Why Grief Doesn’t Always Translate Into Great Music (And Why That’s Okay)

When musicians experience loss, it’s natural, and typically helpful, to delve deep into the creative process to find solace. But viewing the times we go through grief as unique chances to make meaningful music is overly simplistic and can actually end up hurting us and our music. Death, disease, heartache, job losses, and frustration have and continue to serve as the inspiration for great music. However, we’re kidding ourselves to think they can and do for every musician.

How suffering impacts creativity

If there was a way to cleanly exchange suffering for actionable creative inspiration, grief would probably be easier to face for many artists. But in reality, hardships hit every musician differently. What we face often makes it hard or even impossible to focus on music. When we lose someone or something important to us or wake up to suddenly find that our lives have been upended, it’s natural for some musicians to turn to their creative processes to sort things out and find meaning in the grief they’re experiencing. But if you’re not one of these musicians, the last thing you should feel is guilt. The COVID-19 crisis that’s currently engulfing the planet comes to mind. Yet, this also applies to the times we experience grief under normal circumstances as well. 

When music gets put on hold

The suffering we experience throughout the course of our lives can be so debilitating that the act of being musical in any way isn’t always an option for us. It’s okay to not make music when you’re in physical or emotional pain. Pushing through and ignoring your feelings to make music could end up with repercussions that extend past wasting your time and energy during a crisis. Forcing yourself to make music when you’re in the wrong headspace can lead to resentment and burnout. It can also easily become a fruitless distraction that makes it harder to heal from whatever we’re facing. For many of us, making music truly is therapy. Yet, it’s a bad idea to blanketly prescribe music as the cure for whatever we’re dealing with. 

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Even if Coronavirus isn’t directly impacting you, your daily life has almost certainly transformed because of it. If you find yourself coping with the loss of everything normal by focusing on non-musical things, that’s okay. It makes you human, and being in touch with our humanity is essential for being effective music-makers. The truth is that at any given moment, we have limited energy to devote to our musical and non-musical lives. If you’re spending too much energy just trying to get to the place where you can make music during a crisis, you probably need to put music on hold while you cope with what you’re dealing with. 

Getting back to making music after a difficult experience 

If you’ve experienced real trauma in your life, it could take time before you get back to your creative process. Grief has the power to slow or pause our musical lives temporarily. It’s up to us to choose how and when we decide to get back on track. For some, slowly incorporating music into daily life is the best bet. Others may jump back in feet first. Listening to how you’re genuinely feeling about things is the best way to return to music after experiencing grief. The way you work music back into your life should feel natural. But it also demands work and a willingness to feel uncomfortable. You can think of this discomfort like the feeling you experienced when you first learned how to play your instrument. It can feel unfamiliar or even painful to get back into a creative mindset again, but you’ll slowly find your footing and confidence the longer you work at it. 

While we all know that music helps the world cope with loss and tragedy, musicians need to take care of their own lives in order to be healthy and productive. There’s nothing wrong with taking a break from music to focus on everything else happening in your life. This idea goes against the idea of dramatically sacrificing everything to “make it” in music, but grief is an experience where listening to yourself and those around you will always be better than following anyone else’s advice. 

Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.

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  • Juan Maria Solare - April 22, 2020 reply

    I can only agree with at least 99% of Patrick’s words.
    And I am right now in one of those grief phases (and has nothing to do with Covid-19).
    If I try to force myself to compose now, I would possibly produce third-class music and get even more frustrated.
    It is not *grief* what produces great art, it is overcoming grief what makes our music deeper.

    Juan María

  • Dave Purington - April 24, 2020 reply

    I don’t completely agree, I can see why I wouldn’t wanna write about covid 19 but some of the the most beautiful tunes ever written were grief tunes. From Hank Williams to the Eagles, Vince Gill, and even Eric Clapton have written songs that touched hearts and sold millions of recordings.. I don’t know this for sure but my opinion is Mike is kinda like a lot of people in the music biz, they don’t really know whats gonna be the next big thing their job is to take a wild guess..
    I’m reminded of the song writer in the book THE PLATINUM RAINBOW who went in to a record company’s Executive office plopped down in a big overstuffed chair and the big guy listened to about 15 seconds of his demo and then told him he needed to overhaul his song it just wasn’t gonna cut any mustard, let alone fly. So the songwriter picked his shattered ego up off the floor and took his demo and walked across the street to another record studio. After listening to his tune the big man in charge got all excited and said that song is a winner and I know just the man who would love to record it. So he called over and sent him right back to the same guy who had just insulted him less than an hour earlier and they ended up with a big hit.
    I’m not saying your all wrong, I’m just just saying your not totally right..

  • ejj - April 25, 2020 reply

    It’s not that the music I would write during grieving would or wouldn’t be any good. It’s that whatever I’d write during that period would always end up being associated with that period of my life, and take me back there… rendering the song to trash bin by necessity. Nothing evokes a time or a place like a song.

    So yes, for me (your mileage may vary), making music during “dark” periods just isn’t a thing.

  • Julia - May 12, 2020 reply

    I was surprised to see something so empathetic and insightful. I think some commenters may have missed the point. People giving themselves permission to just be where and how they are when they are grieving is extremely important. Thank you for posting this.

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