The Marvelous Musical Brain

by Julie Raymond Chalk

from the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of Reflections magazine

I grew up in a singing family. We sang our graces before meals. We sang in the car, on walks, and before we said goodnight. And at family gatherings we always sang, in parts, and rounds, and canons, and never with songbooks. Sometimes these would be accompanied by a ukulele, and later a guitar, when, as a teenager, I learned to play. Singing was in our family blood, never questioned, always present. It connected us in ways that just being together could not.

It helped that my father grew up in the Salvation Army. He was the youngest of six children whose father was the band master for their local Corps (parish) in Boston, Massachusetts. His parents and all of his siblings played different brass instruments. My father joined the group when he was just four years old, playing a bass drum which was attached to his older brother’s back. As they marched along the streets in Boston, inviting the neighborhood to come in to sing and to pray and to hear the message, my dad followed his brother, beating the bass drum all the way.

When he grew old enough to play a horn, he quickly learned the brass instruments from his older siblings. And when I was growing up, we had a cornet, trumpet, trombone, and French horn in our home, all of which Dad would play with me when I practiced the piano as a child, and later, when I took up the French horn myself in junior high school.

When I was a teenager, struggling to get along with my parents, playing instruments with my dad was often the only time that we could enjoy each other’s company. It broke down walls, brought us together, and created memories which we can still enjoy today.

My father became an Episcopalian when he married my mother, who came from an Episcopal family who was equally musical, and who brought singing into the activities of daily life. Being raised in the Episcopal church, my favorite hymns as a child included “All Things Bright and Beautiful” and “I Sing a Song of the Saints of God.” These hymns, along with “Jesus Loves Me,” were rooted deep in my soul from childhood on. When I was away at camp as a fifth grader and again in ninth grade when I traveled to Europe with a school group, singing my familiar “heart songs” to myself was a comfort when I struggled with homesickness. When I was married and a family quilt was made, my cousin embroidered the actual music (with staff and notes) of “All Things Bright and Beautiful” onto one of the squares.

When I had children, I added new songs to sing to them at bedtime, some of which my adult daughter still asks for today. Truly, the songs planted in us as children, provide a spiritual reservoir from which we can draw throughout our lives. They become comfort when we are in pain, light when we are in darkness, and living water when the drought seems unbearable and unceasing.

When my children were in preschool they began their musical training. Their music teacher explained that music develops like language; when it is introduced early in childhood, kids have the greatest capacity to learn, however that ability decreases with age, when those parts of the brain go unused. He said that playing a musical instrument is one of the only activities that we do which uses both halves of the brain simultaneously, and that the younger the age at which a child begins, the further they can go with their musical aspirations. After age 10, that natural ability begins to decrease, which explains why older children and adults have a more difficult time learning new languages as well as new musical instruments.

This teacher encouraged expectant parents to sing to their children while still in the womb, and suggested that families listen to all kinds of music as much as possible, to sing, play, attend concerts, participate in a musical church, and to move to music from birth on. In addition to helping a child develop an appreciation for and the ability to make music, all of these activities nurture the soul and plant seeds of strength and knowledge and enjoyment which can be drawn upon throughout one’s entire life.

As a geriatric social worker, I’ve worked with older adults in a variety of settings and have been amazed to see the impact of music in improving a person’s quality of life at later ages. Because the music center of the brain is one of the last to be affected by Alzheimer’s Disease and other types of dementia, many people can enjoy music and even sing long after they’ve lost their ability to speak. When my mother was at the end of her life, her local hospice group had a small choir, who came to sing to her in her last days. They surrounded her bed and sang several accapella hymns in parts, and, while unable to speak, she opened her eyes and smiled.

And now, at age 83, and despite having advanced vascular dementia, my father is still able to play his trumpet (by ear) in church every Sunday. He loves to reminisce about playing “This Little Light of Mine” on Epiphany and “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” every Palm Sunday while leading his congregation from the garden into church. He played “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” at my wedding, complete with trumpet descant. And the seeds of all of those activities were planted on those Saturday nights on the streets of Boston playing with his family Salvation Army band encouraging everyone to come in to worship, love, and accept Jesus into their lives. From birth to death, the gift of music is there for everything and can truly carry us through. Alleluia!

Julie Chalk is a geriatric social worker who lives at Canyon Lake and attends St. Francis by the Lake. She is also one of the facilitators for Community of Hope in her parish. Reach her at


For Further Reflection

If there is an Episcopal school near you, visit one of the chapel services just to hear the children sing.

If one of your friends or family members suffers from dementia, bring music to him or her.

Back to Table of Contents Spring/Summer 2017 issue of Reflections magazine.   



From The Episcopal Diocese of West Texas

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