow Taxi" - there's a lot of songs that are very upbeat. However, those songs were the ones that became the hits, the money-makers for the record companies that she worked for. She's never really considered herself a commercial artist. She was an individual who made albums, who wrote her own songs, wrote her own music and, also, she told her own truth. And I think in that song "Amelia," in terms of the therapeutic value, when she says, "maybe I've never really loved," that is a very powerful statement because, when you think of psychotherapy, people have to self-reveal; they've got to talk about themselves. That lyric showed insight. It showed that you have to be psychologically reflective to some extent to get to a better understanding of yourself in this world.

Mark: 513-419-7100 to join the conversation and let's talk with Gina, who is listening online in Michigan. Hi, Gina.

Gina: Hi. Glad to be here.

Mark: Thank you. And what's your question?

Gina: Well, I didn't have a question. There was a call for, let us know what you listen to or how you feel about the Joni Mitchell music.

Mark: So does Joni Mitchell work for you?

Gina: Oh my god, I own everything, everything she's ever written. I've moved along, grown with the changes. I've never been disappointed. She's my ultimate all-time favorite musician. I do listen to other things. I work alone, I'm a hat maker, and so I listen to the radio and music all day and she's one of my favorites. So I wanted to say she's wonderful. She's helped me through all phases of my life. I even gave her a hat once, because I said, "This is happy birthday to you; you've given me many presents." So I guess I'm retrospective and a creative person and she just hits the nail on the head.

Mark: So you go to Joni whether you're feeling sad or whether you're feeling happy, right?

Gina: Yeah, happy or sad. She's just - it's right on the mark. I have many favorites of hers. She's helpful. Music in general, as I used to be a musician, so music in general is wonderful therapy for me. I listen to her, I listen to - Sting is probably another favorite because it's not just about, "Oh, I'm so sad, I lost my love." You know, there are important cultural messages in both of their music. I also listen to a lot of sound tracks, some movie sound tracks and classical music, because it allows me to float. It allows me to be creative. Yes it does allow me to be introspective, but I think it's a wonderful - the show that you are presenting is wonderful.

Mark: Well thank you very much.

Gary: Gina, could I ask you, what is your favorite all-time Joni Mitchell song? I know that's a difficult question.

Gina: Oh my god, it's like picking a favorite color.

Gary: We'll take it as you are not betraying those other songs.

Gina: I should say, because it's close to me and it's also then become close to my dad, who I'm lucky enough to still have, and he loved "Both Sides, Now." He loved that. I kind of like "Coyote." I like some of the other ones. But "Both Sides, Now" and "The Circle Game" is really the main history. My dad's 90 and he's a huge fan.

Gary: Oh, that's wonderful to hear.

Gina: So I think that would be a universal song. It's old camp, old school. I like newer things, too, but I suppose if I had to pick one, it maybe would be that one.

Gary: The song "Both Sides, Now" has actually been recorded by over a thousand different people.

Gina: Oh, I'll bet it sure has, it sure has.

Mark: Gina, thank you for the call from Michigan. We really appreciate it.

Gina: I appreciate it. I saw this little posting on Facebook which made me go scurry and make sure I didn't miss you. And I appreciate it. It's wonderful. I'll tune back in frequently. Thanks.

Mark: Thank you. Let's talk with Larry in Cincinnati. Hi, Larry.

Larry: How are you?

Mark: Good, thanks.

Larry: Good. Just wanted to say that [inaudible] Browne was my psychotherapy.

Mark: I'm sorry, lost you there for a second. Go ahead. Who again?

Larry: Larry in Cincinnati.

Mark: No, who's your artist?

Larry: Oh, Jackson Browne was my psychotherapy.

Mark: OK.

Larry: He took me through some difficult times, you know, and his words are sometimes depressing but I just felt that he really hit the mark on every song, almost. And he even said that they asked him what his favorite song was and he said, "They all are, or I wouldn't finish them."

Gary: Larry, you know Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell were very, very close friends.

Larry: Yeah. Oh yeah. They sure were. And if you're looking for a favorite song, one was "For a Dancer." There's a line in there and it says, "In the end, there's one dance you do alone." And I just always think about that.

Mark: Larry, thank you for the call.

Gary: As we see there, with the calls coming in, that people have a very personal relationship to the music and the lyrics of Joni Mitchell. Someone once said that Joni Mitchell raised her.

Mark: Let's talk with Benjamin in Hyde Park. Hi, Benjamin.

Benjamin: Hi. My psychotherapy actually comes from an artist that has a lot of work that has no words at all in it, Brian Eno, particularly his "Apollo" album which I think was a sound track. But I think the energy from it is incredible. It swells and it can be very dark. I've spoken with people about certain songs on that album and to me it'll be a song that's triumphant and to that person it'll be a song that's so sad. So it's interesting, the perception. I don't know if everyone perceives a Joni Mitchell song the same way. Is that the goal?

