In the 1980s, Johannesburg, South Africa was a city of transition. The decade began on the heels of the Soweto uprising, and the world kept watch as the nation took its first steps toward ownership of apartheid. Campaigns were formed petitioning Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. A President’s Council replaced the Senate. Men passed laws vowing a move toward equality. During this painfully slow process, citizens faced neighboring guerillas and terrorists, as well as homeland bombings, kidnappings, boycotts and demonstrations.
In the fall of 1983, I attended my first symphony concert. Wide-eyed and unschooled on all things symphonic, I walked into Johannesburg’s Linder Auditorium. The musicians were in early preparation, polishing, tuning, playing scales. Shortly, the director tapped his baton and they sat upright, instruments at the ready. The oboe gave a clear ‘A’ and each musician began to tune to it.
This sound is often referred to as a cacophony. Webster defines it as a ‘harsh, inharmonious collection of sounds; dissonance.’ The process by which the instruments prepared to harmonize was difficult to hear. They sounded aimless, disorderly and unconnected. The oboe continued its pure, unwavering ‘A’ tone. In a few minutes, the broad, diverse instruments were tuned to its sound.
What followed was a collection of harmonies and movements so profound and complex and simplistic that I could barely absorb or describe them. The tempos, melodies, progressions and empty places were executed flawlessly (or so it seemed) and we listened, we experienced, we rose and fell with the emotions of the movements. When it ended, I felt both refreshed and spent.
In the aftermath of World War I and II, music therapy was used for soldiers suffering physical and psychological trauma. A few years ago, researchers agreed that music contained curative powers for a number of illnesses. They reported that it often ‘rewires’ a brain effected by injury, offering a ‘workaround’ for underperforming regions.
Harvard University neurologist, Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, suggests that music may provide an “alternative entry point.” Pitch, harmony, melody, rhythm and emotion engage different regions of the brain, regions that are also occupied by speech, movement and social interaction. Music, he suggests, can penetrate those regions, engaging them, while allowing neurologists to introduce new methods by which the brain may form speech and produce movement. “It works well and it works instantaneously,” Schlaug says, “and it’s hard to think of any medication that has this effect.”
Music as a coping strategy has been shown to reduce stress levels in patients and to lower negative biological agents. In the long term, it repeatedly reduces stress and anxiety symptoms. Is it any wonder that Paul continually admonished the followers of Jesus to “teach one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts”?
Can you hear Moses’ first song, which began as a prayer of gratitude? After the children of Israel crossed the Red Sea on dry land, the waters returned to destroy Pharaoh’s chariots and horses and Moses led them in a chorus, “Sing to the Lord, for He is highly exalted…”
Can you hear Hannah’s song turn from a prayer of gratitude for her own situation to the broader picture of what God has done and what He will do? Can you hear her new confidence take root that all who trust in Him (including Samuel) are secure?
Can you hear Mary’s leap from trepidation to confidence as she declares, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.’ As she ponders her role in His plan, she, too, moves from her promise and her visitation to the declaration of His works and deeds. She realizes that her future is ordered and steadfast.
God’s Word and His Spirit provide for us a pure, perfect tone. We bring harmony to our lives when we tune our thoughts, deeds, prayers, actions and attitudes to that sound. Living in concert with what He desires for us brings prayers of gratitude, which lead to songs of praise, which lead to an incalculable source of joy.
David summed it up more poetically, “For You have been my help, and in the shadow of Your wings I will sing for joy.”