Why is music the oldest form of human communication? What does it really do to us? And why do every single one of us listen to it?
I needed to ask Sonny Mayo all these questions. He’s a lifelong musician, a man who’s been clean and sober, “Fifteen years, five months, and one day,” and a three-year program administrator at Rock to Recovery, a recovery foundation that does exactly what its perfect song lyric of a title implies—it helps people in active recovery by teaching them how to channel stress, anxiety, depression, trauma, emotionality, and the fear and pain of sobriety into music.
In a practical way, they provide a real-life creative version of staying in the moment, being active, present, alive, and expressive, devoted entirely to the surreal, the artistic, the meditative, mesmerizing, and metaphysical elements of music.
It doesn’t just help gain confidence, teach trust, promote taking chances, express collaborative cooperation, but in verifiable ways, it helps regain self-respect, reign in repression, and reach reality-based catharsis.
But Sonny explained it way more simply and poignantly. “There’s the connection, that active moment of connecting with others through music. And it’s an ancient tribal technique—the same heartbeat, the same voice, the same emotion, all at the same time. I’m watching people work together in the purest form, they’re sharing their soul, their heart.”
And beyond the abstract descriptions of what music is, what it means to humanity, what it does to us and why, there’s also just the practical realities of a form of meditation that’s actively, physiologically healthy and healing on a basic functional level.
When he ends a recording session, Sonny always asks, “Hey, guys, who was thinking about their problems when we recorded that?” Each and every time, no one raises their hands.
Now, as a person diagnosed with brain cancer, I’ve learned a thing or two about neurology, neural pathways, brain evocation and elevation, and what it really means when someone says, “It all starts in the brain.” And one of the first things I learned in recovery was about the healing power of music.
It’s called oxytocin, or as Sonny described it, “It’s the feel good, the love molecule, the cuddle chemical,” a hormone released by the brain as a result of pleasurable, rewarding, redemptive experiences. Or how Sonny says it to the guys he’s recording with, “We’re gonna get high today, and we don’t have to go to the trap house or the liquor store, it’s already in us.”
The fucking cathartic power of creating, producing, listening to, and melting into music relieves stress, helps resist drug cravings, promotes enthusiasm, empathy, positive emotionality, even helps my brain literally heal itself after surgery.
You hear that? Music. Any music. Because it’s designed to help us recover, to help us find ourselves, to help us communicate, listen, live, and love. “That is recovery. It’s mindfulness, being in the moment, focused. It’s channeling emotion through sound.”
I finally asked Sonny what music really means to him. After a pause, he read a single sentence from the The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous—a sentence he passes along to others, a sentence that defines The Higher Power for him… “Despite contrary indications, I had no doubt that a mighty purpose and rhythm underlay all.”
Then Sonny added three words, “We are music.”
If we consider that one step further, it’s truly who we are and what we have in our lives to reach points, places, purposes, and promises beyond the world we see. You know, that world we feel. That spiritual, meditative world where truly anything is possible… If we just be, if we just believe, but really, if we just listen.
Check out this musical goodbye letter to heroin by Dope Feelings: