Monday, October 25, 2010

Monday Musings ~ On music's healing powers

On a rainy Saturday evening, I am seated with my family in the auditorium at the University of Texas at Tyler's Cowan Center, full of anticipation. My sister, Elaine, is singing with the East Texas Symphony Chorus, and tonight marks their first appearance with the full orchestra.

Suddenly, the maestro enters. As the lights dim, he lowers the baton, filling the room with the harmony of angels. While the voices rise and fall to the swell of the instruments, I close my eyes and feel the day’s worries melting away. I'm reminded once again of the remarkable power that music has to soothe the soul and refresh the human spirit.

I come from a long line of musicians and singers. My mother’s photo albums are filled with pictures of my ancestors holding musical instruments. I never remember a home without music.

My dad, second from right, with relatives.

In the early 40's, my dad and his brother joined up with friends to form The Mississippi Ramblers. They sang and played on WCBI in Columbus, Mississippi, and appeared at store openings, and made a few school appearances, as well. It was over the airwaves that Daddy sang his first solo, and apparently made a big hit with the listeners; the letters poured in asking, “Where’s Archie been?” That story still brings a smile to his face, all these years later. He would eventually use his gifts for the glory of God.

The Mississippi Ramblers
L-R: O. C. Byrd, Hansel Allen (my uncle), Junior Melton, Archie Allen (my dad)

My dad, with steel guitar (right) and his brother, Hansel (left) and friend, Junior Melton.

My father played steel guitar with The Mississippi Ramblers, but he can play just about any kind of guitar you can name. My mother plays keyboards, as does Elaine. Although Mother can read music, she plays mostly the way my father and sister do: strictly by ear.

My parents singing in church, 1959.

In the early years, my mom and dad sang together; music is what brought them together as a couple. After Elaine was born, they formed a trio and made an album. Following Elaine's marriage, my father sang solo and recorded five solo albums in the years thereafter.

My parents and sister recorded this album in 1964.

My dad's first solo project, early 70's.

When my twin sister and I were born, most people assumed we would follow in the musical footsteps of those before us. But Gayle and I tend to walk to the beat of a different drum. It was years before either of us took any interest in singing or playing music.

But the day came when we both stopped burying what talents we possessed. I well remember the first time I sat down at the piano to give it a try. It wasn’t long before I was picking out simple one-finger melodies. Then I discovered how to add the second finger, producing a touch of harmony.

The first time I made a chord, using three fingers, it created quite a stir. “Hey!” I yelled to my mother in the kitchen, “I think I made something! Come see!” Scurrying over to the piano, Mother interpreted whatever chord I had discovered and proceeded to show me others.

Soon I was making full chords in almost every key on the scale. That is not to say I could play; there is a world of difference in knowing how to form chords, and knowing how to play a song.

But with time and patience, my abilities increased. Soon enough, I was playing fairly well, and all by ear. Eventually, I taught myself how to read notes, but playing by ear came more natural, and was a lot more fun. In time, my two sisters and I formed a trio and sang not only in local churches, but in surrounding states, as well. Music was in our blood.

I was 16 when Elaine married and moved away, leaving a deep void in our family. She also left us with no pianist at church. My mother could have filled the job, but she already played the organ, so my father, the pastor of the church, put out a “help wanted” call across the congregation. When nobody came forward, he encouraged me to step in and “make a joyful noise unto the Lord.”

The first few weeks I had the “noise” part down pat. I could only hope the “joyful” would soon follow. After church, I’d often trudge home, frustrated and discouraged. I remember getting on my knees before bedtime, praying for God to “help me play better.”

Call it a coincidence if you will, but, in time, that is precisely what happened. The more I played, the better I played. I learned how to duplicate just about anything, simply from hearing it on a tape.

Through the years, my God-given talent has served me well. You name it, and I’ve played for it. Church. Choirs. Weddings. Parties. Funerals. And on dismal days, I’ve sat at the piano and played away my blues. Without question, the sound of music always brings a certain amount of comfort and stability to my world.

Finding solace in music is not a new thing. In the Old Testament, David played his harp to help King Saul escape his demons. Historians say that Alexander the Great was restored to sanity by the music of a lyre.

I remember one night, years ago, when a storm blew into our area. Torrential rains pounded the windows, lightening exploding in jagged fingers across the dark sky. Suddenly, the lights went out, filling the house with blackness, and frightening my little daughter, a toddler at the time.

When she began to cry, I wrapped her in my arms and started singing softly. In a few minutes, I got distracted by a noise outside and stopped momentarily to listen. That’s when she touched my face and said, “Sing, Mama.”

Thoreau wrote: “When I hear music, I fear no danger. I am invulnerable. I see no foe.”

As for me, I can’t imagine a world without it. Like food to the body, music feeds my soul.

If you’d like to tap into the healing powers of music, try the following:

Sing. Whether you’re on or off key, singing is one of life’s simple pleasures. Sing in the shower, in the car, around the house. When you’re singing, you can’t feel despondent for very long.

Whistle—or hum. I’ve been told that whistling relieves stress. I can’t whistle, so I don’t know for sure, but I do know that humming has the same effect. The next time you’re facing a list of unpleasant tasks, trying humming through them and watch your mood improve. You simply can’t remain gloomy while humming.

