Music is the Secret Sauce

Musicians are always busy during the holidays. As a church musician, there are all sorts of special services around Christmas, full of music. And for a performing musician, there are extra concert gigs as well. And then personally, I enjoy making music in many ways at the holidays. We like to take our kids caroling with our church, to visit nursing homes and members who can’t get out anymore. Sometimes we’ll get together with friends or family to sing and play favorite Christmas carols and songs. And of course, there’s always just singing along with whatever favorite songs might be playing on the radio in the car, or at home during December. Even though certain overplayed tunes can drive me crazy, we all have those songs that immediately make it feel like the holidays for us – whether that’s something sacred, or a goofy fun song – music that can bring back memories of times past, remind us of beloved people, or just conjure up a special feeling.

Music can take all of us to a special place. Could you imagine the holidays without music? Maybe that doesn’t sound like a strange idea at first, but – Christmas Eve services without singing carols? Holiday shopping without the soundtrack of popular tunes? Wrapping presents, or making cookies, or whatever your holiday traditions might be – we all have music that we associate with these times. Kwanzaa songs, Hanukkah songs, Winter Solstice songs – whatever and however we celebrate, music makes all these times richer.

It’s not just holidays. I play for many funerals and weddings as part of my job – and of course, music is always a part of these important times in people’s lives. It doesn’t matter if it’s a large, formal wedding in a huge cathedral, or a small, casual party on the beach, or in someone’s backyard. I’ll bet you haven’t been to a wedding without any music. Or a funeral either. I have friends who are music therapists, or who make music for hospice patients. Music can be an incredible way to help us through times of strong emotion, or when words fail.

I’ve heard stories of people who sat with dying friends or relatives and sang favorite songs as a way of being together, when it was hard to know what to say. I visited a colleague in a nursing home one Christmas, who because of a stroke, could no longer talk, but along with us, and from memory he could sing all the words for four verses (and the harmony parts) on Joy to the World. Music lives in a different place in our bodies than words, or rational thought.

Maybe you’ve heard the story of the WWI soldiers, on Christmas Eve, who climbed out of their opposing trenches, celebrated a little, and sang Silent Night together. That powerful memory must have come back to the men who survived, every year when they sang that song again. Some people have strong memories of the song played at their wedding, or their graduation, their prom, maybe a song a favorite relative sang with them, or a best-friend song that two people love to sing together.

Communities of faith sometimes have beloved songs, that the leaders know will always be sung extra heartily. And what about singing at sporting events? Europeans are the best at this, swaying and singing their soccer chants at important moments of the game. Communal singing brings us together in a way that few other things do. There are inspiring stories from many times and places, showing how gathering together to sing helped people find strength and fight common foes – Latvians in the former USSR, South Africans under Apartheid, East Germans under Communism.

Can you imagine how we’d feel different about a group of people with whom we disagree, or with whom we think we have nothing in common, if we all sat around and made music together for awhile? Maybe that sounds a little too hippie for our jaded 21st century sensibilities. But I think there’s some pretty cutting edge science about what happens when we get together with a group of people and start doing the same thing – singing the same songs, the same words, melodies and rhythms. Researchers say it does something to our bodies, starts to change our brain chemistry.

Before their next board meeting, I’d like to prescribe a half hour of singing together for the Ottawa County Commissioners. I’d be willing to play the piano and lead the songs.

Rhonda Sider Edgington is a church musician, organ teacher, and concert organist who performers around West Michigan and the US, and also enjoys writing, about music and life.