I once saw a sign in front of a Christian bookstore that said, “Be kind. Everyone is having a hard life.”
It’s true. Life is hard. Oh, it’s a wonderful gift from God, full of beauty and love and laughter and music. But it’s also full of heartache and loss and – for far more members of our community than we care to admit – trauma.
Music for the Soul can help. But before explaining how, allow me to take a moment to unpack a few definitions.
Merriam-Webster describes defines trauma as a “disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury.” The English Oxford Dictionary (EOD) defines it as, “Emotional shock following a stressful event or a physical injury, which may lead to long-term neurosis.”
All kinds of things can cause trauma. Stressful events like a car accident, a hurricane, a tornado, or an earthquake. Stressful relational events like a divorce, or the death of a spouse or a child. Stressful work situations like policing, emergency medical technicians, fire fighters, and soldiering. And of course stress caused by uninvited violations such as assault, abuse, or robbery.
All of us want to live our lives to our full potential and not let stress and the resulting trauma,, regardless of its origins, rob us of our peace, freedom, and joy. But if we have experienced a traumatic event we may need help in order to get to a place where we can experience those things again. Denial is not going to get us there. Ignoring the pain is not the answer.
At some point we’re going to have to intentionally engage with our traumatic memories in order to begin the recovery process. Recovery is defined by the EOD as “ a return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength.” and “the action or process of regaining possession or control of something stolen or lost.”
I NEVER BELIEVED IT UNTIL I HEARD YOU SING IT TODAY
At Music for the Soul we use songs to share the healing and compassion of Christ with people that are hurting. These songs can be extremely helpful in the recovery process.
Incorporating issue-specific songs for therapeutic purposes is not widespread among traditional “talk therapy” counseling. As a matter of fact it is something that many therapists are just now beginning to consider. Jared Pingleton, a Vice President with the American Association of Christian Counselors said to me last year, “the brain science is finally catching up to you.”
I will admit I didn’t start writing topical, healing songs because of any university study on the brain science behind songs. As a matter of fact, to my knowledge, no such study has ever been published. A Vanderbilt University professor actually suggested I conduct one.
My twenty-eight years of experience writing songs for recovery leaves me with little interest in such a study. Not because I wouldn’t love to have the empirical evidence, but simply because I know its efficacy from first hand experience and – as a songwriter – would rather keep writing!
My introduction to the concept of using songs for recovery started when I was working on a musical stage play in Los Angeles for children suffering from the trauma of incest. I had written a set of songs based on a children’s book entitled I Can’t Talk about It. Because of the subject matter and because I had no training or experience as a counselor I was concerned about the potential for the songs to cause harm.
That’s what prompted me to take the songs to a friend of mine who was a professional therapist for an assessment. I took her the songs on a Friday. On the following Monday she called me and said, “I hope you won’t be angry with me but I used your songs with clients over the weekend.”
It had never occurred to me that music could be used in this way. Once we started performing the play and produced a recording of it I started hearing all kinds of incredible responses.
“I used to take drugs to go to sleep at night. Now I listen to these songs.”
“My client could never cry about her abuse. Now the tears are flowing and she’s letting the pain out.”
“The other night I was thinking of taking my own life. Then I heard your song.”
Not long after, I was invited to sing the song Innocent Child from the play at an incest survivor conference in New Jersey. The piano was in a hotel conference room where a circle of three hundred women was gathered. Almost immediately as I began to sing I could hear crying from all around the room. Then I began to feel a heavy weight, the pain pouring out in the room, pressing down upon my shoulders and I started to have trouble breathing.
When I finished the song I burst into sobs and buried my face in my hands. Once I had finally composed myself I looked to see a line of women waiting to hug me. This was very surprising because I had been cautioned by the conference organizers not to hug anyone. “These women hate to be hugged by men who are strangers.”
Afterwards one of the women said, “People have been telling me I was an innocent child all my life but I never believed it until I heard you sing it today.”
In the weeks ahead as I reflected on that comment a mission statement was born.
From that point forward I have sought to write songs that offer listeners the hope, compassion, and healing found in Jesus Christ.
CRACKS IN THE WALLS
With the founding of Music for the Soul in 2001 that mission became even more clearly focused, taking aim at specific issues with songs for recovery that were also grounded in faith in Christ. Since then the ministry has targeted specific trauma-inducing issues to help people work toward the restoration of freedom and wholeness.
Very early on I arrived at an analogy that I think is very helpful in understanding why songs can be so helpful in the recovery process. We all build walls to protect ourselves from pain. We hide our dark secrets buried deep in our heart and locked away behind those walls.
