How will these resources help you? 

The earliest evidence we have for humans creating and listening to music is bone flutes from around the year 40,000 BCE. They are associated with rituals and ceremonies as they were found in burial sites. These resources use scientific disciplines to consider the effect that spiritual worship and music has on brain development and health and on spirituality. They offer the opportunity to extend the study of religious rites and practices, and to aid philosophical discussions about belief in God and how we experience the Divine. 

Larry S. Sherman and Dennis Plies

Every Brain Needs Music: The Neuroscience of Making and Listening to Music

by Larry S. Sherman and Dennis Plies, published by Columbia University Press, (2023), 9780231209106

This accessible book is a systematic review of over 20 studies of the relationship between the brain and music. The main message is that music is very important to human brain development, maintenance and repair – it activates numerous areas of the brain, leading to improved memory, problem solving, creativity and general wellbeing. The book focuses on the clinical use of music in therapy, and the science behind what listening to and making music can do to the brain. It will be useful for teachers and older students, and some sections could be used with younger students in class discussions. 

How choir singing improves health

Choir singing improves health, happiness – and is the perfect icebreaker

by Jacques Launay and Eiluned Pearce, published by The Conversation, (2015)

This article explores the relationship between music and the brain through choral music, which can be found across many religions and worldviews and has greatly increased in popularity in British secular settings more recently. Choral singing has many health benefits, such as improved posture and breathing and reduced muscle tension. It also impacts the brain, as singing with others releases 'feel-good' chemicals such as endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine. This resource would be useful in the RE classroom to explore the impact of choral singing on wellbeing and communities, and in discussions around defining the secular and the religious in British society today. 

The science behind mantras

Chanting mantras: understanding the science behind it

by Bina Thakur, published by Happiest Health, (2023)

There have been a wealth of scientific studies on the effects of chanting mantras on the brain in recent years as interest in the health benefits of this ancient practice has increased. In this readable and accessible article, Thakur references six findings on the impact of chanting on the brain. Readers may use hyperlinks and references in the text to more advanced studies to allow further exploration. Thakur recounts the experience of someone who found that chanting mantras (including Aum/Om) each day calmed his anxiety and normalised his high blood pressure. This example offers an interesting case study to explore in class as an extension to learning about the sacred sound of Aum/Om, which has significance in many religions and worldviews, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. 

Christian Worship and the brain

Hymns and Neurons: How Worship Rewires Our Brains and Bonds Us Together

by W. David O. Taylor, published by Christianity Today, (2022)

This article is written from within a Christian worldview, which focuses on the group nature of Church worship. It explores the phenomenon of 'entrainment', which describes the synchronisation, connectedness or flow that occurs when singing or listening to music together in a group, which can help the members to bond more closely. In addition to this, the 'happy chemicals' released in the brain help the group to form strong bonds. The author acknowledges that this can have possible negative effects if manipulated for the wrong reasons, but he suggests we can also see this as a form of 'positive peer pressure' when a group is led by those with good intentions. This article will enable students to explore the impact of worship on the brain and community from both a neurological and sociological perspective, and in discussions around how Church interaction has evolved and changed following the separation necessitated by Covid-19. 

Audiovisual clip

Genius of the Ancient World - Confucius and Music

published by BBC Four, (2015)

A look at how Confucius saw instruments and music as valuable accompaniments to religious rituals, and how they could provide a form of therapy (a then uncoined term) for people 2,500 years ago.

Further materials

How Music Can Heal the Brain, published by SciShow Psych, (2021) Watch this video
Your Brain on Om: The Science of Mantra by Gabriel Axel, published by U.S. News, (2013) Read this article
How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: The New Science of Transformation by Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman, published by Avery Publishing Group, (2017), 9780399185595 Find this book
I was taught that charismatic worship manipulates my emotions. But I can't 'explain away' those holy moments by Chine McDonald, published by Premier Christianity Read this article
Ruth Marx teaches Religion and Worldviews, is a Consultant for Religious Studies and PSHE, a Farmington Fellowship Scholar and a published blogger on Re:Online.

Text © Ruth Marx, 2023.