Music and Spirituality
This is a paper I wrote a couple years back. I was re-reading it just now and thought it would be a good thing to share with you all. If its too long for you, don’t read it.
Though it is possible that all religions do not have a common philosophical bond (every modern mind should consider such), it is defiantly possible to say that all religions and cultural beliefs are held in a common bond of music. This is possible because music, as a method of emotional communication, is less inhibited by the intellect than the more practical, symbolic languages of our world. Emotion is the language of the soul, and nothing has evoked such happiness as Mozart’s sonatas, or such anger as Stravinsky’s ballets, or such sensuality and imagery as Debussy’s compositions. Nowhere except in music can a person express their being to it’s fullest through a beautifully colored, soulfully inspired, technically challenging improvised jazz solo; or express the painfully poignant sense of poetic loss of a lover through the slow, dirty choruses of blues. That is to say nothing of Tibetan classical music, or the depth of black spirituals, or the power of mantra. It is obvious through observation of the current political climate that words sometimes fall short where intellectual and emotional expression is concerned. So it is art, and especially music, that can surpass this linguistic limit and therefore provide us with a more understanding, loving, and meaningful existence.
“The only good thing ever to come out of religion was the music.” So says famous comic George Carlin. This quote, like all of his material, seems at first glance to be a bit extreme, while at a second glance much of what he has to say has a certain hyperbolic truth to it. After all, what, other than music, do we have to connect us with the culture of our ancestors? A history of wars and dispute fought over faith and interpretation of words (or whose words are better). How could one argue that one’s music is better than another’s? It would be absurd to do so. Yet it must be said that spirituality inspired the music that caused our predecessors to invent the musical theorems and systems that allowed music to be what it is today. The development of western tonal harmony, for example, is due wholly to the Catholic Church and the inspiration it instilled in so many composers. Likewise, everything from ragtime to jazz, or from rap to rock, is due in some part to the African spiritual influence on western tonal harmony. This event was indeed very interesting and slightly ironic in a sense. This is because, as a ‘sophisticated’ popular art form, western music had run it’s course when the African influence slowly slipped into the melting pot (a process which culminated in the civil rights movement, which it is still continuing to this day) and provided the next ‘sophisticated’ art form for our culture: Jazz. The irony here is that what was thought to be a primitive, purely rhythmic form of music, turned tonal harmony on its head (which many composers were doing already, just not in the same way) and resulted in the next major evolutionary step for music. This melding of cultures and of music was very healthy for both our culture and our music. You see, while western religious music is spiritual in many ways, it also has a certain rigidity, a sort of lofty nobility attached to it. The people of this culture also seem to have these qualities. African culture instills quite different qualities, such as a deep awareness of rhythm and nature. In a way, when combined, western tonal harmony and African rhythm and soul result in a music that is beyond either genre or culture. Jazz is doubly soulful because of this. The great musicians of this music took western melodic and harmonic structure and placed it over a syncopated, repetitive beat. This, and reduced instrumentation, gave individual musicians the freedom to play around the beat and around the harmonies. These developments allowed a more direct emotional connection between musician and listener. Also, the idea of instantaneous inspiration, or improvisation, greatly enhanced the performer/listener relationship as well as the relationship between musicians because the accompanists had to adapt what they were playing in order to support the soloist. This is also a complicated reflection of the call and response form of African spirituals. The connection between spirituality and inspiration should also be noted.
In the east, some of the most profound forms of religious and spiritual music are found. Many eastern cultures create music that, by western standards, has no feasible harmonic or rhythmic structure, while still conveying a general mood. This gives the music a certain organic connotation that has almost a mythological feel to it. Indian classical music, for example, has
“…given sequences of notes corresponding to given artistic themes: for each theme the connoisseur knows the corresponding raga. And each raga corresponds to a particular time of year and may only be played at particular hours of the day. There are ragas for each hour of the day and night…” (Peter Michael Hamel pg. 45)
This kind of music to life relevance gives this music spiritual significance.
“A French artist once remarked of Indian music: ‘C’est la musique du corps astral’” (Peter Michael Hamal pg. 45)
‘It is the music of the astral body.’ Is what that means, which makes a lot of sense considering their philosophy and the purpose of their music. One characteristic that may give their music this quality is their use of different modes or ragas. There are over 5,000 different ragas and each has its own color. Indeed, raga means ‘that which colors the mind’.
