Spirituality and Music

If you have ever been to a music festival then you can attest to the power of music. Masses of people gathered together from all walks of life in celebration of music can be one of the most beautiful experiences to share. Many people have become so deeply involved with music festival culture that they travel around the world and change their appearance even when outside of the festivals to express their passion for them. In these moments our senses can be heightened and we loose ourselves in an almost transcendent state that many people describe as a “religious” experience. And while that may be hyperbole or metaphor, there is still great merit to the comparison. If there are people claiming to have transcendent experiences at festivals without the mention of any religion or even God, is it possible that the power of music is a potent as spirituality? Or further, that we have confused the psycho-emotional effects of music with the experience of the soul?

The word “festival” comes from the 1500s, directly relating to religious ceremonies of the day and even some current definitions still reference this meaning.  Earlier uses of the word make it as synonymous with “holiday”. Though much of the religious connotation has dissolved the history of the world is undeniably nonsecular. The organization of festivals has not changed very much from their early religious days. There has always been vendor and demonstrations, speakers,entertainment, dancing, and of course music. Yet some would argue that music is a construct of man, and not one of God.

The Bible makes several references to music in its text but still there is a question of music’s place in the church. If attending church service is about congregating under the word of God then music is not necessary, but it is still prevalent in many modern worship services. The range of music and where it falls in the service varies greatly and has been known to cause some division within congregations. In traditional Catholic Mass the appropriate music could me described as Gregorian Chant of Pope St. Gregory. It is a relatively monotone vocal style with out instruments typical associated with the Gothic period, though the genre is older. Psalms 98:5  states, ” Sing unto the LORD with the harp; with the harp, and the voice of a psalm.” This neither supports or disallows music in the church at time of worship.

Moving through Christianity alone we find various examples of music in the church and many opinions about the proper type of music that is to be played. Some fundamentalists, may perceive music as an abomination as many did in the third century, but by in large attitudes have shifted to music being played. However there is still much debate over whether secular styled music should be adapted in the praise of God. In Judaism, the roll of the Cantor or Chazzan is often one that leads the congregation is songful prayer, but the music played in accompaniment is clearly recognizable as religious.

Gospel music is so intwined with popular music history that it is difficult to know whether R&B and Soul is its inspiration or the other way around. Much of this comes from christian slaves singing hymns while working or cooking on plantations, these stylings evolved simultaneously to provide the foundations for Jazz, Blues, and what eventually became  Hip Hop.

In the east, the Japanese have local festivals known as matsuri, that are based on traditional Shinto ceremonies. Shinto is a polytheistic religion that hold several festivals per year as related planting and harvest prayer and other reasons. Now in Japan, the word matsuri has come to describe nonreligious festivals as well but they still call many music festivals by the same name.

Who takes the credit, spirituality or music? If you can have a religious experience without religion as long as music is there doesn’t that mean something? All through out the world now, and in history, we find music paired with religious practice is it could it be that music is the common denominator and spirituality is along for the ride. As a creative act, music must be born of the core of our being, and it has the power to touch us deeply no matter how you describe it. The power of music could be described as one way of communicating spiritual feelings, with out regard to deity or religion. On the other hand, music has long since been recognized for its psychological effects as well. We know that soothing sounds can put us at ease, and jarring loud sounds alarm us. At the same time, it could be argued that music is in fact a product of the soul, and that where ever there is music resonating with people their spirits are exalted.

Opening ourselves up to music can be the first gateway to finding spirituality, or simply just relaxing the mind. Music is a powerful force like all art, that can be used secularly or paired with spirituality that adds dimension to whatever experience is being had. Perhaps music alone can provide only a glimmer of what the combination of spirituality and sound can offer when brought together, maybe they are the same.