Music and Spirituality

Music is an interesting enigma in many aspects and regardless of your personal interest or lack of interest in music, you have to admit that in this day and age with the ease at which music can be produced, bought and sold, downloaded and even transported via Walkmans, I-pods, and laptops, music is an integral part of many peoples lives. For many people music is a part of their daily routine. Many people are inextricably attached to their music as can be seen in the massive numbers who daily listen to the radio, CD’s or I-pods, watch music videos, sing or play an instrument in school or the church choir. And if you ever had a doubt with the “fascination” of music, take into account the popularity of prime time TV’s “American Idol” which again testifies to the popularity of both music as well as the use of music as a vehicle to stardom, and maybe even the need to have music in our lives.

Many think of music and think popular music, Madonna, Usher, Cher, Destiny’s Child, Marilyn Manson, etc. and all the hype associated with the names and fame. Despite the glitz and gold, music is not only important and popular in the more urban areas. Even the less technologically advanced areas and cultures/societies have music integrated into their lives; they sing, chant, and or play a variety of instruments. The most well know instrument would be the drum which is integral in nearly all societies in one way or another. There are those who say the drum’s importance revolves around the primal sound of the beating heart, which the drum resembles. Regardless of your personal affinity to the drum and its history we must wonder why is music a part of so many people’s lives? No matter the occasion or ceremony and no matter the ethnic group, religion, or culture, music exists as a major player and each person truly does “dance to the beat of a different drummer.”

Music is a powerful tool that can transform the human condition. It can lift someone from the pits of depression and hopelessness to a place of peace, joy, and optimism. It can also be a dangerous tool that can lower the human condition. It would be possible to debate and outline the dangers that are inherent in much of today’s contemporary (secular) music but that is not where my focus shall be. I do however want to make it clear that what I am going to say regarding the more secular/contemporary music in no way means I am condoning censorship, in any form. Despite its more “worldly” (and in many ways dangerous) influence, what I propose is awareness rather than censorship. I can accept the fact that all music has a time and place and that in many ways the music reflects the culture and people in which it is produced. I do however want to caution those who may not have taken into account the dangerous side – the dark side of music; be aware of what you choose to enter your mind via the music you listen to. Do not fall into what many use as their reasoning, defense, or excuse, “I only listen to it for the beat, not for the words.” Even though your conscious mind is not “listening,” your subconscious is aware, alert, and is picking up every word that is expressed. That is one reason that concepts such as “The Mozart Effect” (see appendix 1 at the end of this article) are said to be able to produce the changes they profess.

This is also one reason that more studies related to such things as adolescent behavior and the influence of music are being conducted. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that adolescents who listen to certain types of Heavy Metal and or Rap are more likely to have lower grades in school, engage in more violent behavior, increased sexual promiscuity, and abuse of drugs and alcohol, to name a few. According to Roger H. Meyer, “Heavy metal, rap, or martial music excites the nervous system and prompts people to dynamic action or aggressive behavior. It’s not surprising that Gulf War pilots listened to recordings of heavy metal music before launching their offensive flights into battle.” (Meyer 2003)

While much is being studied in connection to adolescents and their behavior, music affects adults in similar ways as well. In the previous paragraph I mentioned Meyer and one observation he had of the Gulf War pilots who listened to heavy metal before going into battle. Why did they do this? Because the music affects their mood, which affect their performance in battle. The music “pumped them up” making them more “hyped” and ready for combat. Based on that, I wonder what does listening to heavy metal do to the person who is driving down the freeway? Heavy metal is not the only aggression or “blood flowing type of music.” Hardcore rap has been said to produce similar results.

Again I ask a question. How many times can you hear someone sing/rap about sex, drugs, and or violence before those thoughts find a place of fertile soil and take root within the listener’s psyche? How many times can you hear songs where women are used only for their bodies as sexual objects, before your own perception of women is altered and you also see them as objects to be used and or abused? How many times can you hear reggae artists or others sing/rap about hatred and the killing of homosexuals (or anyone for that matter) before you become hardened and start believing the propaganda that homosexuals are evil, wrong, and deserving of death? (Appendix A contains links to examples of lyrics. Lyrics are graphic in nature. Viewer discretion advised.)

Yet again, I reiterate that I am not saying we should censor their creative rights. As artists they have a right to produce art that they desire to create. My point is that we as responsible humans/consumers must realize that “we” have a choice. What I am suggesting is that we all may want to consider becoming more aware of what is being conveyed in the music we listen to. Stop claiming to only listen to the beat because it is easy to dance to it. Become aware of how it affects us and our children, and in turn decide if we want it in our lives. The music industry will follow suit when our dollars no longer line the inside of their wallets.

OK, now on to a more spiritual “note.”

Music has throughout history has been used in a variety of ways, from uses in ceremony and ritual to celebration and enjoyment. In terms of the religious or spiritual implications and uses of music they are as varied and numerous as the stars in the sky. While there are many religious and spiritual traditions I could reference in terms of their music and worship practices, I will remain within my own practice as an eclectic Christian.

Music inspires and uplifts, drawing closer to the divine; it heals our emotional selves and some researchers would say it can heal the physical body as well. The Bible has many references to music; I would like to cite a few of them here:

Psalm 40:2-3 (English Standard Version)

2 He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure. 3 He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD

Psalm 98:4-6 (English Standard Version)

4 Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises! 5 Sing praises to the LORD with the lyre, with the lyre and the sound of melody! 6 With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the LORD!

