I think I should have no other mortal wants if I could always have plenty of music. It seems to infuse strength into my limbs and ideas into my brain. Life seems to go on without effort when I am filled with music.– George Bernard Shaw
It’s the holiday season, and everywhere I go, there are various renditions of familiar holiday carols playing loudly, some of them beautiful, others nostalgic, and more than a few, at times, ear splittingly difficult to enjoy. Last night, however, we attended a candlelight Christmas service and for over an hour, joined in singing one traditional Christmas carol after another. “I remembered them all,” I laughed and said to my husband as afterward, we walked back to the car and the first snow flurries dusted the streets. We said little on the drive home, the music still alive in our minds and igniting the remembrance of Christmases past and the people who shared the holidays with us. It was the music, triggering old memories, lightening our spirits, calming us in a rush, rush world and creating in us a sense of shared humanity through song. For awhile, I wished I’d taken those voice lessons or spent more time practicing my piano lessons.
Despite the fact that I love music, I never pursued a musical career. Yet all the years of piano lessons, singing in the church choir, dancing, doing pliés to a piano accompaniment, or playing French horn in the marching band were actually more beneficial than I ever imagined they could be. Not only can music enhance a young person’s self-esteem and academic performance, musical training can help protect mental sharpness and brain functioning.
During the last weeks of my mother’s life, before she succumbed to before Alzheimer’s disease, I witnessed the power of music to ignite long lost memories. I visited her a few weeks before her death, shocked at how unresponsive she was to my presence. She sat listless in a wheelchair, her head bowed toward her chest, and mute. I wheeled her out to the garden, placing her next to a towering bougainvillea plant, furious with red blooms. At a loss, I took her hand and began singing a song she often sang to me in my childhood.
“Let me call you sweetheart,” I began, my voice quavering, “I’m in love with you…Let me hear you whisper…” As I sang, my mother slowly raised her head and fixed her eyes on my face. “Why, it’s Sharon,” she said slowly.
“Yes, Mom, it’s me, your eldest daughter.” I squeezed her hand and wiped the tears from my face.
For a moment longer, she held my gaze, then slowly smiled and as her eyelids began, again, to close, she murmured, “I’m happy…” And then she disappeared again into the impenetrable darkness of her disease. But I’m forever grateful for that small moment of recognition, somehow triggered by a long ago song.
Music has many physiological benefits and research has confirmed a number of them such as improving mood, relieving stress and improving concentration. But its benefits were known and used long before scientists began conducting studies on music and health. The ancient Greeks believed music could heal the body and the soul; ancient Egyptians and Native peoples incorporated singing and chanting in their healing rituals. Look back over history, and you’ll find the power of music acknowledged for its many uses: to relieve stress, build confidence or ignite enthusiasm, and even, you may remember from kindergarten, help children learn their ABCs. Today, you routinely hear soft music as you sit in the dentist’s chair, intended to calm you before the drilling begins, or, in a shopping mall, the background of nonstop music playing –not just for pleasure, but to entice you to buy.
Music therapy, now widely used in hospitals and cancer centers, was initially incorporated by the Veterans Administration as World War II ended and young shell-shocked soldiers returned home. Then, as now, it helped to promote healing and enhance quality of life. Music, Dr. Oliver Sacks stated in his book, Musicophilia (2008), is good medicine. “The power of music to integrate and cure is quite fundamental,” he wrote. “It is the profoundest non-chemical medication.”
Music is a therapy. It is a communication far more powerful than words, far more immediate, far more efficient. — Yehudi Menuhin, violinist
Music therapy is now commonly used in the treatment of cancer. The effectiveness of its use with cancer patients has been documented in many studies supporting its benefits for patients, including reduction of anxiety, pain, fatigue and the beneficial physiological impact on heart rate, respiration and blood pressure.
There is no feeling, except the extremes of fear and grief, that does not find relief in music. — George Eliot 1819-1880
Google “music and healing,” and you’ll find a number of articles attesting to the physiological and emotional benefits of music, for example:
- Music aids our autonomic nervous systems, positively affecting blood pressure, heartbeat and breathing. In fact, it can actually improve overall functioning of our cardiovascular systems.
- It helps reduce stress and anxiety, aid relaxation and alleviate depression.
- Together with anti-nausea drugs, music can help to ease the nausea and vomiting accompanying chemotherapy.
- It relieves short term pain and decreases the need for pain medication.
- It’s effective in diminishing pre-surgical anxiety and beneficial for patients with high blood pressure.
- Music even plays a role in improving troubled teens’ self-esteem and academic performance.
As I write, I realize that I need more music in my life. Here in Toronto, we’ve sung with the group, “Choir! Choir! Choir!” and are intent on doing it more regularly, enjoying the fun and the camaraderie music creates among a room full of strangers. For three years when we lived in San Diego, I drummed–learning to play the djembe and later, the dununs, part of the family of West African drums. While I joked I’d likely be in the beginner class indefinitely, each Monday evening was a time of laughter, joy, and community–all created through music and rhythm.
Music. It’s good for our spirits. It’s good for our health. It doesn’t matter what kind of music you prefer as much as it matters that you have music in your life. Whether it plays a therapeutic role in your healing or something makes you want to sing along, stand up and dance, or lose yourself in the memories triggered by any musical piece, it’s an important part of being human. This week, as many of us begin celebrating Christmas or Hanukah, reflect on the music that is so much a part of this holiday season or any other important time in your life.
My heart, which is so full to overflowing, has often been solaced and refreshed by music when sick and weary. – Martin Luther
What role does music play in your life? Has it helped you heal from physical or emotional pain? How has music been beneficial to you in your life? What memories does a particular song ignite for you? What stories? Music, even a song like “Happy Birthday,” is also a powerful prompt for writing. Here are a few suggestions for writing:
- Perhaps there was some particular music that helped to soothe your fears or anxiety during cancer treatment or another difficult time. Listen to it again, closing your eyes, and try to remember that time and how the music made you feel.
- Recall a lullaby from childhood, a favorite song, a bit of classical music, or even the somewhat dissonant music from your high school band. What memories or stories does the music trigger?
- Take any favorite recording, classical, jazz, new age, or pop, and listen to it. Keep your notebook nearby. As you listen, capture the random thoughts and associations that come to mind. Once the recording ends, open your notebook and begin free writing. Do this for five minutes. When you finish, re-read what you’ve written and underline the sentence that has the most power for you. Use that sentence to begin writing again on a fresh page. Set the timer for 15 minutes and see where it takes you.