Music as Rx

julius_kronberg_david_och_saul_1885Suppose you have been feeling distressed and fatigued of late and this has manifested itself  in some physical symptoms. You’ve been having headaches; your lower back has been aching; and there has been a great deal of tightness around your neck and shoulders. You go to your family physician and after she examines you she says: “You’re suffering from severe stress and I prescribe this. Each morning when you wake and every evening before bedtime, listen for one half hour to music and choose from one of the following: Debussy’s Afternoon of a Fawn, Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring, Samuel Barber’s Adagio For Strings, or Aaron Copeland’s Appalachian Spring.”

Does this sound surprising? I imagine so, because we are just at the beginning in understanding and utilizing the therapeutic nature of music. It shouldn’t really surprise you because the servants of Saul in the latter days of his monarchy knew the power of music to heal and prescribed it for their king. “Let our lord now command your servants, who are before you, to seek out a man who is skillful in playing the lyre, and when the evil spirit from God is upon you, he will play it, and you will be well.” (1 Samuel 16:16) David is the musician of choice and he proves himself to be effective in that role. “… whenever the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand; so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him. (1 Samuel 16:23)

Avram Goldstein of Standford University has studied what gives people thrills. In examining the self-reports of more than 250 people, Avram found that at the bottom of the list was the parade. And near the bottom of the list was fireworks. But ninety-six percent of the respondents indicated receiving a thrill from a musical passage. In fact, a musical passage was at the top of the list, even beating out by over twenty percentage points sexual activity. (Psychology Today, December 1985, p. 50)

Music commands much of our energy, time and money. We are never far from it. A twist of the knob or a push of the button away is the music we love. We listen to it, react to it, revel in it, sing it, and some of you even write it. And clearly, music has a special place in the life of the church. Its importance to the church is expressed in a variety of ways and is even acknowledged in a backhanded way by the fact that musical matters sometimes cause spirited debate even outright conflict within church families. We can also see the value assigned to music in the efforts of denominational families to publish new hymnals, update old ones, and encourage the writing of new hymns.

But more than simply being a powerful medium music demonstrates intent. It is a resource with many purposes. It can beam its sounds on many human problems and can open the heart to many joys. Anne Rosenfeld has called music “the beautiful disturber” and comments, “Music can move us to tears or to dance, to fight or make love. It can inspire our most exalted religious feelings and ease our anxious and lonely moments. Its pleasures are many, but it can also be alien, irksome, almost maddening.” (Psychology Today, December 1985, p. 48) Some music summons us to action. “Rise up, O Men of God” is a hymn of that genre, and often marches and overtures do that, too.

Music can also be a form of protest. The folk songs of the sixties and seventies were that and in 1916 Carl Nielsen, the Danish composer, wrote his Symphony No. 4 which was understood to be a protest against the First World War and an affirmation of human worth. It was called ‘The Inextinguishable”.

Often music soothes and restores. First Samuel is not clear about the nature of that “evil spirit” that regularly afflicted King Saul, but there is a strong implication that it was agitation of one kind or another, and the music created by David on the lyre made him feel refreshed and well again. “It is my observation,” writes Donald Houts, “that while the arts have generally been appreciated at an intellectual level, they have not been fully exploited for their therapeutic, restorative, and reconciling capacities.” (The Journal of Pastoral Care, September, 1981) Inspiration is another function of music. It can restore our vision and lift us to a greater level of appreciation and motivation.

Best of all, though, music is a channel for the grace of God. God’s presence is always a meditated one, and like the burning bush, music is yet another vessel of service in God’s disclosure to his people. Robert McAfee Brown has said this about the close association between theology and music: “There has always been a close association between theology and music … No theological statement of divine ineffability (unable to be expressed in words) can begin to compare with the wonder of mystery communicated by Beethoven’s last string quartets, particularly the Cavatina in Opus 130 and the opening fugue in Opus 131. If we wish to enter into the spirit of medieval faith, we had better not only read St. Thomas’ 24-volume Summa but also listen to (or better yet, sing ourselves) St. Francis’ “Canticle of the Sun.” (Theology in a New Key)

Many years ago a musician friend introduced me to Frederick Chopin’s C Minor Prelude. I believe that you cannot hear this piece and the words written for it and not feel enwrapped in the presence of the risen Christ. The music becomes the vehicle through which the hope and affirmation of the words come to live in the life of the person hearing them. They are basically simple words: Christ be with me. Christ within me. Christ beside me. Christ, too, in me. Christ to comfort and restore me. Christ behind me. Christ before me. Christ in quiet. Christ in danger. Christ in mouth of friend or stranger. Christ in hearts of all that love me. Christ beneath me. Christ above me.

We look for healing in medical therapies, relaxation techniques, aroma therapy, journal writing, prayer, talk therapy, diets and untold other places. We need also to rediscover what happened to King Saul when David picked up the lyre. “… David took the lyre and played it … Saul was refreshed … and was well … and the evil spirit departed from him.” (1 Samuel 16:23)

Shared by Pastor Jim Pall at the September 2016 Fall Gathering of the Pennsylvania Northeast Chapter of the American Guild of Organists. This homily was inspired by the work of Robert Noblett.