a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
I gripped my microphone in my right hand and looked into the crowd to see all eyes on me. I watch the countdown, five seconds left. To my right, my dad has his hands on the keyboard and gives me a nod of assurance. The lights go dark. Three, two, one. The first C chord is played and the drum beat begins. I close my eyes and all nerves wash away as the music flows through my ears.
My first encounter with music was in the womb. The fetal stage has more influence on one’s language and listening skills than expected. This is when we learn to differentiate familiar and unfamiliar sounds. The high plasticity of the brain allows us to form neural pathways before we even take our first breath (Schreiber). My strongest neural pathway was developed from my mother being repeatedly exposed to music during pregnancy.
Every Sunday she engaged in thirty minutes of worship at church, allowing me to feel the rhythm of drums and decipher various sounds and voices. My father was the worship pastor and I am certain that I could recognize his voice since he would sing to my mother’s belly at home too. This is confirmed through my infancy since when I was brought to church, I would sleep soundly during the worship but scream and cry during preaching. My mother probably thought I was just being a stubborn baby but the science says otherwise: “Even infants who have no interaction with music and language and who cannot even comprehend what they see can respond to what they hear” (Panwar). My exposure to music in the womb predisposed me to recognize and enjoy songs more than conversation. It calmed me down and made me feel safe. The human brain, even as infants, is quite complex: “We are bound by unconscious thoughts, suggestions, and verbal communications from external forces” (Panwar). Music as an external force is far more powerful at evoking emotional responses than language. Many even define music as the “language of emotion” because of the strength it holds. As a baby, I was only capable of having two emotional responses: happy or sad. It is obvious through my cooperation during worship that music evoked a favorable emotional response. This is still apparent to my life today.
If we dive into history, music has always been around and used for many purposes, even before what we identify as its origins. Instruments were made from sticks and metals, identifying the flute as the first instrument and vocal emphasis as the first type of singing. Although I am sure that there are undiscovered songs, the first unearthed composition of music can be dated back to fourteenth century B.C. It is titled the “Hurrian Hymn no. 6” and was composed for religious and ceremonial purposes (Reifsnyder). Researchers and translators are still taking on its lyrical meaning and instrumental notation as its complexity does not align with what we are familiar with in modern music. Despite its complexity, there is obvious indication of chord progression, harmonies, and emotional emphasis. The “Hurrian Hymn no. 6” would set the foundation for musical composition and future songs. It gives a basis of how notes and lyrics should work together to reveal a relatable message to listeners. My basis formed even before I was born.
The first song that I was ever exposed to was “When the Night is Falling” by Dennis Jernigan. When my father held me for the first time on my birthday, he sang this song to me, which would have a greater impact on my life than those who were not exposed to music as an infant. I was crying as he held me, but when he sang the chorus that went “how I love you child, I love you,” I immediately stopped crying. Coincidence? I think not. I could already recognize his voice from when he sang to me in the womb and therefore I relaxed. Even as I was taking my first breaths of oxygen, squinting from bright lights, and shivering from the cold hospital air, my father’s singing gave me a warm welcome into the world.
A few months later, I played baby Jesus in the church musical. I was screaming as I was brought down the aisle, completely hindering the sentimental mood of the nativity scene and annoying the stubborn church crowd. I’m sure my dad was embarrassed as he patiently waited on stage to start singing. The second he started, I turned my tiny head towards him and the crying ceased. The crowd melted and I was forgiven. It is obvious that my father’s voice brought me serenity. He was my favorite voice then and is my favorite voice now.
Over the years, he never stopped singing and I never stopped listening. The first song he taught me to sing was the nursery rhyme “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” From constant exposure of his voice, I easily mimicked him, able to match my own voice with his. Being able to sing on key at three years old would set my foundation for appreciating music and understanding its elements.