Gary: Absolutely not. I think you just mentioned, Brian [sic], the idea, perception. It's very important, I think, in psychotherapy to get people to talk about their perceptions. That's where the real meaning is at. Not mine but yours and other people's. What is the meaning that you make out of the music?

Mark: You know, there's another interesting point that Benjamin's bringing up here and that is the idea that instrumental can have an impact as well as something that has lyrics.

Gary: Think of Mozart.

Mark: Yeah. A lot of classical music has a lot of therapeutic value, doesn't it?

Gary: Absolutely.

Mark: 513-419-7100. Let's talk with Vernon in Northern Kentucky. Hi Vernon.

Vernon: Hello. Wonderful program. In fact, I like most of the things you do better than "Here and Now," the national public radio. I never told you that but I feel that.

Mark: We'll take an endorsement any time, thank you.

Vernon: Oh, it's just awesome. You just hit it one day after another. I want to say, I think it's great that a therapist is doing this because a strong singer like Joni Mitchell, incredible singer/songwriter and a piercing soprano voice that she had, I think it opens you up to empathy. And then if working with a therapist, I could really see how that could help. But some of the songs that stand out for me - after Nam I was in Europe for a while, so the song "California," the one about Canada. So in other words, "reading news of home, the war and the bloody changes" is one refrain in the song, one phrase. And so, it really can help heal. In fact, it must have been doing something because I actually sang those songs in perfect key and I really was a sheet reader of music. So that's how powerful the music was for me. So I think a lot of people can actually sing the melodies or, if not, do it as good as I can. I'm a male, so I think that's a powerful thing - whereas I love Bob Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks" album, for instance, but he's a little bit harder to sing - because her melodies are so clear. And then later on, I'm sure the therapist would know the song about, "I wish I had a river to skate away on"?

Gary: It's actually called "River."

Vernon: "River." OK, well that's a song that you think, "Well, this is depressing." It's not at all. Because many of those times, you're just overwhelmed in life, you want to get away from it. And to have somebody who speaks to that in such a clear voice and touches you, I think, in a way you feel empathized with just by listening to it even without a therapist. It's a powerful healing tool right there. You feel like - and it's strange, I'm not sure how psychologically that works - but like a connection somehow.

Mark: Vernon keeps hitting on a very good word there, Gary: empathy.

Gary: Empathy. From my perspective, empathy is the critical component in all psychotherapy. And I think that you have really nailed it, too, in terms of her songs and her lyrics. We feel that empathetic response because her music in some ways so understands our experiences. You talked about coming from Nam and California and reading the news of home. Anybody that lived through the 1960s can most likely relate to some aspects of the song "California."

Mark: Vernon, thank you for the call. Let's do another example here of some Joni Mitchell music that's very effective. That would be - let's see, there's "Both Sides, Now," which we've talked about several times.

[Sound Clip]: Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere,
I've looked at clouds that way.

But now they only block the sun,
They rain and snow on everyone.
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way.

I've looked at clouds from both sides now,
From up and down and still somehow
It's cloud illusions I recall.
I really don't know clouds at all.

Mark: You know, Gary, when I listen to this one I just think it's a good general description of just the way life is.

Gary: Absolutely. Absolutely, Mark. She actually wrote that song, or started it, when she was in an airplane, looking down at clouds. I think that one of the powers of that song is looking at life from both sides now. There's been some discussion around the fact that she was in her early 20s when she wrote that song and some people would say, "Well, how could she be so wise and insightful at that young age?" And then later on she recorded that in London at the age of 57 and her voice had changed and it's a very different type of song. But I disagree with - I think that wisdom was there. Even as I watch my granddaughter, Audrey (who's 18 months) do something - and you say, "No, don't climb the steps" - it's like even at that early age you see her beginning to look at life from both sides now: "Yes, I want to do this but, no, I've got to be safe in order to do something like climb the steps."

Mark: 513-419-7100 if you'd like to join the conversation. Let's talk with Amy in Silverton. Hi, Amy.

Amy: Thank you very much for this show. I told the screener I might cry. I'm 54 but I was a little late in becoming a huge Joni Mitchell fan. An older sister turned me on, if you will. Her "Blue" album, which I think is one of the best ever made in history - but I think I survived senior year in high school, class of '79, because of her "Blue" album. I used to come home from school and play it over and over again. Thank you so much for this show. "All I Want" is my favorite song, although I have many favorites. "I want to be strong, I want to laugh along / I want to belong to the living." But "Circle Game" has a very special meaning. When I was at summer camp, at Camp Lenmary in the '70s - hopefully some of your listeners remember going there. There was a counselor named Fred who sang "Circle Game" to us campers. We loved it and, of course, cried and cried on the last night of camp when he sang "Circle Game."

Mark: Thank you, Amy. Thank you so much.

Amy: Thank you.

Gary: Thanks, Amy.

