Music helps with mental health, that’s not news. But I could have never imagined that one artist’s music – or even one narrow genre of music – could be nearly as effective as medication.

IMAGE COURTESY: Ben Böhmer Facebook page.
Voices Music Saturday, December 28, 2019 - 10:05

“Apart from my wife, family and a few close friends, nothing has the ability to move me as much as Ben Bohmer’s music,” I texted a friend the other day. She said that was quite a statement to make, and I thought to myself, “Yeah it is, and I mean it.” It has been quite a journey getting to this point.

I discovered Deep House music by the shores of South Anjuna Beach in Goa, with cold sand beneath my feet, brisk and chilly winds blowing over my face and the sounds of the ocean accompanying the music playing at Curlies. As I stood at the edge of the shack facing the beach along with two of my buddies, I saw a track working its magic on nearly everyone hanging out there on that pre-season September weekend. Three different people walked up to the bar manager and asked for the track ID. I was one of them. He mumbled something, and I tried to register that in my intoxicated head. Back home, I did a deep-dive on Google with vague spellings and discovered the track after a solid couple of hours of searching – Cars by Veerus and Maxie Devine.

That track had done something to my brain that night. I was more familiar with psytrance until then, but this track would soon become the official trip-starter for any holiday. As I listened to this track on loop, the YouTube rabbit hole took me on a journey of discovering Deep House, Tech House and Melodica – whatever you want to call it. That was four years ago, and along the way I found Eelke Kleijn, Joachim Pastor, Teho, the whole bunch at Anjunadeep, and several others. There are the Indian favorites too, BLOT! and Kohra – there are days when Maaya or Order of Pluto would run all day at my work table.

 

But one artist would change my life. Ben Bohmer.

I thought I was way over fanboying in life. I had internalised the easy cynicism of my early 20s, and I went on with life without any artistic inspiration, quite happily. But there was something about Ben’s music which took me back to the childish, reverential joy I had long forgotten.

It was more than just joy. The music was making me more functional, and productive. I would start my day with Autumn, and by the time I glided through After Earth and Ground Control to hit Rye, I would be getting some serious work done. Tracks like Lullaby Horizon and Father Ocean could improve my mood within seconds, and I shared that happiness with people around me. I was happier, perhaps even a better person. When the rest of the tracks in the Breathing album dropped, I thought I would be disappointed. But with Decade and Wall of Strings, I rediscovered pent-up energy. I found solace In Memoriam.

But all this while I also kept asking myself – how have I become so obsessed with this guy and his music? Sure, his music is awesome, but could I really be so enamoured with a musician?

A few days after the Breathing album was released, Ben gave an interview to Billboard. And suddenly everything made sense to me. I was in a cab with a chatty colleague when the article popped up on my Facebook feed. When I read that producing the music was his way of processing his father’s suicide, I told my colleague, “Just give me a moment,” and looked away trying to hold myself together. I texted the link to my wife and told her that I might have now got my finger on why the music speaks to me the way it does. “I am nearly tearing up now, if you can f*cking imagine that,” I texted her.

It wasn’t really hard for her to imagine me tearing up. She knew that for most of my twenties, I was a clinically depressed mess, suicidal by night and tired all day. My recovery towards good mental health happened due to several reasons – medication, therapy, love and companionship, better diet, self-care, work, friendships... But when I think back to the earliest moment I can remember which gave me a glimmer of hope that I can beat my depression, it was that night outside Curlies, listening to those gentle beats and synthetic melodies.

In the past year or so, Ben’s music has been my most dependable refuge to escape a bad mood which could easily descend into a depressing, destabilising vortex. And to know that the music that I have been in love with was also rooted in sadness and pain was as cathartic as listening to the music itself.

The feeling is scientific. Research has found that one doesn’t even necessarily need ‘Music Therapy’ for improving mental health – just listening to music can help. There are a variety of brain areas involved in emotion and motivation, and musical interventions have been used to increase socialisation and emotional functioning by engaging with those brain areas. It has been pointed out that the most significant results of musical interventions are to do with reducing depression and anxiety. It also helps in the improvement of emotional expression, communication, interpersonal skills, self-esteem, and overall quality of life. Researchers have found that listening to music you like can increase the dopamine (happy hormone) level in your body by 9%. An experiment with rats found that listening to 'melodic' music increases the level of dopamine and release of serotonin in the brain. That music can help with productivity is also backed by research, it isn’t just experiential.

The reason I insist on the scientific nature of music’s impact on our mental health is that one of the most difficult existential questions while fighting a mood disorder is ‘how do I get out of it?’ The question has no single answer, and none of them are easy. During my darkest days, when I contemplated suicide or felt a deep sense of shame, the frustration of not knowing how to fight these emotions would make me feel defeated even before I could start fighting the battle. What helps then are immediate mood-lifters, and music is one of the best options – way better than food, intoxicants, or even people.

Music speaks to each person differently. Many can never understand why Ben’s music, or any music for that matter, can mean so much. When I see posts on Facebook or Instagram about Ben’s music, I know that there are many of us to whom his music speaks in one language, that of happiness and euphoria. I have often wondered how many of us are madly in love with the music because of its capability to bring us out of the dark corners of our minds into a state of ecstasy. Every time I listen to it, I feel the pores in my brains opening up, happy hormones surging out. And perhaps it's got to do with Ben’s own personal experience – the music which he created to beat the pain of his father’s death helps us to deal with our own pain. 

I don’t have the perfect words to describe the music, but I know that it makes me less depressed, that it helps a friend of mine feel better about her body, and that it enables another one to be calm when he is getting a panic attack.

Before going to sleep on the day I read the Billboard article, I listened to In Memoriam, the track Ben dedicates to his father and calls “very emotional, very sad”. I tried to understand how that track was sad, and I couldn’t hear the sadness in it. But it did have something to do with sadness – it was a release from it.

That’s what Ben’s music has meant for me, an instant release from sadness, and perhaps momentarily, from depression too. And I hope it never stops