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How Parts are affected by and use music

Upon reflection, it has been my personal experience that music is a channel by which Self energy can be accessed and harnessed, a trailhead by which exiles’ burdens can be compassionately known, felt, witnessed, and understood, and a tool used by protectors to conceal, minimize, or distract from burdens being felt by the larger system. In the following sections I hope to demonstrate these assertions to the reader through examples of my personal experiences as a gay man, film school graduate, IFS-informed therapist and music enthusiast.

My Parts

Many of my Parts are interested in sharing here their views on the topics of music, the human mind, and IFS. Some of these Parts explicitly asked me to speak for them and others attempted to directly take over this project in my thinking and my writing.

These Parts of me include one that likes to communicate and receive communication through creative modes of expression (e.g., writing, films, music), one that likes to note, synthesize, and summarize information into a cohesive story, one that takes great joy in exposure to mysteries and discoveries, one that aims to be perfect in all that I invest my time and energy in, Parts that are calmed by certain music, one that likes to learn and teach, one that likes to help clients and colleagues, one wanting this article to be read by and digestible to non-therapists and those non-IFS-knowledgeable alike, one that makes efforts to secure a place of respectability, visibility, and acceptance in the IFS healer community, and one that uses music to mark and enhance content, themes, thoughts, and feelings in my life.

Writing this article required much effort for a few of these Parts in reserving space for my Self energy to be seated in the cockpit of this project.

That being said, the sections below demonstrate, through some of these Parts, how music can affect and be used by our Parts.

Pop music and a gay exile

I “came out” to myself as gay at approximately 23 years old. The process of fully “letting in” others on my sexuality, beginning with friends and family and eventually to initial meetings with acquaintances, was a process that began at age 24 and gradually ended around the age of 26. During high school in the early 2000s, I was closeted. That is, the Parts of myself that were attracted to men were exiled internally and also hidden externally.

In middle school and early high school, a Part of me was enthralled by bubblegum pop music and countdown lists. This Part of me religiously watched Total Request Live (TRL), a music video countdown show on MTV. *NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, and Britney Spears were commonly at the top of the daily chart. This Part of me would make and listen to a chart of his own each day, as well. The chart he made consisted of many of the same pop artists and songs on TRL. He played them on tapes and CDs on the all-in-one tape, CD, and radio player in his room. Exuberance flowed through him listening to each song on the list, eventually reaching a crescendo during the number one song played. There was an innocent, free, childlike joy to it. That is to say, unburdened.

However, another Part of me kept this aspect of my life secret. The message received from my peers, society, and culture was that pop music either meant you were a girl or a gay boy. Neither was a good indication. I don’t think my veiling Part could, at the time, completely describe why it did what it did, but it knew it had to do it for my emotional and social safety. I can now appreciate what it was doing and why it had to do it.

My music supervisor Part and the 20 year playlist

Oddly, other Parts of me became enamored with alternative, progressive, psychedelic, and electronic rock music in my late teens and early twenties. The Part of me that veiled my interest in pop music used these rock loving Parts of me in its veiling project. However, the Parts of me that had adopted rock were genuinely, and still are, into that genre and not using it as a protective project. They were not, and still are not, burdened.

Upon moving away to college, a Part of me began to develop that would seek out and collect songs that resonated with many of my Parts. Songs that this Part found and collected marked important moments in my coming out journey. Boulevard of Broken Dreams by Green Day marked my first heartbreak. Space Oddity by David Bowie marked my first kiss. Separator by Radiohead marked my coming out to my father.

To this day, this music supervisor Part is still seeking and collecting tracks. The naming of this Part is inspired by music supervisors employed in the entertainment industry whose job is to select and procure music to pair with media productions. The technology of 2023 makes this seeking, collecting, and organizing of songs for this Part of me much easier than when it first began this project in 2004. I now listen to the Spotify playlist it’s made on shuffle on my iPhone regularly. Each song played takes me back to a memory of one or more Parts of me. Sometimes the Parts blend with me and other times we look back on the memory together.

My imagineer Part’s use of music

In my life previous to being a therapist, I went to film school at UC Santa Barbara. Each year, we film students were anxious and excited in anticipation for May to come around, when the annual student film festival Reel Loud was (and still is) held. Reel Loud has been running for over 30 years now. At the time of my participation, student films selected to screen at the festival were required to be no more than six minutes and 30 seconds in length, shot, edited, and screened on 16mm film stock, silent, and accompanied at the festival by live musicians.

Reflecting on this time period, my Part that likes to be called “the imagineer” took the lead in the conception, construction, and direction of a film that screened at the 2008 festival, Jesus Blues. The imagineer took what he had learned in film and television classes from four years in high school and four years in university to tell a story with themes of connection, playfulness,  and redemption.

