As a music therapist, I can list the positive benefits of music. Singing will stimulate your vagus nerve, and therefore help regulate your nervous system. Playing a wind instrument is an excellent way to increase your lung capacity and support deep, regular breathing. The stress release which comes with banging your bare hand against the skin of a deep, rounded drum is second to none. Music is good for you; it can’t do any harm, right?
Wrong. There is growing caution about the harm musical interventions can cause, more than just the decibel measurement being too much for our eardrums to cope with. In 2008, Susan Gardstrom published an article addressing the complexity of music as a modality of treatment; does it need to be invasive to work therapeutically, to be an agent of change? If so, how can we know there is no risk? Is there a way to truly measure the potential for harm? Her questions remain with much further work to be completed.
So how can music harm? When I am facilitating a music therapy session, I have to be extremely aware of the music brought into the space, and the responses of those in the space to it. For example, during a group session one person may suggest a seemingly innocuous song, such as ‘The Trolley Song’ from Meet Me in St Louis, which may then trigger a memory in another, such as a trip to the cinema with a loved one no longer here. They may enjoy that memory, which may lead to a positive experience within the music, or it may distress them, which I will have to handle particularly carefully. The way I do this may reduce or increase any harm.
I am sad to say, in my early months as a music therapist, there was a time I didn’t handle a group session so well and a client didn’t come back to future groups. Then, I wasn’t aware enough of the harm music can do. Now, I am.
What does any of this have to do with worship music? Every Sunday we sing and hear songs, hymns and liturgical music and rarely is any thought given to the potential for harm inherent in those tones. For example, take the otherwise wonderfully inclusive churches who still sing liturgy, therefore excluding so many of their existing and potential congregants – especially in a COVID-19 world where breathlessness impacts so many. Music has the potential to be a great unifier. Yet if you are the one in the room who can’t understand the notation or doesn’t know the tune, and is therefore prevented from fully joining in the preparation for Communion, where we all come together in Christ’s blood, music can be the most excluding element in the room. That is harm.
For survivors of spiritual abuse, worship music can be like sandpaper. Forever scratching the surface of the wounds which cut us so deeply. Every time we attend family events in church; a wedding, a christening, a funeral. When we hear hymn tunes used in popular culture, classical music, background music on the television. I never noticed just how much worship and liturgical music is everywhere around me until I could no longer bear to hear it. Until the first strains of it made me shake with anxiety, gave me nausea and had me fighting back tears. How can there be healing for those of us whose church-based abuse was entwined with our musical selves, when the music keeps playing and piercing our souls?
Music is deeply spiritual, and we each have a musical element within our very souls. This is why we have worship music, because of the qualities it has to rouse us, connect us and enliven us. However, if we are not sensitive to the risks which come with actively bringing music into spaces, it can easily become a vehicle for harm. So sing to the Lord, yes! Praise God with trumpet and with harp. But anyone who has responsibility for worship music in any form, I ask you to consider carefully what you do and how you do it. Is it because it has always been this way? Are your choices promoting inclusive values? Are you aware how strong a reaction a song can provoke? Do you have a pastoral response in place should someone need it?
As a music therapist I can list the positive benefits of music. As a worship leader who has sat in a church garden having a panic attack while the strains of a worship song drift through the doors behind me, I can attest to the harm it can do too.
 Gardstom, Susan C., ‘Music Therapy As Noninvasive Treatment: Who Says?’, Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 17.2 (2008), pp/ 142–154.
Rebecca Parnaby-Rooke is a writer, music therapist and activist with a focus on social justice and disability. She co-leads online faith community The Ordinary Office, and published their first book, ‘Words for the Journey’, in December. Rebecca has her own blog, ‘Deconstructing Church’, and has also contributed pieces to Modern Church, The Shiloh Project and Our Bible App.
As with all our guest posts, views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the CSBV.