But our walls have cracks in them. A song can seep through those cracks and begin to soften and massage our hardened hearts, opening them up before we even realize it. Once that happens a message of hope and healing can be placed within that open heart.
More clinically put, trauma is processed in the right hemisphere of the brain, the same place where melody is primarily processed. This explains why a melody will open up a closed heart in a way that the spoken word will not.
Lyrics, on the other hand, are processed primarily in the left hemisphere of the brain. In other words, a song brings the whole brain to the dance.
And it does this very quickly. Music engages the limbic system of the brain where it is processed at the speed of light to “fast track” emotions. That’s why professional therapists like Vicky Didato tell us our songs can accomplish in just moments results that would take months of talk therapy to achieve. She adds, “I use Music for the Soul in both individual and group therapy with astounding results. It speaks directly to the hearts and souls of victims of trauma and their emotional pain.”
Then there is the memory piece. Melody is a powerful memory device as is rhythm. One study I read many years ago showed that people remember nine times more of what they hear in song than what they are told in spoken communication.
So, the woman who finally believed she was an innocent child after hearing it in a song was far more likely to remember that message because now it was tied to a melody in her memory.
THAT’S ME! THAT’S HOW I FEEL!
In the past seventeen years of the ministry of Music for the Soul we’ve written songs for recovery on a wide variety of topics. Our search-by-topic menu on the home page of our site features no less than fifty-five separate categories.
For over a dozen of these issues we’ve created long form recordings. Three of those have accompanying documentaries and music videos as well. Several of them also have discussion guides or devotional writings to encourage further reflection.
Some people are surprised when they hear songs leading off our projects that offer no encouragement. Often these songs are terribly painful and make no attempt to resolve anything. They just ‘camp out ‘in the pain. There is good reason for this. We have to begin by establishing credibility with the listener.
For years I have been frustrated by the “just believe in Jesus and everything will be OK,” attitude of a lot of Christian music. While naturally I believe a relationship with Christ is a crucial piece of a person’s overall spiritual and emotional health, I think we can oversimplify tough situations and wind up with songs that only scratch the surface. We don’t want to offer namby-pamby hope, setting up false expectations that could potentially cause more harm than good.
At Music for the Soul we believe that people will not trust you with their hope unless you first demonstrate that you understand their pain. That’s why we go to great lengths to give the most honest, unvarnished portrayal of the pain possible. We want people to hear a song and say, “That’s me! That’s how I feel!”
Only then can we effectively share songs that work step by step through the points on the arc of recovery towards healing and freedom.
A POWERFUL TOOL
In the case of every single project below we have heard from multiple individuals, therapists and pastors about how these resources have assisted in the recovery process.
Chaos of the Heart deals with the horrifically traumatic issue of suicide grief. This is an area where many churches have struggled with finding an appropriate response. The perspectives of others who have walked this difficult road can be very valuable to the recovery process. Because, even under normal circumstances grief can be a traumatic experience, Drink Deep deals with the death of a loved one.
Mercy Great Enough deals with another topic that often proves difficult to discuss in the church. It is for those who carry grief, guilt, and shame over an abortion in their past. Therapists we work with have identified this issue as being one of the most damaging and traumatic secrets there is.
Somebody’s Daughter is for those struggling with pornography. This problem wrecks havoc in a life and in a family. For many it escalates to the level of addiction and requires long-term therapeutic intervention. This grace-filled projects shows that recovery is possible. As one testimony from the project affirms, “You can make it.”
Heroes Unsung honors police officers for their service and addresses the trauma that many hold inside from dreadful on-the-job experiences.
More Beautiful is for families who have lived through the frightening diagnosis of breast cancer. It tenderly elaborates on the impact the disease and treatment have on the physical and emotional well being of the patient and the family.
Whole in the Sight of God is for families loving a special needs child. As the parent of a child with Spina Bifida I can tell you for a fact that receiving word that your child will be born with a severe disability is a very traumatic experience.
Tell Me What You See provides hope for women who are trapped in an eating disorder. It is perhaps one of the most insidious disorders of all because of the lies the person suffering believes. This is also an agonizing situation for the family that wants to help with the recovery but doesn’t know what to do.
The testimonials in response to all of these projects prove that a song can be a powerful tool in helping someone on their journey to recovery. There is something one woman said to us that seems to sum up well, not only what the right songs can do, but also what the general goal of recovery is.
“The power of Music for the Soul is how you share the truth of MY experience. You bring light to the darkest places. What you do is so healing, validating, and life-giving! It gives me hope!”
May all who have been wounded by trauma find healing in recovery and abide in life-giving freedom and hope!