There is something profound, powerful, phenomenal, unfathomable, mesmerizing, mysterious, and just simply amazing about music. I don’t have any professional training in music other than my occasional jam sessions with church bands but I don’t think you need to be classically trained to just sit back and appreciate Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, or Franz Schubert’s Ave Maria, or Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, or the latest pop hit by Bruno Mars or Taylor Swift.
Music does inexplicable things to us. The hills are alive with the sound of music. Music moves us. It sways us and causes us to tap our fingers or bop our heads as we listen to the rhythm and beat of that Drake’s “In My Feelings” hip-hop hit.
The Power of Music
Music has the power to transport our minds and imaginations to another time or place. Whenever I hear a recording of the smooth soothing voice of Karen Carpenter today, I’m immediately brought back to my 1980s childhood home back in the Philippines and it’s ‘yesterday once more.’ There I was, a little kid waking up on a Saturday morning with the music of The Carpenters in the background being played by my parents.
Music heals us. It helps ease our pain and our hurts. The ancient Greek philosophers believed that music served a therapeutic purpose. Today’s science gives us the evidence that it’s true. Many of us have probably heard of the “Mozart effect.” One scientific study found that Mozart’s Piano Sonata in D Major decreased epileptiform activity in patients even in comatose state. Music therapy has now become a well-known practice in helping not only make us feel good but also in the treatment of different disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, memory loss, traumatic brain injury, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Music shields us from bad, harmful stuff. In ancient Israel, when Saul was being tormented by a harmful spirit, he asked his servants to seek out a man who is skillful in playing the lyre. They brought in David to be at his service. “And when the harmful spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand. Saul was refreshed and was well, and the harmful spirit departed from him” (1 Samuel 16:23).
Music changes us and transforms us. It changes our mood from sad to happy or even from happy to sad. Music brings us joy and sometimes move us to tears. It lifts up the spirit. As Plato said, “music is an art imbued with the power to penetrate into the very depths of the soul.”
We have always known that music has profound effects on us physically, cognitively, emotionally, and spiritually. Ancient civilizations knew the role of music in our lives. The Ancient Greek philosophers philosophized about it. Many verses in the Old Testament refer to music, singing, and playing the stringed instruments. In battles that date back to the earliest part of human history, music was used to inspire and energize the warriors. During the American Civil War, there are accounts of the use of music to aid in the healing of the wounded soldiers.
Music Touches Body and Soul
We’ve always known that music has the power to impact our daily lives but it’s only in recent decades, through advances in modern science and technology, that we have captured, imaged, and measured the evidence of the complexities of the impact of music on us. Our blood pressure rises, the pupils in our eyes dilate, the hairs in our arms stand, and chills run down our spine. Through neuroimaging and other advanced technological devices, scientists can track some of the physiological changes—including the neurological activities and rewiring in our brain—when we listen to music.
Music touches our lives in fascinating ways. One important window in our lives where music profoundly impacts us is our developmental years, particularly during our teenage years going into our early 20s when we are firming up our sense of identity. According to research analysis using Spotify usage data, our music taste evolves rapidly from age 14 to 25, then a little slower from age 25 to 33, and then it flattens out after that. Our teenage years going into our early 20s is a period of restless exploration and rapid development and the music that enters our lives during this period gets embedded in those neural wirings, staying in our memory for the rest of our lives.
It’s no wonder then that I have a special attachment to the music of the 80s and 90s as those were during my formative years. The music I heard during those crucial developmental years are forever embedded in my psychosocial identity. Whenever I hear Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” I re-live that visceral feeling of walking into my 8th grade dance.
Musical nostalgia, according to the latest scientific research and findings, is real. Hearing those songs again brings back all kinds of emotional memories, including heartaches, love, exhilaration, individual expression, passion, happiness, anger, hatred, and frustration. From Nirvana to Snoop Dog, the music spoke to the young adolescent me. The messages weren’t always positive and uplifting but the songs spoke to my cultural identity nonetheless.
Music That Leads to God
During this developmental stage in my early adult life, I got the opportunity to really get immersed not only in popular music but also in Christian music. Doing so gave me the reference point in my life where I can compare my experience with how music can positively impact our lives. I remember jumping up and down with my peers as we sang with youthful exuberance Psalm 95. “Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord!” There were also a few times when I would bawl with my fellow youth retreatants whenever we would sing “Refiner’s Fire” by Brian Doerksen or “Song of Saint Augustine” by Martin Doman.
The melody, the rhythm, and the lyrics struck my heart and my mind and moved me deeply. The singing only lasted a few minutes but each music piece wasn’t just another fleeting moment. Each singing was a moment that sent a lasting message to the young Christian me. The lyrics “I choose to be holy, set apart for you, oh Lord” meant something to me and it stayed with me. Years after singing those songs for the first time, hearing those songs again brings back memories, once again reminding me of the joy of loving God like a child. That line from Martin Doman’s “Song of Saint Augustine” is there in my memory to remind me that God has made me for Himself and my heart will not rest until it rests in Him.
As liturgical composer and Paulist priest Father Ricky Manalo said in an interview: “Music is one of the most powerful symbols and artistic forms to inspire people’s imagination…to bring people back to God, through the nuances of the Gospel message. So, I have always believed that music is one of the most important tools for welcoming them back, drawing them in and also initiating new encounters, inviting others.”
Music is a gift. It’s a wonderful gift. We offer back this gift to our Creator also as a gift by our singing and praising. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church is the familiar quote by Saint Augustine: “He who sings prays twice.” Music, with our voices singing, our ears listening, and hands creating music, enables us to physically express the spiritual joy of our heart. Music has the power to bring the mind, body, and spirit in unison as we reach out to God.