One day Dan Cohen was reflecting on the isolation experienced by so many assisted-care facility residents, particularly those living with dementia. He thought, “If I ever find myself in that situation I hope I can still listen to the music I love.” Inspired by that insight, Cohen began volunteering in a facility near his home, interviewing patients about music from their past and loading their favorite songs on iPods. Residents who had been nonverbal for years suddenly came alive, sharing stories, rediscovering joy and literally remembering who they were. Cohen’s work grew, eventually chronicled in the Sundance Audience Award-winning documentary, Alive Inside. Click here to see the trailer.
We’ve all had the experience of an unexpected piece of music carrying us back in time and space to a long-forgotten moment. Suddenly we’re there, “seeing” faces and places we haven’t thought of in years. We know experientially, and research confirms, that music can swiftly bypass the more logical and verbal parts of our brains to directly evoke moments, memories, and emotions.
Many of those memories and emotions have healing power. When Minneapolis-based musician Mark Mallman’s mother died unexpectedly, he was thrown into a series of disabling panic attacks. He assembled a “Happiness Playlist” of 100 songs, determined to only listen to joyful music until he had recovered enough to cope with his loss. When the playlist actually worked, he wrote a book to help others find the same relief. You can find his story here.
While some of Mallman's music choices puzzle me, his book confirmed an intuition I was already exploring: We can deliberately use music to help us be more spiritually resilient. (This fact is no surprise to the thousands of dedicated, professionally trained music therapists in our midst.)
Until the last century humans didn’t have many musical choices. They were limited to their region's music, played on instruments produced by their community, and created by their neighbors and the ancestors who preceded them. A shared regional music united and identified them; generations made, heard and danced to music together. The community owned its music.
Today we have access to dozens of kinds of music, a diversity that tends to divide us into subsets according to age, class, geography and even politics. Few of us sing or play instruments together outside of church, deferring music-making to the professionals. We see a persistent tension between “sacred” and “secular” music, with many a congregation split over the choice of music to be used during services. While some arrive at compromises that divide services--and the congregation--into contemporary and traditional camps, others see people leaving altogether when a new music director comes to town.
Since we’re working on our own individual spiritual music practice, we don't have to worry about what other people think is appropriate. Whichever music will increase our experience of gratitude, hope, compassion, awe, serenity, joy, inspiration and love is exactly the music we need. “Our” music can belong to any genre and come with or without religious language. Many of us will resonate most deeply with the music that touched us in our youth. What matters is that we find the right music for us, figure out how to make it available, and use it.
I have a couple of Spotify playlists, one titled Sacred, the other Healing. Each list continues to expand. When I begin my morning prayer/meditation, I choose a song from one of those lists, play it, and then set a timer for my quiet time. My two current favorites are Joe Wise's Lord, Teach Us To Pray and Marty Haugen's Turn My Heart.
ASSEMBLING AND USING OUR OWN MUSICAL TREASURY
Your actual strategy for using music as a spiritual practice will depend on how you normally access music. Here are some options:
Click here for a cheat sheet with a quick summary and a space for you to jot down your own intention.