Music was at the heart of the story, the creative process, and these themes. I also believe the imagineer was able to speak for Parts of my system through this creative, music driven endeavor. Knowing that the finished product would need to be accompanied by live music, my imagineer chose a song around which to sculpt the script, photography, action, and editing. The song ultimately chosen embodied spontaneity, collaboration, and playfulness. That set the tone for all that was to be produced.

Glossing over the specific, significant efforts of my imagineer, production manager, and other Parts in making the film, as well as the many Parts of my external collaborators, the final product and its accompanying live music stirred audible, visible, and felt reactions from the Parts of 800 audience members. The mixture and timing of laughter, cheers, “aw”s, body movements, and silence indicated Parts having a good time, feeling seen, empathizing with the Parts of the characters presented on screen, and attuned to the live music.

What comes to mind to me as I recall this event is something I learned from Susan McConnell on a Somatic IFS retreat: When we are in a space together for a common purpose and a designated time period, we become, as a group, a living organism. Looking back, the Self energy created in the theater that day in 2008 was palpable. I believe the live music, connected to the film it was backing, amplified the audience’s individual access to Self energy, their Parts’ connection to Self energy, and the collective field of Self energy of the audience as a living organism unto itself.

My imagineer Part determined the whole experience to be a sweeping success. Not only had the finished product been received positively, in my imagineer’s and many other Parts’ eyes, my internal system had been seen, understood, and affirmed by the Parts of others and a Self energy larger than any one individual.

Reflection 

Triannually, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus (SFGMC) performs a series of concerts in the Bay Area of Northern California. Full disclosure, my husband is a long-time chorus member. The spring 2023 performance was a piece commissioned from the Disney Corporation of classic songs from Disney-produced films. The chorus was accompanied by a 30 piece orchestra and various video montages of the films by which the songs were associated. For my internal system, a standout amongst the performed numbers was “Reflection” from the film “Mulan.”

Before the number, a trans woman chorus member shared her personal experiences of coming to terms with and coming out as a woman. She connected these experiences to the themes of the film “Mulan” and the song “Reflection.” Notably, SFGMC now welcomes members of all gender identities and expressions, not only gay men.

The chorus proceeded from her introduction into the number. On the screens above the chorus played out a carefully edited montage of Mulan, showing the bare bones of the titular character’s story as she disguised herself male in order to be accepted as a member of her community’s army. Her father and her culture shamed her for her interests in being a warrior because being a warrior in the army was only for men.

As the number came to a close, the 200 plus person chorus sang “when will my reflection show who I am inside.” The orchestra hit a crescendo, with almost all instruments playing together in unison. Above, the ending of the film played: Mulan returns home to her father after a war was won. She presents to him the sword she stole from him, a symbol of male and cultural identity and privilege. Her father tosses the sword aside, and tearfully embraces Mulan with a full-on hug. She is what matters to him. Not the sword. Not the cultural traditions.

Taking all of this sensory and internal experience in, tears filled my eyes, chills ran through my body, and goose-bumps formed on my skin. Self energy was in the room and felt in my body. I believe many of my Parts, especially my sexuality-related exiles and former exiles, and likely many Parts of the performers and the audience, felt seen, witnessed, and understood by my own and a collective field of Self energy in that moment.

Parts who make music

I had an interesting opportunity in working with a therapy client who was a musician. Although the IFS therapy we did together wasn’t specifically around music, we did explore how and why one of his Parts used music production.

In a discussion we had about his music that occurred over a year into therapy, I got curious about the Parts of him involved in the making of his music. What arose was a Part of him we had already come to know pretty well. In this exploration, it became clear to both of us that this Part was using music to express the anger, loneliness, powerlessness, and shame that came from profound neglect and abuse in his childhood. That is to say, it pointed to the burdens of an exile. Not surprisingly, his music-making Parts did so mostly in solitude and rarely in collaboration with others. Additionally, an inner critic would criticize the music that was produced, viewing perfection in the finished product as the only means by which the exiles underneath could be fully quelled.

The unburdening of these exiles wasn’t to occur until months later. However, we checked back in on the Parts involved in making music after the unburdenings. After the unburdenings, there was a noticeable freedom in the producing and recording of music. These Parts felt free of the burden of quelling the exile, making “perfect” tracks, and were more so interested in creativity and experimentation.

Music as a trailhead

I encourage others to consider music as a potential trailhead for us to befriend our Parts, access Self energy, and come to know exiles and to help them unburden. This trailhead could be a conversation about, listening to, or making music.

I am quite curious to hear others’ perspectives on the topic of Parts, Self, and music. Please feel free to comment below.

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Author´s Bio

Author

  • Max Littman

    Max is an IFS-informed therapist and consultant in a private practice based in Oakland, CA. www.maxlittman.com