'Stranger Things' and the Power of Music

stranger things - power of music - tempo therapy and consulting

17 Aug 2022

Netflix's award winning TV show 'Stranger Things' highlights the power of music to calm, connect loved ones, reconnect with ourselves, forge new identities, distract monsters, and even save lives. But how much of this is true? What powers does music really have? What does science tell us about the power of music? And how does music help the characters in 'Stranger Things'? Buckle in to hear what we know about the power of music from an Australian Registered Music Therapist's perspective.

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First things first:

  1. If you haven't watched Seasons 1 - 4 of Netflix's 'Stranger Things', be warned - there are spoilers ahead!
  2. There are some scary creatures in the Youtube clips below - so proceed with caution if you (like me) are a scaredy cat.

For those who haven't yet become obsessed with this show, let's understand a little about the story.

'Stranger Things', is set in the small, fictional town of Hawkins in the United States in the 1980s. It follows a series of mysterious events after a boy disappears and an unusual girl with super powers turns up out of the blue.

Despite the supernatural / horror themes that emerge (which usually make me run a mile), it is an endearing, engaging and at times, funny, exploration of a sleepy town that finds itself caught between its present day reality, and its terrifying, dark, monster-filled alternative town, in the 'Upside Down'.

The show weaves a complex tapestry of themes: the supernatural, good versus evil, coming of age, love, friendship, facing your demons, a decent smattering of power dynamics and some fantastic 80s nostalgia.

Throughout, music is a key driver in the story. From creating moments of joy, connection and transformation, to protecting characters, distracting demons and saving lives, music is quite the heroine here.

But just how much of this is accurate?

Does music really have this much power?

We have found that music has a particularly calming effect on the broken mind. The right song, particularly one that holds some personal meaning can prove a salient stimulus.

Dr Hatch ('Stranger Things', Season 4, Chapter 4: 'Dear Billy').

Whilst the concept of a 'broken mind' is dubious, it is true that our own musical preferences, particularly those that are associated with particular memories, people and experiences, are important. We all have our favourite songs that instantly transport us back to different relationships, places and times in our lives. The mechanisms of these processes are complex, but we do know that particular songs evoke autobiographical memories, emotions and nostalgia, and that music interacts with our mood, our ability to connect with others, our physiology, our neurochemistry and our immune response system.

Depending on the different qualities of the music - see 'How music assists with sleep and relaxation' - it does have the power to calm the nervous system. Similarly, music listening can foster healthy and unhealthy outcomes.

It really comes down to choosing music that

  • you like
  • matches your mood, and
  • meets whatever you might need in the moment.

Being aware of the impact that music has on you is also important. For example, you will listen to certain music to relax, and probably something more upbeat for your morning run. If you are sad or angry, music can help to acknowledge your feelings. However, prolonged use of music for angry or depressive states may do more harm than good.

Music fosters connection, support and coping

We know that music fosters bonds between parents and infants, promotes social connections and reduces isolation. Furthermore, research has established that music can be an important coping strategy when we are in pain or in a state of distress.

The song, 'Should I Stay or Should I Go' by The Clash, is an important point of connection, support and identity for brothers Jonathan and Will Byers throughout the show.

The first season sees older brother Jonathan sharing 'Should I Stay or Should I Go' with Will as a way to connect with him, to protect Will from the distress of hearing their parents fighting, and to share music listening as an important coping strategy.

As the season progresses, we learn that Will sang the song to himself in the 'Upside Down', which helped to keep him alive. Playing the song to his mother also helped Will to reach out to let her know that he was still alive.

Jonathan and Will Byers listening to The Clash

'Stranger Things', Season 1, Chapter 2: 'The Weirdo on Maple St'.

Music affirms identity

Research has shown that musical identity is an important way, particularly for young people, to foster a sense of identity and connection to peers.

In Season 2, we see Will gradually being possessed by 'The Mindflayer'. In the final episode, as Will is struggling to hold onto his identity, Jonathan again plays 'Should I Stay or Should I Go?' by the The Clash. As the music plays, Will's family and friends are able to reach into the part of Will that is not yet possessed by 'The Mindflayer'. This enables them to share memories with him, and for Will to stay with them long enough for him to communicate important information with them.

Will's favourite song helps him to stayed connected

'Stranger Things', Season 2, Chapter 8: 'The Mindflayer'.

