Friday, February 12, 2010

What is it About Music?

 Wenda Dottridge

I have a complete blog written on Brian Doerksen's Holy God  and the pivotal role this song played during a dark time in my life. For months this modern hymn lifted my eyes from my own meagre problems to worship a holy God. And while I have a lot to say about this song and the songwriter has an incredible bio, I thought I'd let the song speak eloquently for itself. I encourage you to view this video and to worship our incredible, Holy God while the song plays.

What took hold of me for today's post isn't a particular song, but the power of music to transform us, to transcend the ordinary, to move us to tears or to our feet to dance with joy. What is it about music, anyway?

Most of us know intuitively that we respond differently to music than we do other forms of communication. I mean, why for instance, can my husband forget our anniversary but remember every word to every Dire Straight/Police/Simon and Garfunkle/Eagle/Queen/Michael Franks/Abba/Stones/Floyd/U2/James Taylor/Fleetwood Mac/and so on song, not to mention the words to every worship song published in the past three decades? Granted, he has the advantage of having played in a couple of cover bands in the eighties and in worship bands every Sunday morning for the past two decades, but I bet that even I could rattle off lyrics to hundreds of songs decades after I last heard them, and I don't sing (much, or errr, well).

But we more than cognitively remember music and lyrics. We remember music with our emotions, too. Today my fifteen year old son picked a new radio station while we drove home and Dark Side of the Moon came on. I was carried away to my final year of university when I bought the album from a used record store (yes, I am that old). It forms the soundtrack to the break-up of my first serious romantic relationship. Not only did I recall the lyrics, the song transported me to a time and place in my life I hadn't visited in years.

Play U2's With or Without You and I'm a first-year university student with headphones stuffed in my ears to drown out dorm sounds outside my room. How many nights did I contemplate the meaning of faith and God to Bono's haunting lyrics? When my daughter cranks up the Original Cast soundtrack for les Miserables I'm wet and chilly in London, England where I was living when I queued for leftover seats and saw the long-running production  for a mere 6 pounds. Anne Murray's Could I Have This Dance takes me straight to my wedding. The wedding I didn't want. The dance I reluctantly agreed to for my parent's sake.They chose the wedding walz and with this song I am in my young husband's arms, overwhelmed by the love of our gathered friends and families as they witnessed our vows and celebrated our union. To think, I almost eloped.

But I ponder, why wouldn't I see a mental movie to the soundtrack of my life? After all, I'm definitely from the soundtrack generation. Remember The Breakfast Club or Ferris Bueller's Day Off or China Beach? Oh sure, there were soundtrack movies and television before we hit our teens, but that just proves my point. We were weaned on M*A*S*H and American Grafitti. Happy Days and Grease filled in the music of the decade prior to our birth. Our lives were saturated with images accompanied by popular music from the fifties, sixties, seventies, and eighties.

What if, though, our brains produced sountrack-like memories even without Hollywood's help? Researchers have long connected music and memory and have searched for a way to unlock the mysterious pathways music travels in our brains. Registered Music Therapists use music with dementia and Alzheimer's patients. Annecdotal evidence abounds of near miraculous unlocking of memories through the playing of familiar music but to date definititve, replicable proof that music aids memory has been elusive.

And then researchers at the University of California, Davis set out to look at the brain's response to music. MRI scans were taken of the study's subjects while a sampling of thirty "Billboard top 100" songs from the subject's formative years were played. The subjects were asked to signal researchers if a song triggered an autobiographical memory - in other words, a movie-like replay of a scene from their lives - rather than simple recollection of lyrics. Following the music-accompanied scan, subjects recorded details of the memories triggered. Researchers collated the data and compared it to the brain scans. The most vivid and emotionally resonant memories corroborated with increased activity in the brain's medial prefrontal cortex.

The brain reacted overall to music signature and timescale, but also reacted overall to music that was autobiographically relevent. This overall activity and specific activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, the last area of the brain to atrophy from dementia, might explain why Alzheimer's patients experience memory improvement with music therapy.

It might also explain why music is such an effective medium for worship.

One of the songs I considered blogging about is Matt Redmond's Heart of Worship. The story goes (unverified, and perhaps more the stuff of urban legend than fact) that Matt Redmond, renowned worship leader and songwriter, grew frustrated with the celebrity culture emerging around worship leaders. He felt frustrated that believers were beginning to worship the music, not the Creator. He embarked on a music-free journey to discover what worship truly meant. And in a fitting irony, embedded his revelation into a song.