As I grew older and my emotions grew stronger, music became my outlet. Many people take music for granted since our ears are constantly plugged with music. In grocery stores, walking down the street, driving, ceremonies and events, and almost every daily activity, music is playing (Schreiber). It goes in one ear and out the other because we learn to block it out, only paying attention when we recognize a familiar song. I am the opposite. Because of my father’s expertise in music, he has taught me to pick up on the small details. I recognize instruments, key changes, riffs, vocal strains, rhythms, and most prominently, the emotion felt within a song. Not everyone is capable of hearing and appreciating these elements, but my practice and exposure has wired my brain to direct my attention that way. The emotion in music heightens the emotion I personally feel. When I am sad, I'll listen to breakup or mental health songs. When I need encouragement, I'll listen to songs directed to the listener. When I need a burst of energy before a cheer competition, I'll listen to loud bass or songs I can belt to. When I need Jesus, I turn to worship songs. This is called emotional listening: listening to music specifically for the emotional response it evokes. This is a shared cultural act that people perform when words simply don’t do justice.
In 1980, Robert Thayer developed a model for determining the specific emotion that music triggers and its intensity. The variables measured are arousal and valence, with arousal measuring intensity and valence indicating the positivity/negativity of the emotion. This is represented by a circular plane with an x and y axis and “the ranges of valence and arousal values are all defined, respectfully, between -1 and +1” (Panwar). This illustration reveals that the brain mathematically and psychologically responds to music, and it is not just sound for the ears. All of the elements in a song, the drum beat, melodies and harmonies, instrumentation, lyrics, and presentation affect both the mind and heart. It is not whether or not we like the genre or artist, or are already in a mood, or where we are, or who we’re with that makes us react to music. It is the firing of neurons to process information that evokes thought and emotion, and our responses are based on individual relatedness and appreciation.
It all came together for me in worship. From listening to my dad sing so passionately, I have a stronger reaction to religious music. However, it was the recognition of how all pieces of a song work together that revealed a greater appreciation for me. “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail)” was the song that unfolded this. As I stood in the back row, singing along to a song I’ve heard plenty of times, a switch flipped and my pupils dilated. The drum beat synchronized with my heart beat and I could feel vibrations throughout my body. The piano and guitar melodies made the hairs on my body stand up. I finally understood the meaning of the words and felt that as I was singing them, I was speaking truth into existence. I was moved by an unidentifiable force to lift my hands in the air. I was surrendering to the power of God and surrendering to the power of music. I was previously unaware of the hold that music had on me and in this moment, I was finally fully captivated by it. My heart was overflowing from the love of music I had gained and my mind was racing with a new perspective.
The next week, I led worship alongside my dad. This posed a new opportunity and another new perspective. As I took a deep breath and felt my nerves wash away, I knew I was about to reveal the power of music to the church. Although I was sure that many had already gained this same appreciation, there were others that I was determined to reach. It was not a performance. I was not singing. I was worshipping. I closed my eyes and spoke passionately, indicating that I believed in every word that left my mouth. I swayed, I danced, I jumped as the music took control of my body. I lifted my hands to the sky and watched as others imitated me. I saw eyes that gleamed in awe stare back at me and knew that I had fulfilled my job. I had revealed the passion that music encompasses and illustrated how it can be so overwhelming that I just can’t control myself. I am quite fortunate to have this appreciation and the opportunity to teach others about it as well. I am still learning about the components of music and still enjoying opportunities to teach today.
Panwar, Sharaj, et al. “Are You Emotional or Depressed? Learning about Your Emotional State
from Your Music Using Machine Learning.” Journal of Supercomputing, vol. 75, no. 6,
June 2019, pp. 2986–3009. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1007/s11227-018-2499-y.
ezproxy.coloradomesa.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true &db=a9h&AN=136464112&site=ehost-live. Accessed Oct. 28, 2021.
Reifsnyder, Dan. “The Oldest Song Ever Written.” Soundfly, 9 June 2021,
flypaper.soundfly.com/discover/the-oldest-song-ever-written/. Accessed Oct. 26, 2021.
Schreiber, Ewa, et al. “Psychology of Music and Its Challenges. Interview with Professor
Wilfried Gruhn.” Meakultura.pl, 2 Jan. 2016,
essor-wilfried-gruhn-1420. Accessed Oct. 26, 2021.
* = Editors' Choice work
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