The power of music

March 31, 2017

Music plays an integral part in many people’s lives, but what is it like to be a full-time professional working in this field? Julie Houghton speaks to two people with very different lives in music. 



Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast” wrote playwright William Congreve more than 400 years ago.

Music has been central to our lives since 60 AD, when Paul exhorted the early Christians to use music to speak to each other through psalms, hymns and songs: “Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians chapter 5, verse 18).

In fact there are at least 128 references in the Bible to the role of music in our lives.

Two music professionals with all-encompassing day jobs in this field are director of music at St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in Melbourne, Philip Nicholls, and manager of music therapy at Royal Melbourne Hospital, Dr Emma O’Brien. 

Philip Nicholls was born into a church-music household, where his father was a part-time organist and choirmaster. Young Philip joined an all-male church choir at the age of seven, before leaving the church when his voice changed. He returned in his university years to become a choral scholar and assistant director of music at Melbourne University’s Trinity College.

Philip says he caught the church music bug in a big way, realising how privileged it was to lead the music in worship, but with privilege came responsibility. In 2001 he was appointed director of music at a leading Melbourne musical parish, Christ Church South Yarra, where the connection between faith and music became vital for him.

“I grew in the faith, and in an understanding of worship-song leadership. Working with such a wonderful team of clergy inspired me to consider what God was calling me to do, so I studied theology and tested a vocation,” he told Warcry.

“All of this work confirmed in me that I was already doing what I thought God wanted me to do. I became director of music at St Paul’s Cathedral in 2013, and I hope others have been encouraged to sing out their praises to God under my leadership.”

While the St Paul’s choir was strictly a male-only affair from its establishment in 1888, Philip’s goal was to add a choir of girls and women, which happened last year.

Music is an integral part of cathedral worship, with choirs singing services on six out of seven days each week and weekly lunchtime concerts.

Philip says that many people hear God’s voice through music, and his own growth in faith and music led him to complete a postgraduate theology degree, combining two central forces of his own life.

“My faith was founded in worship music—I don’t think I would be able to believe in a God that didn't call us to worship him through singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, so music is integral to worship for me,” he explained.

Dr Emma O’Brien is manager of music therapy at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and recently was awarded an OAM for service to community health through music therapy programs.

Music has always been part of Emma’s life. She completed an honours music degree as a singer at Melbourne University before winning a scholarship that took her to London to study, where she spent five years in the UK performing, before deciding to investigate music therapy. On returning to Australia, she retrained in postgraduate music therapy, which included a placement at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. After graduating, she was offered a job and built up the music therapy department, which provides music therapy services in cancer and palliative care, neurology and live music across the hospital. So how is music relevant to healing?

“Research explains to us quite clearly how music has an impact on our brains. It stimulates neuroplasticity, and learning and playing an instrument and singing is one of the best things we can do for our health and wellbeing,” Emma told Warcry.

“It is the ultimate brain gym—it can help the injured brain heal and form new pathways for speech and movement,” Emma explained.

(Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to reorganise itself by forming new nerve cells to compensate for injury or disease.)

Music influences our stress levels and can stimulate our immune systems, as well as offering great comfort, and music therapy has helped post-brain injury patients speak again.

Music therapy programs are individually designed to fit the needs of patients.

Emma recalled the case of cancer patient Rosh. 

With Emma’s help, Rosh learned the guitar and they composed songs to express his feelings about his life’s journey nearing its end, and a very song for his girlfriend. Both these songs were recorded and provided great comfort not just to him, but to his family and friends after his death.

“I often think of him and how he would get up and practise the guitar even though he knew he was dying. It was inspirational, and a great driving force for me—we all have days where we feel down but sometimes we need to just get up and keep going, like Rosh did,” Emma said.

While Emma’s job means that she walks some challenging roads alongside her patients, she is adamant about the power of music in her work.

“I have the most extraordinary job. It is rewarding, uplifting, sometimes exhausting, but I get to be part of the transformation that music can offer people in their lives—what’s not to love about that as a job?” Emma enthused.

So how do we sum up the power of music on the human soul? Philip Nicholls and Bill Himes would no doubt share Emma O’Brien’s response to that question.

“Music gives us space for all our emotions. It honours them and provides an extraordinary outlet. It uplifts us, it makes us cry—but it is what makes us human and what connects us,” she said.

Amen to that.


Tags: Salvation Army Australia

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