And I don't disagree with Matt's (or urban-legend Matt's) gentle reminder that worship is to be conducted in every part of our lives. Worship isn't twenty minutes of emotion-fuelled activity that precedes the speaker on a Sunday morning. Worship is an attitude, not a song.

Eight years ago my husband and I were visiting a school in Idaho and met a man who was excited to learn we were from Alberta. He told us he'd just been to a conference in Calgary about incorporating new forms of worship into services. Knowing a lot of the worship leaders from around the province, we explained that my husband was a worship leader and asked questions. And were taken aback to learn that in his denomination they don't use music to worship. At all.

That encounter sparked some serious reflection about our own attitudes about what "worship" meant. As Matt Redmond wisely points out, worship is more than a song, but does that mean music is an inferior form of worship? Is its very emotional resonance a hindrance to worshipping God?

The Church and factions within the church have struggled with this very issue throughout time. There has always been an uncomfortable alliance between the so-called sacred act of worship and the inclusion of music in that act. Perhaps that discomfort can be explained by the medieval belief that the impurities of our earthly bodies that are inherently sinful pollute our pure spirits. Music = fleshly pleasure = sin. Worship = spirit = salvation. That so much of what we consider sacred music has its roots in popular culture only serves to complicate the matter. 18th and 19th Century tavern tunes are the 20th Century's most revered hymns. And in the 20th Century music has been more divisive in the North American church than probably any other force. Christian rock pioneer Larry Norman perhaps describes the music wars best in his song, Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music.

Indeed, why should the devil have all the good music? Or why should we mistrust the powerful emotional resonance music (even secular) music, triggers in us. Whether we know it is because music activiates our medial prefrontal cortex or because we just know music reaches inside us to bring us fully alive, shouldn't we worship God with our emotions as well as with our intellect?

Jesus tells us that we can call out to Abba, Father. That our relationship with God, creator of the universe, is intimate, heartfelt, emotional. What better way to reach out to God than through song that takes our deepest thoughts and feelings and condenses them into poetic words. Whether we sing the psalms of David or modern hymns wrenched from a struggle to know God, like Jeremy Camp's Walk by Faith, or revisit profound theological truth while we tear up to Amazing Grace, music possesses the power to deepen our emotional connection to God. That connection is multi-faceted because the power of music reaches beyond the here and now to bring forward times of struggle or joy. When worshipping to music it is like linear time ceases to exist.
We can worship God with acts of kindness and compassion, with a gentle spirit, with good parenting, with daily bible study, with deep meditation (although I have to confess, I just tend to drift asleep no matter how hard I try to stay in a meditative state), through fasting, and with prayer. And all of these and the hundreds and thousands of other ways to worship God are good. Our emotions are engaged and we offer God what we do and who we are through acts of obediance and service. But when we worship God through song it's like God gives back to us at the same time. We reach out and He touches our deepest emotions. What is it about music?

Credit to Live Science ( and Jeremy Hu's article Music-Memory Connection Found in Brain, published February 24, 2009.

Share your thoughts on worship and music. Has music been divisive in your family or church? Do you embrace modern choruses and hymns or do you prefer more traditional music? Does music have the power to deepen your experience of God's presence or do you prefer music-free worship?


  1. Good Morning!

    Who knew music would be such a big subject-such a mystery that each of us can wonder on its aspects and only touch the surface. Your post got me thinking about angels and worship and God and the Holy Spirit. Do you suppose Adam and Eve hummed? did they get a song in their head that stuck with them all day-a pure song of worship? Aren't we created with this ability and as the angels continually praise and worship with song, then when did it all start with us humans?
    What was the role of the Holy Spirit in this? We have Him now as the comforter Jesus left us, but should we also assume He brought the first song to the first man's heart and mind? Or was the presence of a God that walked with them accompanied by the distant sounds of his angels above?

  2. I am thinking of the hymn: my life flows in in endless song above earth's lamentation...I catch the sweet, though far-off hymn that hails a new creation.

    Music keeps us alive on this life's journey, and awake in church!

  3. Wow, so much fascinating info in this post. My mind is spinning, but I think what I'll share is a quote from my second novel.

    “One might argue that the entire earth is a sacred space. The whole earth is filled with His glory. Worship is life and life is worship, Lily. You needn’t always be dividing the sacred and the secular so. Our joy and celebration should be a song of praise, our work in the fields an act of devotion."

