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Music Is Medicine

Mark Beuving —  July 14, 2015 — 1 Comment

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.

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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:

Vinyl“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.

For more on this and other related subjects, click here.

WilcoI recently saw Wilco play at the Hollywood Bowl. It’s fascinating to hear the way other people respond to music that has become meaningful to me over the years. I typically listen to Wilco through headphones, so my experience with their music has been fairly individualized.

I’m not sure what type of response I was expecting, but when the band played “Sunken Treasure” and front man Jeff Tweedy sang the line “music is my savior,” I was surprised when crowd went nuts. A lyric that I had always taken with a grain of salt apparently meant a lot to this crowd of 15,000.

For years now Wilco has been my second favorite band. I love Jeff Tweedy’s approach to songwriting. He strikes me as a deep thinker, someone who is in touch with his emotions, but not in an angry, unsettled type of way (or not typically anyway). I often find a metaphor or turn of phrase in a Wilco song that expresses something profound about the human experience. This makes them quietly compelling.

Jeff TweedyAnd I am constantly impressed with their musical creativity. Wilco has a solid grounding in classic rock and straightforward folk music, but this has never suppressed their creativity. The band has said that they first write basic songs, then they dismantle them and explore creative ways to reassemble them. This gives their songs a feeling of stability, yet there is always an intriguing sense of depth even in the music itself.

Add to this the reality that Wilco has been making great music for nearly two decades. Not many bands can claim that type of prolonged creativity.

I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear cheers when Tweedy sang “music is my savior.” I’ve always taken that line to mean that music was an important outlet during some rough times in his life. But I have made two significant realizations on the basis of the lyric itself and the response it received at that concert.

First, I think this shows the power of music. Wilco knows well the effect that music can have, and their expression of this truth resonates with a lot of people. Something about music reaches deeper within us than words or logic can go.

Jonathan EdwardsThe puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards recognized this when he said:

“The duty of singing praises to God, seems to be appointed wholly to excite and express religious affections. No other reason can be assigned, why we should express ourselves to God in verse, rather than in prose, and do it with music, but only, that such is our nature and frame, that these things have a tendency to move our affections.”[1]

That music has a unique power is something we recognize intuitively when we are moved by a song. Thousands of people cheering to Wilco’s lyric affirms that this is something we all know to be true.

But this experience also confirms that music can easily become an idol. This is something we must constantly be guarding ourselves against. God’s good gifts are easily distorted and misused. We gladly accept these gifts and then use them as replacements for the God who gave them to us.

Music is indeed powerful, but when we are willing to go so far as to say that music is our savior, then we are allowing God’s good gift to take on an idolatrous role in our lives. And the fact that thousands of people were ready to scream their affirmation of this lyric shows that we are asking our music to do more than it is capable of doing. Music is good, but it is not God. It is helpful, and it may well be a part of the healing process, but it is not the Healer.

Ultimately, music’s power comes from the God who gifted it to us. At its best, music will point us toward the Savior. But when music itself becomes our savior, then our idolatry is exposed, and we must turn from a god that cannot save to the only true Savior.


[1] Jonathan Edwards, A Treatise Concerning the Religious Affections in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 1 (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2005) 242.