“The basis of all Indian music, whether of Hindu or Islamic origin, is the human voice, the sung recitation of the Holy Books – the Vedas and the Koran. Just as in the ancient Greek culture, no distinction was made in earlier millennia between singing and recitation.” (Peter Michael Hamal pg. 53)
The Hindus and their Vedanta philosophy, along with many other eastern cultures, have a very different instinctive perception of sound from us in the west. Though now, just in the past half of a century, western science and technology has just started to prove some of their ideas true.
“By filming a burning candle while repeating certain sounds, the flame of the candle will be seen to burn differently as each different sound is uttered. If colour film is used, it will be seen that the colour of the candle flame will change also with the different sounds. This is because each sound emits a different vibration, which in turn effects the energy of the flame, causing it to change shape and colour. Sound therefore has speed, shape, and colour and there are many scientific instruments that can be used to prove this.” (Swami Murugesu)
“Certain sounds can affect our circulation and nervous system… Whatever change such vibrations cause, extends to the mind of a person and also to the surrounding atmosphere, causing warmth or coolness. All this can be known by study and shown by practice.” (Swami Murugesu)
If sound vibration affects the form of matter, then the west has been blind to a subtle cultural assumption instinctively partaken by many other people of the world. Understanding this gives a whole new meaning to the traditions of the east. The concepts of chanting, the many forms of prayer, and mantra become a great deal more significant (especially considering the effect the participation in these forms of musical meditation may have on human health). Of course, the great question that we in the west must ask of these cultures is ‘What is happening inside you when you pray 12 hours a day, or chant, or recite mantra with ever-increasing intensity?’
“In order to be able to understand the power of words and syllables spoken inwardly – mantra, in Sanskrit – knowledge of the ancient Greek theory of music is necessary. According to the laws of vibration and acoustic proportion, a body can be disintegrated by means of its ‘own note’ or basic resonance-frequency, provided that this frequency is known in the case of the body in question: ‘Each organism exhibits its own vibratory rate, and so does every inanimate object from the grain of sand to the mountain and even to each planet and sun. When this rate of vibration is known, the organism or form can by occult use of it, be disintegrated’ – or, for that matter, cognized and brought into awareness. Thus it is the sound of the ‘word’, the power of song, that can establish a link with the underlying substance of all things and all beings and can react esoterically upon that of the cosmos itself. Song is a means of entering into a direct relationship with the most occult of powers. ‘Singing or rhythmical speech is in the deepest sense an active conjuration, a creative act within the worlds acoustic foundations… The power of song, as the first manifestation of thought, created the world, in that the sound of the primal vibration sacrificed itself so that it might become progressively into an upward-spiraling rhythm of ever-higher, newly-formed vibrations, gradually to become transmuted into stone and flesh… Not only the creation myths of the primitive cultures, but also the cosmologies of the high cultures in Africa and Asia refer to a dark, unfathomable sound as the mother of the creator of the worlds.’”(Peter Micheal Hamel pg. 109-110)
Hamel provides one of the most cohesive and profound explanations of what goes on internally during mantra, and the philosophies, beliefs, and mythologies associated with the practice. It is hard to portray these concepts in a way for westerners to easily comprehend because these cultures are so foreign to us and have such different basic assumptions about the universe; but it is only through study, observation, and comparison of the other cultures of the world that we can, in a relative sense, truly understand our own culture and basic assumptions.