    I think the power of music, dance, drama, art, and literature is that they bypass our logic and go straight to the heart...subconcious... spirit. No wonder some denominations are afraid of that, but instead of being afraid, we should harnass that power for good. I've noticed that people will receive messages through the arts that they would logically reject. The arts also touch people in a more profound and lasting way than just a speech or a sermon. Thanks for sharing the science behind it. I love science too by the way.

    On Sunday the 20th I'll be posting about the power of song as it relates to dance, in case anyone is interested.


  4. We are so blessed in this day and age to be so surrounded by music. It's so readily available I think sometimes we forget its power. Still music ministers to me when I'm hurting. It reminds of me of the things I hold most important and helps me to reassess my priorities. Especially worship music. Or it can put a smile on my face. Like the Veggie Tales song-The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything that I just downloaded as my ringtone.

  5. Like you, Wenda, music can pull me back to a memory like nothing else. It is truly powerful. Music definitely enhances my experience of God, too. But that makes sense to me, because of the multi-faceted, creative God we serve. So music draws me into HIm. As do books. And art. And sermons. And dance. And and and. I love all forms of worship, but music seems to be one of the most accessible.

  6. Wenda, I love Matt Redmond's Heart of Worship. It's so amazingly, hauntingly beautiful.

    Interesting about the science aspect. My boss is reading a brain book and she talks about something similar to what you've mentioned here. I found it very interesting because at one time I worked in a nursing home where my job was to keep the residents engaged in activities. There was this precious woman who had Alzheimer's. Her husband came to visit her every day. She was so far advanced, there was no response. But if I took her into the room where there was a piano, and someone was playing, she would light up. She'd pat my hand and call me dear and laugh a little bit. But if I sat her down at that piano and put her hands on the keys...she would play the most amazing songs and never miss a note. Music. It's so important to our lives.

  7. Deb, some profound thoughts for early in the morning! I agree that the angels are always singing. I also love the last verse of Amazing Grace: When I've been there 10,000 years, bright shining as the sun...

    It gives such a clear picture of eternity, where we'll be content to praise God, never tiring of singing.

  8. Mary,

    I don't know that hymn, but think it captures a view of our lives that doesn't separate our spiritual from our daily lives.

    Like Dina's fabulous quote from her novel. BTW, thanks Dina for sharing. I'm looking forward to your blog on dance.

  9. Lisa, I love the Veggie songs! My favourite is when Larry Sings the Blues. Although the Pirates Who Don't Do Anything runs a close second. I want to say "nee" every time I hear it. But you are right that silly songs can minister to us just as more profound songs can.

  10. D'Ann, I like the way you phrase that there are different forms of worship. I think that is where Matt Redmond is going with his song, but music is definitely a unique way of connecting with our God.

    And Suzie, thanks for sharing about your Alzheimer's patient. I find it remarkable that she could still play the piano. What a joy for her and for those who cared for her. And what a poignant reminder of the full and vibrant life she once lived.

  11. I loved this! I watch all but the U2 video. I had never heard that first song and the video was so powerful. I definitely notice the rise music is able to entice within me. I do try and listen to mostly christian music and thankfully we have some great artists out there right now. I use praise music as a muse for my writing as well.

  12. Wenda, fascinating post! It's amazing how hearing certain songs can take us back to an earlier time in our life. Music is a powerful way to worship and connect with God and I think old hymns and modern worship songs all have their place. Although, I prefer songs focused on Jesus and Biblical truth rather than the 'all about me and what I do for God' songs.

  13. T.Anne, glad you liked Brian Doerksen's Holy God. I love this version because the choir background sounds like heavenly hosts! Brian Doerksen is not only a gifted musician, but a man with a powerful testimony of trusting God in all circumstances. The vocal arranger for this album was Brian's high school choir teacher, Larry Nickel. Larry is a mentor to the music teacher at my children's school and we had the opportunity to spend an afternoon with him when he worked with our students. He is a lovely man who understands how powerful a medium music is for reaching out to God, but also for reaching students for God!

    And Narelle, I couldn't agree more about upward focused praise.

  14. I do not like the new music or the coruses, in the churches, I am a senior and love the old hymns and southern gospel. I know the churches have to change with the times, but these new music to me seems more like a rock concert.


  15. worshpping god is not only a must, but also a need. Great blog, I added u in my link list, would u add me too. Thanx


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