Mark: 513-419-7100. Let's talk to Dorinda and Dorinda is in Detroit. Hi, Dorinda.

Dorinda: Hi. How are you?

Mark: Good. It must be a day for Michigan folks.

Dorinda: Well, like someone mentioned before, I saw it on Facebook and that's why I'm here now.

Mark: Great. Glad to hear it.

Dorinda: I just wanted to say that Joni has been a sound track to my life. From the very beginning and up to and including "Shine." "Shine" is an incredible album that touches on everything you've been talking about today. Each song speaks to the condition of the world, the physical condition of the world, the way it's falling apart; and heart, love, death, life. It's all there. So she's always touched on all of it. It can be very, very dark. Well, most times it's dark. But then there's always something bright behind it. And then her musicianship is just incomparable. It can't be touched.

Mark: Dorinda, thank you so much. Thank you for the call. We appreciate it.

Dorinda: Thank you.

Mark: Does Joni music work on younger patients, since she seems to have a more direct connection to Boomers?

Gary: Oh, absolutely. I think it's just a matter of introducing Joni Mitchell. We were just having a conversation yesterday at the university, that years ago you would talk about Joni Mitchell and the freshmen would say, "Oh, my parents listen to it, I listen to Joni Mitchell's music." Several years go by and people would say, "My grandparents used to listen to Joni Mitchell." And now, some of the kids will go, "Who's Joni Mitchell?" But yet, some know her. I think it's that universal appeal that she has that crosses sort of the age line.

Mark: We've got a comment from Doug on Facebook, who says, "Cincinnati's own Over-the-Rhine speaks to me," and he talks about the newest release as a soothing balm. That newest release is "Meet Me at the Edge of the World." So it just points out music can mean so many different things to so many different people. It doesn't particularly have to be Joni Mitchell, does it?

Gary: Not at all. And even with Doug, it's sort of like, "Meet Me at the Edge of the World," what does that mean to him? I mean, in some ways, it sounds almost like a new beginning.

Mark: Let's listen to one more example, and that would be "A Case of You."

[Sound Clip]: Just before our love got lost you said,
"I am as constant as a northern star"
And I said, "Constantly in the darkness,
Where's that at?
If you want me I'll be in the bar."
On the back of a cartoon coaster
In the blue TV screen light
I drew a map of Canada
Oh Canada
With your face sketched on it twice.
Oh, you're in my blood like holy wine,
You taste so bitter and so sweet.

Oh, I could drink a case of you, darling, And I would still be on my feet.
Oh, I would still be on my feet.

Mark: OK, Gary.

Gary: That is almost like a spiritual. I mean, to me that is probably one of the most powerful songs ever written about love and falling in love. Later on in that song Joni Mitchell also talks about the cost and the benefits, as well, of falling in love. "I could drink a case of you and I could still stand on my feet." That is a very, very, very powerful line.

Mark: What do you think about - my favorite's always been "Free Man in Paris" because I work in the media communications business. But I always enjoy listening to that one. I'll be driving home in heavy traffic, it's been kind of a tough, stressful day and I'll listen to that and I'll just go, "Hhh - someone who understands."

Gary: Well, you know, a lot of people relate to that particular lyric and I think that we get committed; we get caught up on the roles that we are in, in life. And yet when she says, "I was a free man in Paris, nobody calling me up for favors, nobody asking for my time," it also speaks to that other side of us. As much as we embrace the responsibilities that we have, there's also this other part of us that would like to be freer and not quite have all the responsibilities that we have.

Mark: The cover of "Twisted" was very interesting. What do you think of that cover?

Gary: In the song "Twisted," too, she's really talking an awful lot about her psychological state or someone's psychological state and she's actually using some personality disorders. I think there's that one line, "Up in the room where they let you be crazy." I believe that's the one you're referring to. And that is - talk about self-revealing and self-analysis. And then there's a joke and there's a lot of humor in that song as well.

Mark: So in your experience, Gary, how effective has this been when you're working with patients with this?

Gary: Well, one of the things I like, especially from "A Case of You," there's a line in there where she says she met this woman and she said she knew a lot about her boyfriend's life and said "she knew your devils and your deeds." And this woman said to Joni, "Go to him, stay with him if you can, but be prepared to bleed." And I think there are so many people that I see that are in relationships where they're not fulfilled and the person might actually be cruel and emotionally harmful; and yet one of the things I say is, "Go to them, stay if you can, but be prepared to bleed." And I've had people come back after a while and say, "I've been bleeding. I've been bleeding."

Mark: Gary, it's always a please to talk to you. Good seeing you here.

Gary: Good seeing you, Mark.

Mark: Dr. Gary Dick is professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Cincinnati. And coming up next, we'll have a look at the upcoming Cincy Summer Streets celebration. This is Cincinnati Edition on 91.7 WBXU.

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LarryO on

wow. Great interview.