Music impacts mood, uplifts spirits and generates joy

Who hasn't experienced a range of emotions listening to music? The elation, the sadness, the anger, the yearning? We have all reached for different kinds of music when we feel sad, excited or heartbroken. The research shows what we have all felt intuitively: music impacts our emotions and the reward centres in our brain, so that we enjoy the experience of listening to or creating music and can be transported out of our experience into other realms.

In Season 3, the Hawkins gang are running out of time and desperately need Dustin's girlfirend, Suzie, to help them decipher the code for Planck's Constant. At arguably the most suspenseful moment of the season, Suzie insists that Dustin connects with her and shows his devotion by singing with her. Amongst the darkness and fear, it brings lightness and joy.

If you're in need of a little pick-me-up and have a fondness for 'The Neverending Story' from way back, I recommend you watch and listen to the clip below.

Dustin and Suzie singing 'The Neverending Story'

'Stranger Things', Season 3, Chapter 8: 'The Battle of Starcourt'.

Music can reach parts of the brain that words can't. So, maybe that's the key; a lifeline.

Robyn ('Stranger Things', Season 4, Chapter 4: 'Dear Billy').

This statement is 100% true.

The cortex at the top of the brain is responsible for our higher functioning: thinking, planning, multi-tasking and focusing our attention. Put simply, all the areas below the cortex -the subcoritcal areas - process our emotions and incoming sensory data, and perform tasks necessary for movement and survival.

Making and listening to music involves both hemispheres of the brain and the simultaneous use of multiple parts of the brain - from the brain stem through to the cortex. We also know that the brain areas activated by music process other functions, and that music builds new neural pathways - for more information see 'Music: the superpower in your pocket'.

Music as a safe haven, a 'lifeline', in difficult times

There is no doubt that music has the ability to transport us to different internal worlds. With its ability to evoke memories and emotions, influence our moods, our physiology and our neurochemistry, and foster a sense of support and connection with others, it is not surprising that the concept of music as a lifeline was used as a core part of the storyline in Season 4.

In Season 4, Chapter 4, after hearing the creepy Victor Creel humming 'Dream a little dream by Ella Fitzgerald to himself in the Pennhurst Asylum, Nancy and Robin have a hunch that listening to music may save victims of Vecna, the once-troubled youngster, turned terrifying monster who tyrannises the town in various guises throughout the show.

Luckily, they are correct.

When Max becomes Vecna’s next victim, her friends find and play her favourite song, 'Running up that hill (A Deal with God)' by Kate Bush. Playing this song provides the support that Max needs to hold onto the connection that she has with her friends so that she can focus, flee from Vecna and ultimately return to safety with her friends.

Listening to 'Running up that Hill (A Deal with God)' by Kate Bush saves Max from Vecna

'Stranger Things', Season 4, Chapter 4: 'Dear Billy'.

Music can distract and relieve pain and suffering

This 2016 meta-analysis (a meta-analysis is a comprehensive analysis of independent research studies examining the same area in order to ascertain overall trends) examined the impact of music medicine and music therapy on procedural, acute and chronic pain in clinical settings. The author found:

  • in general, listening to music and music therapy decreased pain
  • listening to music can reduce emotional distress associated with pain
  • music interventions have more effect on severe pain
  • music can help to lower heart rate, blood pressure and respiration rates
  • music therapy makes a particularly meaningful impact on perception of pain intensity
  • music listening decreases use of analgesics for pain relief

In the final chapter of Season 4, 'The Piggyback', character Eddie Munson, performs 'Master of Puppets' by Metallica to distract a colony of bat-like small monsters. He is able to shift his previous response of running away from fear, overcome his fear, and act as a decoy for his friends - all while rocking out in style.

'Master of puppets' by Metallica as performed by Eddie Munson

'Stranger Things', Season 4, Chapter 9: 'The Piggyback'.

So can music really save our lives as 'Stranger Things' would have us believe?

The answer is yes and no.

In the event of being attacked by real monsters, I'm afraid it's all over for you and me.

However, in taking on internal demons, music really can help to:

  • regulate your emotions and nervous system
  • help you to find clarity and calm
  • find connection, support and ways to cope
  • remember who you are
  • shift your mood, generate joy and help to lift you through the hard times

If you're wanting to ensure your own safety from the (real or internal) monsters of the 'Upside Down', Spotify will create your very own 'Upside Down Playlist' using a mix of songs from the 'Stranger Things Spotify Playlist' and your most played songs - it's fun, check it out here.

If you're wanting to find a more supported and curated response to you and your needs, feel free to reach out for a 15 minute virtual cuppa to see if I can be of help.

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