Sing for Health’s Sake

How symbols, singing and the music of faith provide hope and healing

by John L. Bell

Illustration of 1 Samuel 16:23

Terri Scott

The connection between music and healing is well rehearsed. When King Saul felt himself in the grip of an evil spirit, he employed the boy David to play his lyre as a proven means of relief (1 Samuel 16:23). Thousands of music therapists in the present day can offer stunning anecdotes of how music can transform a person’s well-being. One such friend of mine enabled an individual with selective mutism to begin to speak again and a mother to bond with her infant son primarily through the use of music.

Faith and Music

For people of faith, particularly those of the Judeo-Christian traditions, the importance of music for health has something to do with the ways in which these world faiths have valued sung text as a primary component in worship, whether private or corporate, with the songs performed by a soloist and choir or shared by the whole congregation.

In no small way, it has to do with how music allied to text has multiple functions. It enables words to have a deeper meaning (compare the difference between singing and saying together the song Happy Birthday to You). It acts as a mnemonic, an aid to remembering. If you know a text set to a tune, you are 50 percent more likely to remember it than if you merely learn the text on its own. It is also highly associative. Singing a well-known song or hymn presents an individual with the prospect of revisiting other occasions—all the way back to childhood—when the song was previously sung.

A woman in North Detroit told me of how she once prepared a cassette tape of dance music and hymns to play to her mother who had advanced dementia. She lived in a care home and rarely recognized her daughter who visited regularly. On the day the daughter played the cassette, the old lady began to tap her feet in time to the dance tunes; and when the hymns began, she joined in and sang them word perfect. When the tape was finished, she rose from her chair, embraced the daughter she seldom recognized. After naming her, she said, “O what great mothering you have given me today.”

All this happens because music is a language that proceeds not according to the logical canons of speech, but the more polyvalent language of symbols; and this language is able to flourish in the absence of what we perceive as the ability to speak or think clearly. Thus when a colleague of mine goes into a room of Alzheimer’s patients, she takes a bag with her of objects more common in the 1940s and 50s than in the third millennium. It may include a leather strap such as was used to punish wayward children in Scottish schools. There might be a ration book from the immediate post-war period, or an old canister for holding tea or coffee. Immediately when people see the objects, they take note and smile or grimace with recognition; some will even begin to speak.

Symbols have a depth words cannot emulate, and music has a unique vocabulary of symbols which, when allied to text, can be of considerable importance to our well-being. I want to cite two aspects of this.

The Ministering of Music and Memory

In the first instance, when we sing we are engaged in a holistic experience; body, heart and mind are all active in the production of the sound. It is more than an intellectual exercise. This allows a text that may seem to have a restricted verbal value to take on a profound significance. The word Hallelujah or Alleluia takes less than a second to say. But as set by Handel in his oratorio Messiah, or as sung with animation as in some African-American churches, it can allow us to inhabit a feeling of great joy. However, in South Africa I discovered a musical setting of the same word that brings people to tears. A very plaintive melody, it was sung at the funeral of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko. It enables people to offer to God the worship of their sorrow, to proclaim in the face of the darkness of hell that the Light was still shining.

More personally, my colleagues and I use the following short chant in numerous ways:

Don’t be afraid. My love is stronger, my love is stronger than your fear. Don’t be afraid. My love is stronger and I have promised, promised to be always near, near.

It was written to enable school children to move through apprehension gripping them after a fatal incident in a Glasgow school where one child stabbed another.

Move forward six years, and at a late night service of prayers for healing in an open-air festival, we sang the same song repeatedly as people lit candles or came forward to have hands laid on them and prayer made. Exactly a year later at the same event, a woman came to tell us about how the previous year she had come to the service of healing full of fear. She was expecting her first child and was terrified at the prospect. She received the ministry of prayer and the following week was aware that her fears had subsided. In due course she delivered a baby girl to the delight of her husband and herself.

But a few weeks later she had a post-natal psychosis. The child was taken from her and she was admitted to a locked ward in a psychiatric hospital. She said that she felt at a total loss. She could not speak, she could not read, she could not pray. One day she found a large empty cupboard, went in and pulled the door closed. She stood in the darkness and after a while began to remember the text of Don’t Be Afraid. So she sang it to herself—for half an hour. And every day afterward until she was discharged, she did exactly the same thing. She said, “Singing that song kept me in touch with God and myself through these darkest of days.”

There is nothing special about the tune, but there is about the text, for it comes from the direct speech of Jesus. In singing these words, the woman was allowing Jesus to minister to her.

On reflection I sometimes ponder what it is in the spiritual treasure house of my memory that might—were I to walk through the same dark valley—minister to me. In the absences of spoken words making sense, what might sung words deliver, precisely because the symbolic language of music communicates at a deeper level?

Articulating What Is Within

Around five years ago I was asked to speak at a conference of doctors and physicians called Medicine Unboxed. The brainchild of two oncologists, this annual conference invites medical professionals to listen to people from outside their discipline and contribute perspectives on a theme of mutual interest. On the occasion when I spoke the topic was pain; the contributors included two lawyers, a filmmaker, a poet, three novelists and me. Each of us was given half an hour in which to engage with the plenary conference of 300 participants.

I was the last, and it was while I listened to the penultimate speaker that something dawned on me which I had never realized before and which compelled me to improvise a different contribution than I had prepared.

I suddenly realized that, distinct from nearly all other human societies and organizations, people who espouse the Jewish or Christian faith have a vocabulary for pain. It is present throughout the Scriptures but is particularly evident in the psalms we tend to avoid. Psalm 13 asks why God has turned his back. Psalm 42 articulates profound depression. Psalm 88 (the least popular of all) rages sarcastically against heaven because God seems to be indifferent to the plight of the believer on earth.

Acknowledging that all these psalms were prayed and sung by Jesus, who as a rabbi may well have learned them all by heart, we discover that should we feel depressed or oppressed, sick or afraid of death, doubtful about God’s providence or enraged by the duplicity of trusted friends, we have a vocabulary for pain endorsed by Christ himself. We can use these words with the solidarity and approval of our Savior. And if they are sung not to academic chants or anemic tunes, but to melodies that effortlessly articulate the text, we may find that we are in the first stage of recovery, which happens when we know that we have expressed aloud what was hitherto silently buried within, and that God has given us a hearing.

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