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Music Soothes the Savage Baby

The Guideposts senior editor reflects on why music is like faith.

Our church was having a Christmas concert. “Let’s bring Frances,” said my wife, Kate. Frances is our two-year-old, whose stamina and patience plummet around seven. The concert started at seven.

“Um,” I said.

“I want to go, and we don’t have a babysitter,” said Kate. “She’ll do fine.”

We put Frances in pajamas, the kind with fuzzy feet, and headed into the December dark. We arrived late, tiptoeing into the candlelit sanctuary, and took seats in a side chapel. Heads turned—grown-up heads, I noticed. No kids. The choir launched into a complicated, haunting medieval carol. Kate wrapped Frances in a blanket and laid her in her lap. I held my breath, waiting for the squirming, the “I want a snack,” the “I want to run around.” The music rose, fell and eddied like blown snow. Frances listened. Her body became still. She held a corner of her blanket to the soft, sensitive skin above her lip and stared intently, the way she does at books.

And I began wondering: What on earth does she hear? This was not Pete Seeger’s “Skip to my Lou,” the song she asks for every hour of every day. This was music she has no words for, no context, no way even to call it music, a word I don’t think I’ve heard her say. So what was she hearing as she sat there so intently? For that matter, what does any of us hear when we listen to music? I suppose neurologists know what happens in the brain when music plays, and anyone can look up the physics of sound. But that doesn’t answer my question. What kept Frances so rapt? Was it what keeps all of us rapt when we hear beautiful music? Some unseen quality that neither needs nor is capable of explanation?

Here is what I think: Listening to music is like faith. It is assent to things unseen, things we don’t fully understand—but our lack of understanding doesn’t matter. People talk about faith like it’s some kind of suspension of reason, either a gift or, depending on your point of view, a pitiful intellectual failure. Baloney. Everyone believes—in something. Everyone listens like Frances at least part of the time. When they fall in love, say, or when they yearn for home, or when the landscape comes into view that breaks their heart. No one understands such moments. But neither do they discount them for that reason. Faith is not a gift, not a failure. It is, wonderfully, a basic fact of living.

About an hour into the concert, Frances began squirming. “I want a snack,” she demanded. “I want to get down and run around.” The concert wasn’t over, but we tiptoed out and headed home. Frances was not happy. It was cold, she was tired, her crib awaited. But still she wailed, “I want go back to the concert.”

Jim Hinch is a senior editor at GUIDEPOSTS. Reach him at jhinch@guideposts.org.

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