The songs we sing help build our souls. The soul can be thought of as the bedrock sense of self, the way we see our own being and its place in the Universe. Soul, the sense of self, ultimately informs our personal values. It directs behavior toward others and to the world around us. The songs we hear and sing feed this sense of self.

As I was dressing this morning, the song Look for the Silver Lining ran through my thoughts. I recognized it as a canonic song of my youth, exhorting me to view the world in its most positive light, regardless of difficulties. For a child born during the Depression and raised during WWII, this song captured the optimism that followed those two difficult periods in our nation’s history. At the time, few of us in the U.S. realized how much worse the devastation and deprivation had been in Europe and Asia.

As the song was scrolling through my mind, I wondered about songs young people are hearing now, and what effects those soul-builders will have on the long-term relationships of youth to one another, to their culture, and to the world as a whole. I don’t listen to much contemporary youth music (my grandchildren are not yet teenagers), but I’ve heard snippets of gangsta rap and heavy metal. I recently listened to damagingly loud and raucous music played at the wedding of some young friends, and I wondered how they could think and be at peace with themselves surrounded by such screaming clatter.

Another song I’ve sung often to myself, particularly while abroad, and most especially during two years living in Korea, was Tis the Gift to be Simple… This song somehow seemed to make doing without a pleasure, rather than a trial, in a culture with less abundance than mine.

Many songs drift through my mind, apparently at random. When my children were young, they used to watch the Mickey Mouse Club on TV. One day at work (as a cell biologist) I was examining cells with the electron microscope. Surrounded by complete darkness, except for a small fluorescent screen beneath binoculars I was peering through, I begain humming the refrain, Who’s the leader of the club that’s made for you and me? M-I-C-K-E-Y-M-O-U-S-E. I simply had to laugh out loud. To think that this song had become so embedded in my psyche that I’d sing it to myself even while performing serious scientific observations! Perhaps I was having fun, and that was reflected in the song I sang to myself, there, alone in the dark.

Churches have always known the value of songs and chants—based on the poetry of religious liturgy—to create an internal and collective sense of self. We bind to one another and to a collective mythology and consciousness by the words we recite and the songs we sing when we’re young. Songs and poetry are much more powerful than prose, and they are more readily remembered. The music, the rhyme and rhythm, create a memory flow more easily retrieved than simple didactic sentences.

Even yet, Greeks find a great sense of identity in the poetry of the Iliad and Odyssey, and Hebrew-speaking people still thrill at the poetic content of the Torah. Hindus still recite ancient Vedic texts during worship. And for Muslims, the Koran is probably as beautiful for poetry as it is sensible as text. Indeed, the poetic form of any idea tends to be viewed as inspired – delivered to the poet by some larger spirit or muse.

The songs we hear and the stories we read, watch, and listen to, all contribute to our personality, and they help craft who we are at our deepest level, our soul. It’s important to choose carefully what we use as food for the soul, just as we would wisely choose food for the body.