Hope is Music to My Ears
Two weeks ago, our over-scheduled family finally made it to see “La La Land,” the Oscar nominated film that is a throwback to the big production musicals of the 1940’s and 50’s. Two hours later we walked out of the theater with smiles on our faces, and I was struck by how good I felt. Not just happy, but hopeful. It’s not that I went to the movie in a particularly bad mood, but sometimes we become numb to the amount of worry, stress and anxiety we carry around on a daily basis.
Worries about personal concerns such as jobs, money, relationships and raising children are heaped on top of other worries about the country and the world in the face of political unrest, social conflict, violence and suffering. We tend to carry a lot on our backs and sometimes we grow so accustomed to the load, that a sudden lightening is almost startling. That’s how I felt after two hours of music, dancing and Hollywood schmaltz.
Human behavioral scientists say that music stimulates the part of the brain that triggers the release of certain chemicals that make us feel good. A study in the United Kingdom drew connections between singing in harmony with others and increased happiness, improved recovery from depression and mental illness, and increased self-esteem.
Neuroscientists who created MRI images of test subjects who were listening to music suggest that other regions of the brain are also influenced by music. Their studies revealed that regions of the brain that govern our ability to recognize patterns and make generalized associations from prior experiences are stimulated by exposure to music. These higher brain functions are what allow us to be creative and to adapt to events in our lives. In short, listening to music also provides an “intellectual” reward by exercising our ability to think and reason.
There is no question that music also plays a powerful role in our worship of God. The Bible is loaded with references to singing and music. Psalm 98 exhorts us to “make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises. Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody. With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord.” For many people, the musical experience in worship provides their most powerful feelings of connection with God.
I remember the first time that we visited Westminster Abby to experience an Evensong worship service. It was also my first visit to Europe and a large European cathedral. Walking in, I remarked that I couldn’t imagine worshiping in a huge cathedral on a regular basis. It was cavernous, cold and somewhat impersonal. And then the choir started singing. It was instantly apparent why someone would want to worship God in that place. The sound was unlike anything I had ever experienced.
The German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, once wrote: “Music... will help dissolve your perplexities and purify your character and sensibilities, and in time of care and sorrow, will keep a fountain of joy alive in you.” Music was an important part of Bonhoeffer’s early life and ministry. Given the difficult circumstances he faced later in life and his ultimate internment and death in a German prison camp, one can assume that music continued to play a role in sustaining him and giving him hope in the darkest moments of his life.
This past summer we spent time in New York City. Watching the sidewalk musicians who entertain crowds on the streets and in the parks of New York is one of my favorite things to do while exploring that city. I wonder about the story of their lives and how they got to the place where I found them. They are playing for money, but they are also playing for the simple joy of making music and the communal experience of performing for a crowd of onlookers. I was particularly taken with a trumpet player who was part of a jazz ensemble playing in Washington Square Park.
He was playing two trumpets at once and it was obvious that it took everything he could muster to accomplish the feat and play well. He was amazing, and the crowd responded to him in kind. It was one of those hopeful moments. In my mind, not unlike the way I feel during that brief but powerful moment of silence after the choir finishes the last note of a beautiful and moving anthem. Music has the power to lighten your burdens and replace them with peace and hope. Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth… with trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord.
Ty Gomez is a Texas native, NorthPark Presbyterian ruling elder and soccer dad. In his spare time, he practices law, plans more unfinished woodworking projects, and cooks for the women in his home.