Music, My Mom, and Our Brains

Last month I visited my 85-year-old mother in a nursing home in Ohio. For the past ten years or so, she has suffered from some form of dementia (perhaps Alzheimer’s; it’s hard to diagnose). Each time I visit, less and less of my “mom” is there. Up until this last visit, I could eventually get her to recognize who I am to some degree. But this time she never really clicked with any memories of me—she just sort of accepted it when I told her I was her son. She is almost blind. She sits slumped over in a kind of lethargic daze most of the time. She cannot really speak in sentences anymore. It seems that she can’t quite remember how to pronounce words. She speaks in slurred, quick, mini-phrase bursts. It’s always a difficult visit on so many levels. Deterioration and Death and Decay are horrendous enemies that have invaded the human glory.

My sister and her husband flew in from Florida to join me for the visit. These kinds of experiences are so much better in family clusters I think. We were all trying to connect with her in some way. But there’s just not much “there” to connect with anymore. Yes or no questions are the best at this stage, but even then, there is not much cognitive engagement. So silent and so heart-wrenching.

But then my sister (she is SO much better at this than me!) started singing a Christmas carol, “Silent Night.” My mom’s head lifted up, her eyes brightened, and she started singing with her. Loudly. Every word. Every verse. Perfect pitch. And when the song was over, she asked in surprising clarity, “How’d I do that?” As if she amazed even herself.

With a newfound vigor, my sister then started singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Again, my mom belted out every word in perfect memory, clarity and pitch. Then the second chorus. A third. What? There’s a third? She was remembering and singing verses I couldn’t possibly remember. Not a word or stanza missing. Incredible! And I sat there weeping.

There is something about music that hits a part of us that goes far deeper than mere words can touch. How could she not remember me but remember all those songs? Brain scans show that when people listen to music, virtually every area of their brain becomes more active. Music is represented in many areas of the brain, while just two brain regions process language. Philip Ball, a British science writer and an avid music enthusiast, says that music is ingrained in our auditory, cognitive and motor functions. We have a music instinct as much as a language instinct. Music also tends to dig deeper, more well-worn pathways between neurons in the brain.

Michael De Georgia, director of the Center for Music and Medicine at Case Western Reserve University’s University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, says,

“In the last 10 years, we’ve just started to understand how broad and diffuse the effect of music is on all parts of the brain,” he added. “We are just starting to understand how powerful music can be. We don’t know what the limits are” (Discovery News).

No doubt music is something of what it means to be created in the image of God. God, the Creator of music, created us in a way that loves music. This is why he calls us to sing and make music in our worship of him (see Ps 33:1-3; Ps 98:4-6; Ps 108:1-2; Ps 150:3-5). It’s why music is such an important part of a worship service rather than just the preamble to what’s really important—the sermon.

Today a six-minute YouTube video is going viral. It shows the power of music upon our brain and our heart and soul. Watch it for yourself and you’ll see something of what I saw with my own mother last month. And remember this whenever you’re tempted to think that the music/singing part of church is just a filler around the sermon.

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