~~~Written By Amy Wilson
The first time I met Bill, I stood on the steps of a stately white home taking deep breaths to calm my racing heart before pushing the doorbell. What could I possibly offer a highly successful, well-connected man suffering from a rare neurological condition? Facts from journal articles and textbooks bounced around in my thoughts as I waited for someone to answer the door.
What Can Music Do?
As a board-certified music therapist (MT-BC), I have seen how music from a person’s young adult years can provide orientation to the present moment in spite of Alzheimer’s or stroke (Gomez & Gomez, 2017). Intense pleasure responses to music can excite pathways in the brain involved in motivation (Zatorre & Salimpoor, 2013; Stegemöller, 2014). Preferred music can focus and sustain attention resulting in lower pain perception and increased relaxation (Bradt et al., 2021; Hirokiwa & Ohira, 2003; Lee, 2016).
But Bill did not need theories or statistics. He needed me to see him as a whole person through the music he loved. Over the course of many weeks as he received hospice care, I learned his favorite Irish tunes and sang Sinatra classics like, “New York, New York,” as Bob’s wife held his hand and recalled trips they had enjoyed together.
Amal spoke softly, thanking me for the smallest of kindnesses. I met him while working in behavioral health. His features remained calm and his voice low and steady. He recognized his situation and problems as he worked through the evils of a childhood in the Sudan. One afternoon I noticed how his body relaxed as I improvised music on the keyboard, so I continued playing as he and the other group members sat quietly with closed eyes. As he slowly emerged, Amal said the music brought him to a place of peace.
A Connection To God
Then there was Hannah, who two minutes into an assessment said, “I don’t want to answer any more of your #@$%* questions!” I received her message clearly. A week later, she was in my group requesting “This Little Light” and writing a beautiful song about finding strength in God and prayer. Initially I thought she was mocking the exercise. But as I was leaving that day, she stopped me and said, “When I came here, I was really high on drugs. I’m doing better now, and I really enjoyed your music group. Thank you.”
One morning, I led a group on the behavioral health unit in activities to encourage spiritual wellness. I had no idea how people would respond, and fully expected them to tell me this was stupid or to simply walk out. After many years as a worship leader and hospice music therapist, I know the power music holds for our faith and connection to God. But I did not know how people suffering from acute psychiatric symptoms would receive spiritual support.
I created a group session that was patient-led and allowed them to choose spiritual or gospel songs they found meaningful. There were eight men in the group, including several who exhibited disorganized thoughts and behaviors, often speaking in disjointed words that were hardly understandable. These men chose songs like “What a Wonderful World,” singing every word clearly. Near the end of the group, a young man I had not yet met requested “Amazing Grace.”
I never sing this song without a request, as it can hold strong memories of funerals and loss. I asked everyone present if they wanted to sing it, and they all affirmed the choice. These men sang “Amazing Grace” with more conviction than I have ever seen in 20 years of worship leading. I have become very good at “bracketing” my own feelings when working, but this caught me off guard, especially “I once was lost, but now I’m found.” No matter their past or future, in that moment these men were clearly connecting with God and with one another.
When I first started working in behavioral health, it seemed to hold no similarities to hospice work. Now I think that in a spiritual sense, these two environments have much in common. The people I meet are often facing the most intense period of physical, emotional, psychological, and relational hardship they have ever endured. Perhaps because of their desperation, many of the people receiving care are open to God and recognize their deep need for him. With the simple offering of an acoustic guitar and my voice, I can share the light of Christ through music that reaches the soul.
A Source Of Healing
1 Samuel 16 tells the story of Saul in one of his darkest seasons. This story first captivated me as a middle schooler. How could it be that of all things, music is prescribed to ease Saul’s torment? Saul’s servants seem confident that beautiful music will relieve his suffering (I Samuel 16:16). Indeed, when David is found and plays his instrument for the king, Saul is “refreshed.” What exactly was the nature of Saul’s torment? Did he perhaps have a form of mental illness, or was the suffering entirely spiritual? A few details interest me. The healing Saul received did not occur in isolation, but in the context of a caring relationship. The illness or spiritual suffering was not a one-time event, but recurred. David played the lyre skillfully. He practiced his craft over time and the work of his hands was used to comfort. And the people of this ancient time expected music would provide the “cure.” Maybe they understood more fully how music reaches the whole person’s mind, body, and soul than we do in our modern thinking.
As a music therapist, I have the honor and privilege to know patients by their music. Songs connect us and build lasting memories. I witness restoration in the places where beauty meets brokenness. After studying music as a performer and music therapist for most of my life, I am increasingly amazed by this gift God has given us. Music can calm an infant, begin a teenage romance, inspire a team, tear down walls, unify a nation, share ideas, tell stories, and allow us to worship the Lord of All. May we give thanks for this good gift and use it to “build one another up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
Amy Wilson, MA, MT-BC is a board certified music therapist who regularly leads worship at our Leawood Campus. Amy and her family have attended Christ Community since 2012. She is currently a doctoral student at the University of Kansas and works in behavioral health.
Names and details have been changed to protect confidentiality.
For more information about music therapy, please visit musictherapy.org
For additional information listen to theFormed.life podcast (links below) Episode 19: Exploring the Profound Impact of Music Therapy with Amy Wilson or Episode 20: A Body of Praise with W. David O. Taylor. Taylor highlights the significance of the physical body in our worship of God.
Bradt, J., Dileo, C., Myers-Coffman, K., & Biondo, J. (2021). Music interventions for improving psychological and physical outcomes in people with cancer. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 10(10), CD006911.
Gomez, G. M., & Gomez, G. J. (2017). Music therapy and Alzheimer’s Disease: Cognitive, psychological, and behavioral effects. Neurologia, 32(5): 300-308.
Hirokiwa, E., & Ohira, H. (2003). The effects of music listening after a stressful task on immune functions, neuroendocrine responses, and emotional states in college students. Journal of Music Therapy, 40(3), 189-211.
Lee, J. H. (2016). The effects of music on pain: A meta-analysis. Journal of Music Therapy, 53(4), 430-477.
Stegemöller, E. L. (2014). Exploring a Neuroplasticity Model for Music Therapy. Journal of Music Therapy, 51(3), 211-227.
Zatorre, R. & Salimpoor, V. (2013). From perception to pleasure: music and its neural substrates. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – PNAS 110(2), p. 10430-10437