How Music Rescues

I don’t know anything about Dr. Karl Paulnack, of the Boston Conservatory, but I’m thankful for him anyway.

A few days ago, a friend sent me a link to an article by Paulnack, an address he gave to a group of parents about the place of music and art in the world.  A classical musician, Paulnack says a few things that I’ve haven’t heard in just this way before.

One of the first cultures to articulate how music really works were the ancient Greeks. And this is going to fascinate you: the Greeks said that music and astronomy were two sides of the same coin. Astronomy was seen as the study of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects, and music was seen as the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us.

He then recounts a few stories to illustrate: the appearance of major music and art in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, the role of music in the healing process that followed Sept. 11, 2001, and finally how one of Aaron Copland’s compositions helped a veteran connect with a torturous, lost memory. is the study of invisible relationships between internal objects.

This makes sense to me.  I have no idea what Paulnack’s faith orientation is or isn’t, but he’s striking at a truth here.  Dallas Willard might use a definition like this to illuminate what someone means when they say that music and art are “spiritual.”  Perhaps this is why, as I peruse, and am perused by, the invisible relationships in my internal world, the pressure and desire to write is growing more insistent.

Just in case you don’t bother to click the link to read the article, I leave you with his last three paragraphs.  Argue with the notion of music and art saving the world if you will (as Christians we must), but get behind the gist of it.   Rescue is a dynamic process, a day-to-day work that I have no doubt the Christ intended to have music and beauty be a part of.

This is what Paulnack said to a group of entering freshman:

“If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.

You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you don’t have to sell yourself. The truth is you don’t have anything to sell; being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used cars. I’m not an entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well.

Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do. As in the concentration camp and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the ones who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives.”

Yes, in the end, art will leave us short.  But functions like this may have been very much what God had in mind when he placed this part of Him image in us.

I am writing…

2 Replies to “How Music Rescues”

  1. It is an amazing speech. Apparently a speech to incoming freshman and their parents at Boston Conservatory of Music. First saw it on Hopkins blog ( from March 27. (You may remember him – he’s the Director of YEA and The Cadets. I tried to hook the two of you together a couple of years ago). Then posted it on Facebook and got a few comments. I would encourage all to read the entire speech. And as always, appreciate your take.

  2. Jeff,
    I remember a particular time when I was saved (delivered, brought to my knees, surrendered, etc.) by a young woman, playing a piano, singing her heart of worship to her Father and King, amidst several teens who were talking, laughing, obviously not in tune with what she was doing or where she was going. I, on the other hand, was that one who came in with “a mind that(wa)s confused, a heart that (wa)s overwhelmed, a soul that (wa)s weary” that evening. I was on the verge of running away; in fact, that morning I had dropped my child off at preschool and had gotten in the car with my infant and wondered aloud just how far I could drive to “get away from it all” and still be back in time for pick-up at the preschool. God was really working to teach me some things during those weeks/months that I wasn’t in the least ready to hear or deal with and that day I had reached my end. I made myself go to youth worship that Wednesday night, against all my willful emotions, and saw this young woman worshiping Jesus in spirit and in truth, singing “I will bless the Lord forever. I will trust Him at all times. He has delivered me from all fear. He has set my feet upon a rock and I shall not be moved.” And I thought, I can’t sing those words; I am consumed with fear; I am not trusting and I feel like I’m standing on sand. Then I thought, I really want to be able to sing those words. That truly is what I want; not all this confusion and anger and fear. And that night, God moved me from a place of rebellion to a place of surrender. I left that setting, went into a bathroom stall, got down on my knees and wept and told God “I am done fighting; I am done running; I’ll go where you want me to go; I’ll do what you want me to do; Please forgive me; I want to trust You–I choose to trust You, Father.” All because a young woman chose to worship her God, despite all those around her who weren’t. God used her act of worship and her skill of playing and singing, and her solitary focus on Him to save me. I will be forever grateful. Thanks for this post. As you can see, it touched a nerve.

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