Saturday, 28 March 2015

Music as a stairway to heaven

Saint John Bosco recognised that a Salesian House without music was like a body without a soul. He made music with young people and encourage them to play and sing as part of the rhythm of the life of his houses. When he took the street children out of Turin into the countryside for walks it was a youth band that led them into fun and relaxation. Likewise, in chapel, it was the choir and enthusiastic singing that helped young people to touch the deeper spiritual values that moved their souls.

The emphasis on music and its connection with spirituality was an intuitive insight of Don Bosco. He would have been aware of St Augustine’s observation that “he who sings well prays twice!” He would have been more consciously aware of what happens to young people when they make music; how their spirit lifts, how they get into the present moment, how their breathing synchronises and how reconciliation is achieved with few words because music creates harmony at many levels. So music was an essential aspect of learning, of relaxation, spirituality and relationships for Don Bosco. It was home, school, playground and church all in one.

The ability of music to harmonise life is something that anyone who has been to any kind of concert can witness to. Whether it is classical or rock, a professional event or a school production, live music arches into a bridge that connects people in the present moment. That experience can offer meaning and healing without any words, energising and uniting people into more harmonious living. The rippling applause in a classical concert is not so different from the rippling of dancing bodies in a rock concert. The ability to feel and appreciate the music may be expressed in different ways but the core experience of being moved by music is probably common to both events.

Academics studying religious experience were surprised to find that music was the key pathway into spiritual awareness, even more so than prayer.[i] It was the pathway to
  • ·        A sense of warmth
  • ·        A loss of a sense of self
  • ·        A sense of timelessness in the present moment
  • ·        A solidarity in sharing something with others
  • ·        An energy, joy and elation released as a community

These are the effects of good music, shared in a kind of community that is rooted in a sense of humanity that transcends all other divisions of race, personality and creed. Good music therefore can become a pathway to the present in the infinite and to timelessness in time. It takes a community into a sacred space where reality can be grasped beyond the womb of words.

That is wonderful stuff, but there is more. When visiting an older Salesian with dementia I found it very difficult to communicate. His memory had gone, he was having trouble framing sentences and looked isolated and uncomfortable especially in a one to one situation- until I started to sing some of the songs he knew. Then, all of a sudden he broke into song and into life. He sang without faltering, began to move with rhythm and grace and smiled with joy. The isolation had gone and we were singing together, using music to bridge into his loneliness. Afterwards his mood and his confidence were both strengthened and I left him more relaxed and at peace.

Music and rhythm operate from a different part of the brain than words and rational thinking. Music can trigger emotional states that can change the chemistry of the brain and initiate healing and health in the brain. So it is possible to sing yourself out of sadness and ease aggression through adagios. But science also suggests that more benefits of music come when a real effort is made to make music, especially with others. The commitment to learn an instrument or to sing in a choir lead to real effects on the neural pathways of the brain. The effort to coordinate voice, hands, eyes and to put in the hours of practice creates a healthier, more adaptable, mind.

For young people, stressed as they often are in western society, music is something of a saviour. It helps them to escape into the present moment and to share wordlessly with others. It is a spiritual pathway to reflection and meditation. Learning a musical instrument is linked to better reading, to an ability to multi-task and in older age prevents the early onset of age related decline. That is why schools and families need to encourage music and the making of music. It opens up a pathway to a healthier mind, a more relaxed body and, above all, it opens up a spiritual dimension to life that might help to save a young person’s soul.
So, get out your bongos, head off to the karaoke, sing in the bath and you might open up a spiritual stairway to heaven!

Don Bosco with his band 1860s

[i] Greeley 1975