Learn to play an instrument. Playing an instrument—even if you hit an occasional sour note—can help keep your senses sharp. In a Psychology Today interview, Norman M. Weinberger, Ph.D., professor of neurobiology and behavior at the University of California at Irvine, explained it this way: “Playing an instrument involves vision, hearing, touch, motor planning, emotion, symbol interpretation—all of which activate different brain systems. This may be why some Alzheimer's patients can perform music long after they have forgotten other things.”

Make it classical. To lower stress and increase concentration, many music therapy experts believe the works of composers like Mozart, Brahms, and Bach are the best choices. Psychologist, Dr. Mike Lowis, has spent years researching music stimulation and believes that classical music provides the most “uplifting” sensation, even if you aren’t a fan of such music. “In order to activate both sides of the brain,” he says, “music needs to be complex, so pop music and anything with a heavy beat doesn’t usually work.”


A version of this essay first appeared in The Dallas Morning News. Click on the image to read how music is being used in the medical field. All rights reserved.


  1. What a talented family! I would love to be able to sing on key and in tune. I imagine family gatherings are quite an event at your house. Wonderful photos, especially the ones of your father and his friends from way back when.

  2. Oh my goodness, Dayle. I live near Tyler! I had no idea about your sister, Elaine. I'm glad to got to come to our part of Texas.

    You have a very talented family. I took piano lessons years ago, but sadly I let my piano sit untouched. (I've even forgot the lower base notes, but I'm sure with practice they would come back to me.) I agree with you music is indeed soothing.

    Thanks for a great post - a wonderful way to begin my Monday.


  3. Dayle,
    What a talented family you have! I also play by ear, however my talent has never reached your level! Have a great week!
    Dee Dee

  4. Oh, I love this. My mama is looking for pictures of my granddaddy playing steel guitar in his band. I've wanted to post about him for so long. I just lack the pictures I want before I do so. I love your pictures of your dad.

    So good that you learned piano. My children all play something. Ethan has just started violin. I love watching him learn the intricacies of learning to make music on it.

  5. It is a blessing to have your talent and a double blessing that you share it with others.

  6. Although I have NO musical talent, I feel as you do about it bringing solace and comfort. I listen to music and enjoy it greatly.

    What a wonderful heritage to come from so many family members with music in their blood.

    A lovely post!

  7. What a great post, Dayle. I love that you came from a musical family. Mine is quite musical, but I didn't inherit the gift. Oh I tried... God does know that I tried. Mine pretty much remains in the "joyful" column to this day. I DID inherit the love of it, though.

    It does help me calm my fears and anxieties. I tend to sing my way through all sorts of things.

    My favorite part of this is when you told your mom you "thought you made something". That's so sweet that it made me smile.

  8. Dayle,
    I cannot carry a note in a bucket but I love listening to all kinds of music and my oldest daughter is the only one who has any musical ability. She sings, plays piano and guitar and became a music teacher!

    The pictures of your Dad and his musical group are wonderful. Your family truly is musical and it was great that you got to hear your sister sing. Loved this!


  9. Dayle, enjoyed reading this post. I too play by ear but not progressed to your level. Nothing like sitting down and playing and letting it come from the heart. WCBI (my local news station) Interesting! Such a blessing from the Lord all the talent that came down through the family members.

  10. Loved this all over again. Brought back memories and made me laugh. :-)

  11. I don't know where to begin! I'm so glad you stopped at my blog and we have some things in common. When I read this story, you made me think of my father. I was raised in a home where he played music with other men-country and western and would fall asleep at night listening to them pick out their tunes. He, like your dad, played the steel guitar.And the Dobra. (did I spell that right?) He never learned to read music, just did it by ear. You don't know how badly I wanted to play. He bought me a guitar and I tried and tried and never got it. Then I took piano lessons and still couldn't hear the music nor learn the notes. I thought God had given me no talents at all until finally I started to write.
    But I would have loved to be musical. Instead, I married into a family of music teachers and musicians and just attended their concerts.
    I also love the warm pictures of your home. It looks so comfortable and inviting there.
    After reading the way you write, I think you need to jump into fiction. I've been working at it and it does get easier, just a lot to learn like music.
    Ok-- I'll stop rambling!

  12. I just found your blog and have to tell you that I was very blessed by this post. I love music, and come from a long line of amateur musicians. Most of the women on my mother's side of the family have played the piano and organ at church at one time or another. I'm currently the fill-in at our church. I love playing, though I must say that I do NOT find Bach relaxing....too many bad Bach Sonatas from my piano lesson years, I fear!

  13. I enjoyed this post SO much! What memories and blessings....

    Come see me again sometime.

  14. Oh, I forgot to tell you that I will try to hook up on Nov. 5-6. I'm a quilt lover, too! Check out some previous posts (look at my labels).

  15. Hi..I have a post up for SIMPLE PLEASURES..have I linked to the right blog?? Sure hope so.


Dear Readers, I adore your company and your comments. If you ask questions here, I respond to them here, so please check back when you have a chance. Kind regards, Dayle