Harmony: A Way to Heal Discord

By Ann Brode   |   November 15, 2022
Marilee Gordon singing at a retreat last summer in Wyoming

After another discordant election season, it’s time to heal the rifts and find ways to live together in loving community. As simple as it may sound, singing together helps us come together. To explore this further, I recently sat down with therapist and singer-songwriter Marilee Gordon to ask about her experience using music as an avenue for personal and communal healing. Here are tidbits from our inspiring conversation. 

Marilee’s relationship with music has been both formative and informative. From an early age, she treasured the joy of singing together at family gatherings. It wasn’t long before she picked up a guitar and started writing her own songs. And, she’s been playing music, writing songs, and getting others to sing along ever since. As a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW), Marilee used her musical expertise to help people discover the inherent therapeutic value of singing along. I asked her to describe how this came about. 

“I’ve done harmony singing with lots of groups, from 12 to 85 years old. Singing is a lot about listening. If someone says, ‘I can’t sing,’ I simply put them next to someone who can, tell them to listen carefully and match what they hear. I developed this technique when I was in grad school and had a job as social service worker at a nursing home. I’d often bring my guitar and round people up to sing the songs my grandmother taught me. Even people who didn’t speak much, pitched in and sang along. Because music and emotions are so closely tied, what started out being recreational often ended up being therapeutic. These were all old-timer, no nonsense folks and the music opened them up, softened them up. As moods lifted and memories rekindled, soon they were teaching me “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.” 

Marilee and her granddaughter singing in

Later, Marilee worked with middle school kids to help them negotiate the social challenges of cliques and bullying. She was hoping that teaching them to sing in harmony might help them be nicer to each other. Sure enough, it worked, and the group ended up staying together as friends for the next thirty-plus years. 

For several summers, Marilee and I designed retreats for professional caregivers with the express purpose to nurture and teach self-nurturing practices. Immersed in the simplicity of Nature at her ranch in Wyoming’s Absaroka Mountains, participants were able to calm down and focus on self-care. Bodywork, art, exercise, meditation, ceremony, and music offered therapeutic ways to connect with a sense of self and each other. One of the highlights of our time together was learning how our individual voices could come together to create a harmonious whole. Near the end of the retreat, Marilee asked us to write a few words from the heart. She, then, used these words to compose an original song and teach it to the group. Singing “our song” was a way to personalize what we’d learned about being in harmony – with ourselves, each other, and the natural world. Then, we could bring it home. 

Because music is so deeply rooted in our physical and emotional experience, it offers a powerful resource for healing. Listening to and singing along give us ways to process a wide range of feelings – from joy to sorrow, regret to compassion. Have you ever heard a piece of music and felt emotion flood to the surface? This is a therapeutic moment. In addition, streaming a song and singing along can be cathartic and humming softly can be calming. If you pay attention to a song stuck in your head, the lyrics just might have something to tell you. Or, like Marilee, you might have a happy playlist that elevates your mood, a sad playlist that’s comforting, and some songs you never want to hear again. 

In general, singing brings on a natural high. It lowers blood pressure, increases endorphins, and decreases stress hormones. Studies have shown that when people sing together it brings them together – psychologically and physiologically. Did you know that the hearts of people singing together get in sync and begin to beat in unison? This aligns with Marilee’s comment that singing therapeutically isn’t about performing, it’s about coming from the heart. When she’s singing in a choir or chanting OM in yoga class, she hears it happen in the quality of tone emanating from and through all the voices singing in unison. Singing solo, she channels it to help her dogs sleep or comfort loved ones. 

From her experience working with middle school kids, contentious siblings, and people from differing backgrounds, Marilee believes that music can be a transformative agent to bring us all together. Musing on this, she concluded our interview with this bit of poetic inspiration: “You know, in a sense, it’s like shades of green in the natural world all go together. We’re all different people, different shades of green. And, if everyone sings together it becomes a beautiful painting.” 

Marilee Gordon LCSW is a longtime marriage and family counsellor in Jackson Hole, residing in Wilson, Wyoming, and Montecito. She is a singer/songwriter, performer, and author of the children’s book, Moosey Ate My Peas.  


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