Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

The mystery and magic of music

By LORRAINE V. MURRAY, Commentary | Published October 19, 2017

The room is completely silent, even though it’s filled with women. Some stare blankly into space and some are asleep. They’re all in wheelchairs.

Then a tall, smiling man walks in, carrying a guitar, and the atmosphere changes. He greets the women, gently takes their hands, says their names aloud—and suddenly the room brims with chatter and laughter.

This is a music therapy session for Alzheimer’s patients at a local nursing home. Some ladies are eager to say a few words to John, the music therapist, while others just beam him a big smile.

He stands in the center of the group and asks, “What shall we sing today?”

One lady ponders a few moments, and suggests “Oh Susannah,” and soon John is strumming his guitar and encouraging the participants to tap their feet and sing.

I’m sitting beside my mother-in-law, who is generally standoffish about group events. But John once told me that when she has a companion, she gets more involved.

And today, when I look over, I notice she’s definitely making an effort to move her feet.

As the music continues, many participants who’d been sitting quietly begin singing the tunes along with John.

One lady gets so enthusiastic she rises from her wheelchair and fans her skirt out, flamenco-style. My mother-in-law finds this amazingly funny and continues chuckling for the duration of the session.

“Where words fail, music speaks,” said Hans Christian Andersen—and he was definitely right.

There’s something mysterious and glorious about music that appeals to many folks suffering from memory loss. Although they struggle to carry on a conversation, some can retrieve bits and pieces of music from a special part of their brain.

Music is a powerful testimony to God’s grace. Shortly after my husband died, my dear friend mentioned a church in Avondale Estates that was inviting community members to practice with its choir for a Lessons and Carols performance in December.

“Why don’t we do it?” she asked with a smile.

I looked at her as if she’d suggested we climb Mount Everest together.

She has a gorgeous singing voice, while mine is a work in progress, but with her encouragement, I mustered up the energy and courage to try something new.

Even though I didn’t realize it, saying “yes” to her suggestion was a sign of God’s grace beginning to heal me.

I soon discovered that singing helped me put aside worries, regrets, longings and fears. Anyone in a choir can attest that you must give full attention to the notes, rhythm and words.

Singing demands complete immersion in the present moment—which may explain why it’s so therapeutic for the ladies at the nursing home.

Like all of us, they suffer at times from boredom, sorrow and anger, but when they’re gathered in a circle, their faces fixed on the guitarist and their ears drinking in the upbeat tunes, these dark emotions evaporate.

“I play the notes as they are written, but it is God who makes the music,” said Johann Sebastian Bach.

And I would add that especially for people whose lives are broken, music conveys the gentle, lyrical touch of God’s healing grace.

Artwork (“Piper of Dreams,” 13 x 21 oil painting) by Jef Murray. Readers interested in purchasing his artwork may contact Lorraine at