Revisiting Scotland: The Gift (and Curse) of Musical Time Travel

Wallace Monument and Me

A picture of me standing on top of the William Wallace Memorial in Stirling, Scotland, overlooking one of the battlefields where Wallace fought for freedom.

So it turns out time machines do exist…

Any musician will tell you that music offers the ability to transport its listeners to another place and time, allowing you to relive old memories in a powerful and moving way. Have you ever wondered why this is?

According to Daniel Levitin, author of This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, the memory centers in your brain light up any time music is played. This close connection between music and memory is why the information attached to songs is what children tend to remember for a lifetime (think of how you learned to write… the ABC Song). This is also why Alzheimer’s patients can forget the faces of their own spouse and children, and yet still be able to sing all four stanzas of Amazing Grace from memory. Musical memories are the last to go, because music is deeply rooted in the memory centers of our brain.

Dvorak’s “Homesick Symphony”

Antonin Dvorak understood music’s ability to transport us to another time and place when he composed his Symphony No. 9 in E Minor – From the New World. A Czech composer, Dvorak traveled across the sea and served as the director of the National Conservatory of Music of America from 1892-1895. One year after arriving in New York, Dvorak composed his famous New World Symphony.

Dvorak was inspired by America’s wide open spaces and the simple yet elegant beauty of American folk songs and Negro spirituals. At the same time, he couldn’t help but feel homesick for his native country. All of this is captured beautifully in the Largo movement of his symphony, which happens to be one of my favorite classical pieces.

Revisiting Scotland

This symphonic movement is clearly beautiful, but it’s not the only reason why I love it so much. Each time I hear it I’m immediately transported to a medieval Grand Hall in Edinburgh, Scotland, which I visited on an international trip with my college choir. The hall was just like the castles you see in the movies, with massive stone pillars and a wide, cavernous space. Here we performed a collection of American songs, and the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland played, in our honor… the New World Symphony.

I’ll never forget what this haunting melody sounded like as it echoed through the dark corners of this medieval hall. It was an unforgettable moment – at the time, the music transported each of us back to our home in America… and now, the exact same music offers a mental trip back to the beauty of Scotland.

Wallace Monument Tower

The William Wallace Memorial Tower in Stirling, Scotland

Wallace Sword

The actual sword wielded by William Wallace…don’t be fooled by its small appearance – it was nearly taller than I was!

Music: A Powerful Tool

If you had access to an actual time machine, how would you use it? You’d need to exercise extreme caution, wouldn’t you?

And yet we toss music, the world’s most common time travelling device, around without a thought. Music has powerful connections to memory, and we need to be aware of this as we allow music to influence our attitudes, emotions, and thoughts.

As a worship leader and a father, I need to be particularly aware of this. If you’re a church musician or parent, ask yourself these questions:

1.)    What music is connected to times of great joy, spiritual revival, and growth in our church or family, and am I being a good steward of this?

2.)    What music is connected to times of great sorrow and pain for our congregation or family, and am I being sensitive to this?

Music can be an exquisite gift – or a deadly weapon – to your soul. Take care how you use it!

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8 thoughts on “Revisiting Scotland: The Gift (and Curse) of Musical Time Travel

  1. I enjoyed these thoughts on music and the brain. My grandmother had Alzheimer’s … each Sunday my grandfather took her to the church services in the nursing home and he said never once did she forget the words to any of the hymns. It always amazed me to hear him talk about that. God certainly uses music as a gift to take us to places in our minds, give us memories, and draw us closer to Him.

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    1. I agree…music is such a powerful tool for healing and restoration. I’ve even read of people’s memories being recovered through the use of music after a brain injury. So amazing, and like all of God’s gifts, we tend to take it totally for granted!

      Liked by 1 person

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