Music as a Spiritual Practice

Since the beginning, music and spirituality have been inextricably linked.

Every culture in the world has used music as a spiritual practice in rituals for healing, connecting with the Divine, communicating with the spirit world, celebrating important events, and so forth. Ancient people knew the power of music and we do too. In the book Why You Love Music: From Mozart to Metallica- The Emotional Power of Beautiful Sounds, by John Powell, the front endpaper asserts

Music plays a hugely important role in our emotional, intellectual, and even spiritual lives. It impacts the ways we work, relax, behave, and feel. It can make us smile or cry, it helps us bond with the people around us, and it even has the power to alleviate a range of medical conditions.

This blog series will focus on how music can be used as a spiritual practice. Religious or not, all people benefit from activities that foster more compassion, more love, more generosity, more wholeness.

Look for the helpers.

How do you respond when something awful happens? Perhaps you feel sad or angry at first. But in the days and weeks that follow, do these events leave you feeling hopeless or are you spurred to action?

This week marked the 15th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Once again, the news featured stories about the victims and about a world that was changed by senseless violence. However, alongside the tragic stories, the news this year also told about the people who were helpers.
Look for the helpers

The stories told about September 11 offer many examples of people who responded with generosity to the tragedy. For example, the people of  Gander, Newfoundland, didn’t seek out a charity project, but they offered generous support to the more than 7000 travelers who became stranded when American airspace was closed. Those travelers, after returning home, returned the favor by setting up a well-funded scholarship for the children of Gander.

There were many other hopeful stories too. Mental health professionals volunteered their time to talk with the first responders and attend to their emotional needs. Others went to NYC to help with the recovery efforts, risking their own health. And fire stations all across the country reported gifts of food, homemade cards, and other donations. I remember long lines at the Red Cross blood donation center in Boulder, where I was living at the time.

We have a choice when something bad happens: we can be paralyzed by fear and depression or we can work to make things better. Because we never know when we will called to be “helpers,” we have to be ready.

Be a helper.

I believe that the people who are best able to respond to a crisis are the people who are healthy – physically, mentally, emotionally. It’s normal to feel sad or angry when tragedy strikes, but I want to be the person ready to respond with action and love when called to help.

My goal is to stay balanced and spiritually whole enough that when the need arises, I will be able to respond immediately and generously. As a music teacher, I understand how important it is for me to be psychologically healthy when working with others. Music is my passion as well as my livelihood. It is also a source of strength when I’m not feeling grounded.

Music as a spiritual practice.

There are as many paths to the divine as there are people. Just as practicing yoga has multiple benefits, so too the study of music offers many spiritual lessons. For example, listening to music can help regulate our emotions. Participating in an ensemble can help us commit to something larger than ourselves. Practicing a musical instrument teaches us how to be comfortable when alone and how to listen deeply. Performing makes us confront negative self-talk. Vocalists must take a deep dive into the words, transforming text into something meaningful.

music and spiritual practice

music at NUUC

In this blog series, I’ll discuss ways to integrate music into a meaningful spiritual practice. I’ll offer some exercises and share my experiences as a performer, teacher, and church musician. I’m aided in this journey by my wonderful choir at North Unitarian Universalist Congregation. We have made it a priority this season to explore the role of music and spirituality in our lives and in our community.

How does music play a role in helping you become the person you want to be? Please respond below with your thoughts.

“Alive Inside” film review

Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory. 2014 film by Michael Rossato-Bennett.

At a recent family gathering, a cousin told me about a film she had watched the night before. She dared me to view it and not cry. Since it seemed to fit in with the research I’ve been doing lately on music and the brain, I thought it would be a good addition to the bibliography. It’s hard to make me cry. Challenge accepted.

About five minutes into Alive Inside, I was weeping. A stone would be moved by watching this.

You can watch the trailer on YouTube with this link.

Alive Inside is a documentary about social worker Dan Cohen’s determination to help the elderly with music therapy. In the film, we watch as Cohen talks to Alzheimer’s patients, most of whom remember nothing about their childhoods or are in catatonic states. These are people who have literally forgotten who they are.

Cohen, who is the founder of the non-profit Music and Memory, works with elder care centers across the country. He seeks grants to buy iPods and headphones. After conducting interviews with patients, he creates a playlist of music specific to that individual. In the film, we see elders “come alive” before our eyes as they listen to the music. Memories miraculously reappear. Words, language, singing are spontaneous. The body moves, even dances, walkers flung to the side of the room.

We don’t need science to tell us that music touches our minds and bodies on a very deep level, but research on the brain continues to confirm it. In the film we learn that “when we are young, music records itself in our motions and emotions. Luckily, those are the last parts of the brain touched by Alzheimers.” Music somehow reconnects the physical and emotional parts of the brain, releasing memory. Elders with dementia can feel increasingly isolated, but music makes them “flow” again. Music provides a link to “living in concert with each other and our own selves.”

The film Alive Inside challenges us to look at the way we treat older adults in our culture. Hiding elders away in nursing homes and filling their bodies with pharmaceuticals may not be the best choice. Dan Cohen and filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett suggest that an inexpensive iPod may be life-changing.

A link to the movie’s website is here. Have your tissues ready.

[For more information on music and the brain, check out my blog posts Brain Imaging on Musicians, Essential for Being Human, The Musician’s Brain, and How We Learn.]