Malcom Dedman: The purpose of this article is to examine the link between music and spirituality, and to explore what music can give rise to a spiritual experience. First, I should give the reader some idea of what I mean by ‘spirituality’.
This is a difficult area to define as anything spiritual cannot be sensed directly with any of our five senses. A spiritual person is often confused with a person who is religious, although one does not necessarily preclude the other. Many religious people follow a course of worship and dogma for a number of different reasons, but may not actually experience anything spiritual, or they may not truly understand what they claim to believe. Other religious people do receive a spiritual experience, so this should not be forgotten.
A spiritual experience can be described as an awareness of some ‘higher’ consciousness. ‘Higher’ should not be taken as literally relating to the height dimension, rather to be interpreted like the higher energy states of, as described by physicists, the electron for example. In this sense, ‘higher’ simply means ‘greater than’.
In my opinion, a spiritual person does not differentiate between the various religions of the world as all teach essentially the same spiritual message: acknowledge and ‘love’ our Creator and ‘love’ all mankind, even though we may not be in agreement, but we should respect each other’s differences in order to overcome conflict. Social laws do change between religions for practical reasons, but spiritual laws remain the same, even if expressed slightly differently over time.
This is a huge subject which is outside the scope of this article but, suffice to say that, from Hindu to Bahá’í, via Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Christianity and Muslim, all teach the same basic truths that come from the same Creator or ‘Universal Mind’.
What has all this got to do with music? Let me first quote from Bahá’í Writings, revealed by the founder, Bahá’u’lláh:
We, verily, have made music as a ladder for your souls, a means whereby they may be lifted up unto the realm on high…. *
Do all styles, all genres of music take us up this ladder? Another quote from the same Writings states:
Take heed, however, lest listening thereto should cause you to overstep the bounds of propriety and dignity. *
So some music helps us towards a spiritual experience, whilst others actually detract from it. To give actual examples of what music does, or does not lead to a spiritual experience would be impossible, as each individual is at a different stage of the spiritual ‘ladder’ and the experience varies from person to person. Some guidelines, however, might help us.
* (Bahá’u’lláh, The Kitáb-i-Aqdas)
Although music was mentioned in the Old Testament, no record of this music is available, so it is difficult to imagine how it sounded. The first Gregorian Chant might provide us with the earliest cue, allegedly originated from the time of Pope Gregory (even though it came later). At a similar time, music notation was born, albeit in a primitive form, providing us with a record of the music at that time. The chant provides us with some kind of meditation, which I take to mean the act of focussing one’s mind on a single thought or idea. Such focussing can, for many, lead to a spiritual experience – an experience that cannot be achieved by means of words alone. The sound of the voices singing the chants leads some to such an experience.
As church music, or music for worship, evolved, it became more communal, to be sung by a congregation. In contrast, the chants need to be sung by experienced, trained singers. Once music is given for all to sing, for me it becomes less spiritual, although some do find the act of singing as a community or congregation can be uplifting. So I personally look for music that is only effective when performed by experienced musicians, whether in church as part of worship, or elsewhere, such as a concert hall.
An early example is the Vespers by Monteverdi which is equally at home in a place of worship or in a concert hall, but it is too long to form part of a service. Likewise, the huge Mass in B Minor by J S Bach and the many masses written in the Classical Period, notably by Haydn and Mozart, are generally more appropriate in a concert environment. But do these masses and other similar religious music provide the listener with a spiritual experience? The answer depends on how ‘high’ the listener is on the spiritual ladder. For me, most of these works border on an emotional experience, which is not as high up the ladder as a truly spiritual one.
The second section of the above quote suggests that there is some music that we are advised to avoid as such sounds bring us down to earth – the material level, the lowest rung of the ladder. At this point, I leave it to the reader to determine examples of such music, for I have often got myself into deep water when suggesting the types of music that does this for me! I will, however, give an example from a family I met who are Seventh Day Adventists. They banned all forms of popular music, including jazz, from the house as it was, for some reason, unacceptable to them. This is, in my view, far too extreme, as each piece of music, in whatever genre, should be judged on its own merits and conclusions as to ‘suitability’ will vary between individuals.
Some music, however, even if considered to be ‘of the earth’ is acceptable to me, in my opinion. I give by way of example Stravinsky’s ‘The Rite of Spring’ which I love and find truly exciting; but it does not constitute a spiritual experience. I would therefore suggest that if a listener finds a piece or song promotes our social ills, such as drugs, alcohol abuse, etc., such music should be avoided, as it clearly oversteps ‘the bounds of propriety and dignity’. We should be asking the question ‘Does this music lower our state of consciousness, even if we are enjoying it, or does it elevate our state of consciousness?’.
Personally, I look to some of the music by Olivier Messiaen, including many of the organ pieces, especially ‘La Nativité du Seigneur’; ‘Le Banquet Céleste’ and ’Livre du Saint Sacrement’. I also look to parts of ‘Trois Petite Liturgies de la Présence Divine’ which, incidentally, was frowned upon by the bishops and priesthood in Paris at the time, probably because of its strange but unique orchestration!
In contrast, the ending of Benjamin Britten’s ‘War Requiem’ also lifts me up the spiritual ladder as two soldiers who fought in battle now find themselves together in Paradise, living in peace with one another. Each individual will site their own examples of what works for them, providing an experience that goes beyond our emotions and which cannot be described by words.
Everyone is different, so there has never been, nor will there ever be, one kind of music that suits all. I therefore encourage the listener, when listening to their favourite music, to analyse their experience. Is it an experience of earth-bound banality; or is the experience on an emotional scale, such as joy, sadness, etc.; or does the listener get a feeling, ‘higher’ than the emotions, that cannot be felt in any other way other than from listening to the sound of that music?
It is my hope that I have provided some guidelines on what spirituality is and how we can achieve a spiritual experience through listening to music. The reader may not agree with everything I have written – and this is ok – but it is my hope that I have given the reader some food for thought.