The late Alan Watts, philosopher and religious scholar, is known as perhaps the foremost Western interpreter of Eastern thought for the modern world. Watts continually compared music, art, and dancing to life metaphorically. He observed that most people think of life as a serious journey with a real purpose and a goal at the end of the journey. Watts, however, believes that life is not serious, and that the real sense of the world is non-sense, such as when we sing jazz with nonsense syllables or dance aimlessly around a room. He hypothesizes that the end of a musical composition is not the point of the composition, and that when you dance, you don’t aim for a particular point on the dace floor, but merely move about the room at a whim. The point being, you are supposed to sing, or to dance, while the music is being played, not work arduously to the end of your days seeking a far away future reward. Watts continually stated that there was a hoax inherent in our society that prevents us from realizing who we truly are. The primary crutch of this hoax being the hallucination that we are isolated beings enclosed in bags of skin observing an objective universe where we have little part in the great processes of a mechanistic existence. This hallucination was incubated in the womb of western science and birthed from the past century’s materialistic mentality. Also at cause is societies continual belief in a ceramic model of the universe: the belief that the world was constructed out of some basic ‘stuff’ and ‘put together’ by the hand of a being who is aware of every event, however miniscule, in the universe. By comparison, eastern philosophy understands that existence is a process and that humans grow out of the universe as the apple from the tree. A Chinese child would not ask “How was I made?” they would ask “How was I grown?”. It is through these subtle comparisons between cultures that we can realize our own folly in viewing the world as ‘stuff’ and not as an ever-changing montage of vibrational encounters. We think our existence is serious, that we came into this world with a job to do, a lesson to learn, and a goal to reach; but other cultures view the universe as they might view a symphony or a dramatic play. They say the purpose and essence of life is art and aesthetic experience.
Spiritual experiences, whether during prayer in church or during meditation, are inspiring; and the primary method of expressing this inspiration is through art. More specifically, music has a great relationship to spirituality because it is the most diaphanous (thus the most experiential) of the arts. ‘The hills are shadows’, the poet says ‘and they flow from form to form, and nothing changes’. So too does music flow, an unchanging changer within our souls.
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@cosmiclemonade, so music enhances spirituality, but HOW does music affect our system and is every music spiritual or is it only affecting our system as in emotions? And why is it that certain music is liked by individuals while other music is disliked, is it merely emotion or some spiritual need to listen to some tones and harmonic sounds? For example classic music is liked by certain people, but other people like hard rock..what does that mean spiritually, what kind of effect does disturbing music have on people and why do they still like to listen to it?
@heartbeat, “so music enhances spirituality”
I would say that music is a conduit for enhancing spirituality. Like most of life, It only has as much meaning as you allow it to have.
“but HOW does music affect our system and is every music spiritual or is it only affecting our system as in emotions?”
Music is only as effective as you allow it to be. I suppose it is “only” affecting us through emotion, but emotion may have a larger effect on the physical than many of us choose to believe. For instance, I’m thinking of the quote about the candle flame, which I view as a commentary on what has been perceived as “aura”, though I personally believe that ones aura is just a vibrational extension of ones emotional and intuitive state.
And yes, all music is spiritual in the same fashion that all religions are spiritual. The choice between the options of both usually reflects cultural distinctions rather than purely spiritual ones, though culture and spirituality are nearly inseparable. No music is objectively “better” or “less good” because it all depends on where you desire to travel in life as well as where you have come from culturally speaking. For example, my father is a blues guitarist who grew up in the 70s. When I was four he opened a music store where I took lessons, watched the customers play, and generally grew up with music. So, naturally, I listened to what my parents listened to: classic rock, blues, soul, funk. Then I picked up the trumpet and decided I wanted to play like Miles. Eventually I realized that I will never play the same as anyone else and that Jazz is not necessarily my heritage or my natural musical voice. But I practiced and learned to adapt my voice to many genres of music. Through my mistakes in developing as a musician, I have gained appreciation for many forms of music I had previously thought were void of value. Like bluegrass and different types of folk music. I’ve learned that just because I don’t immediately enjoy some music, that doesn’t mean its not worthy of my time and consideration. I’ve learned that not having respect for someone or some sound doesn’t mean I should disrespect them or it.
Disturbing music is only disturbing to those who are disturbed by that music, though I suppose some people may want to be disturbed and may be the exception.
@cosmiclemonade, This paper is beautiful! :) Might I ask what you wrote it for? (Class composition, article etc…)
I’ve always been amazed at how something as intangible, incorporeal as music can have such profound impacts on humans. Music moves people; it unites strangers, creates bonds, and changes lives. It sets ambiance and determines emotions. Music is an essential part of our daily lives.
Thanks for sharing your paper :)
@cosmiclemonade was just thinking about this sometime ago, but still in limbo about what the link between our brain, soul and music has in common to make us feel the way we do after listening to certain music.
excellent paper though!