The title of this post is probably enough. We all know what it’s like to somehow feel better or consoled or validated or inspired after listening to a piece of music—as if by magic. And magic is not the worst term for it: much of music’s power comes from an indefinable quality ingrained in this mysterious art form by the Creator. Many have tried to explain why it is that music is so powerful. No one has succeeded.
In this post I won’t be trying to explain the “active ingredient” that makes music medicinal; I simply want to honor the power of this gift of God and commend it to you as an important part of a healthy lifestyle.
Flannery O’Connor, a legendary Catholic fiction writer, explains the art of fiction in a way that helps me understand what music is doing when it helps me feel better. “You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate,” she explains. In other words, when you have something to say that can’t be said, you turn to art—in O’Connor’s case this meant fiction writing. She says,
“A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.”
A kind statement from a loving friend that “Everything’s going to be alright” is important. But there’s another dimension at work when we hear the Five Stairsteps sing “O-o-h child, things are gonna get easier; o-o-h child, things’ll get brighter.” The words mean what the words mean, but their poetic arrangement allows them to mean more, and the music itself is an added balm, another layer of significance and exploration and auditory compassion.
Wheaton literature professor Leland Ryken adds some helpful thoughts here:
“A rich confusion of awareness lies below the level of our consciousness. Artists reach into that confusion and give it an order. As we stand before a painting or listen to music or read a poem, we suddenly see our own experiences and insights projected onto the details of the work before us. Artists turn our pain into art so we can bear it. They turn our joys into art so we can prolong them.”
This thought was recently beautifully expressed by the band U2 in the song “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)”: “We got…music so I can exaggerate my pain and give it a name.” Bono was apparently inspired when he heard the Ramones as a youth, and found in music something that spoke to him deeply, a reality that he expresses in the song:
“Heard a song that made some sense out of the world
Everything I ever lost now has been returned
In the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard”
Bono has written about his early experiences with music, and speculates a bit on what was happening to him deep down when he listened to the musicians he loved:
“When I hear these singers, I am reconnected to a part of me I have no explanation for…my ‘soul’ I guess. Words and music did for me what solid, even rigorous, religious argument could never do, they introduced me to God, not belief in God, more an experiential sense of GOD. Over art, literature, reason, the way in to my spirit was a combination of words and music.”
The National acknowledges this type of connection when they sing (in “Don’t Swallow the Cap”):
“If you want to hear me cry, play ‘Let It Be’ [The Beatles] or ‘Nevermind’ [Nirvana].”
I’m not trying to be overly mystical about all of this. My point is ultimately very simple: music often “speaks” to us more deeply than words can go. We could take a “mystical” approach that views music as a type of impersonal magic. Some Christians feel threatened when they hear arguments about a “power” of music that supersedes logic. But we shouldn’t feel threatened by this. Instead, we should remember that God is the one who designed music. Music is his gift. That indefinable quality that makes music so powerful was implanted by God. Music has no power aside from what God has placed within this amazing art form. Rather than downplaying the power of music, we should acknowledge the power and beauty of God’s good gift.
I’ve always loved the introductory song on Wilco’s self-titled album, which introduces the whole album with: “This is an hour of arms open wide, a sonic shoulder for you to cry on. Wilco will love you, baby.” For me, Wilco is a great place to go when I need a sonic shoulder. You might choose to go somewhere else. But the point is, music is medicine because God has made it so. May we find comfort and hope and empowerment as we explore God’s gift, and may we sense the loving arms of the Creator as we experience the healing that often flows through this mysterious part of his creation.
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Yeah music often conveys ideas that can’t be accurately portrayed by words. I’ve been listening to a lot of Arcade Fire (thanks for introducing them to me on this blog BTW!) and songs like “The Surburbs” conjure up this almost indescribable feeling of nostalgia and resonance that only music is able to give. Realizing that others feel the same pains you’ve felt is truly incredible and healing.