Judges 5:3 (English Standard Version)

3 Hear, O kings; give ear, O princes; to the LORD I will sing; I will make melody to the LORD, the God of Israel.

Genesis 31:26-28 (English Standard Version)

26 And Laban said to Jacob, “What have you done, that you have tricked me and driven away my daughters like captives of the sword? 27 Why did you flee secretly and trick me, and did not tell me, so that I might have sent you away with mirth and songs, with tambourine and lyre? 28 And why did you not permit me to kiss my sons and my daughters farewell? Now you have done foolishly.

1 Chronicles 6:31-32 (English Standard Version)

31 These are the men whom David put in charge of the service of song in the house of the LORD after the ark rested there. 32 They ministered with song before the tabernacle of the tent of meeting until Solomon built the house of the LORD in Jerusalem, and they performed their service according to their order.

1 Chronicles 25:5-7 (King James Version)

5 All these were the sons of Heman the king’s seer in the words of God, to lift up the horn. And God gave to Heman fourteen sons and three daughters. 6 All these were under the hands of their father for song in the house of the LORD, with cymbals, psalteries, and harps, for the service of the house of God, according to the king’s order to Asaph, Jeduthun, and Heman. 7 So the number of them, with their brethren that were instructed in the songs of the LORD, even all that were cunning, was two hundred fourscore and eight.

1 Chronicles 25:6-8 (King James Version)

6 All these were under the hands of their father for song in the house of the LORD, with cymbals, psalteries, and harps, for the service of the house of God, according to the king’s order to Asaph, Jeduthun, and Heman. 7 So the number of them, with their brethren that were instructed in the songs of the LORD, even all that were cunning, was two hundred fourscore and eight. 8 And they cast lots, ward against ward, as well the small as the great, the teacher as the scholar.

Nehemiah 12:27 (King James Version)

27 And at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought the Levites out of all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem, to keep the dedication with gladness, both with thanksgivings, and with singing, with cymbals, psalteries, and with harps.

Job 21:11-13 (King James Version)

11 They send forth their little ones like a flock, and their children dance. 12 They take the timbrel and harp, and rejoice at the sound of the organ.

Psalm 81:1-3 (English Standard Version)

1 Sing aloud to God our strength; shout for joy to the God of Jacob! 2 Raise a song; sound the tambourine, the sweet lyre with the harp. 3 Blow the trumpet at the new moon, at the full moon, on our feast day.

Psalm 108:1-3 (New International Version)

1 My heart is steadfast, O God;
I will sing and make music with all my soul.
2 Awake, harp and lyre!
I will awaken the dawn.
3 I will praise you, O LORD , among the nations;
I will sing of you among the peoples.

Psalm 144:9-10 (New International Version)

9 I will sing a new song to you, O God;
on the ten-stringed lyre I will make music to you,
10 to the One who gives victory to kings,
who delivers his servant David from the deadly sword.

Psalm 147:7-8 (New International Version)

7 Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving;
make music to our God on the harp.
8 He covers the sky with clouds;
he supplies the earth with rain
and makes grass grow on the hills.

Psalm 149:2-4 (New International Version)

2 Let Israel rejoice in their Maker;
let the people of Zion be glad in their King.
3 Let them praise his name with dancing
and make music to him with tambourine and harp.
4 For the LORD takes delight in his people;
he crowns the humble with salvation.

Lamentations 5:13-15 (New International Version)

13 Young men toil at the millstones;
boys stagger under loads of wood.
14 The elders are gone from the city gate;
the young men have stopped their music.
15 Joy is gone from our hearts;
our dancing has turned to mourning.

Ezekiel 26:12-14 (New International Version)

12 They will plunder your wealth and loot your merchandise; they will break down your walls and demolish your fine houses and throw your stones, timber and rubble into the sea. 13 I will put an end to your noisy songs, and the music of your harps will be heard no more. 14 I will make you a bare rock, and you will become a place to spread fishnets. You will never be rebuilt, for I the LORD have spoken, declares the Sovereign LORD.

Revelation 18:21-23 (New International Version)

21 Then a mighty angel picked up a boulder the size of a large millstone and threw it into the sea, and said: “With such violence the great city of Babylon will be thrown down, never to be found again. 22 The music of harpists and musicians, flute players and trumpeters, will never be heard in you again. No workman of any trade will ever be found in you again. The sound of a millstone will never be heard in you again. 23 The light of a lamp will never shine in you again. The voice of bridegroom and bride will never be heard in you again. Your merchants were the world’s great men. By your magic spell all the nations were led astray.

Now, that we have read just a few of the passages that mention music, we as Christians must now ask the ever important — yet elusive — why and how questions? Why is music mentioned and used in the biblical passages as it is used? How does music have the effect on us that is does? Obviously, regardless of the literal or metaphorical mention of music one must agree that it (music) is significant in the life of believers, past and present. On the more concrete and scientific level, music is a topic of much debate as researchers and scientists attempt to find evidence of music’s power over our mind, emotions, and even bodies. Is there a correlation between what science is finding and what scripture tells us? Music affects us in a number of ways: physically, mentally, and spiritually.

As science has proven according to

Brain waves can be modified by sounds. Beta brain waves, those that are between 14 and 20 hertz are the most common. We achieve a state of relaxed concentration or lucid awareness when the alpha waves, between 8 and 13 hertz, are present. Music with about 60 beats per minute — particularly that of Mozart, Brahms, and Bach — shifts the brain’s activity from beta to the higher-awareness alpha waves (see The Mozart Effect). Physically, music has a way of pulling us into sync. Our bodies will automatically adjust to the pace, rhythm, or pulse of the music we hear. Think about how many times have you walked into a room with other things on your mind and heard music playing. After stopping to listen for a few minutes you suddenly realize that your foot is tapping to the music or you are swaying your head or body with the beat.

Music is also believed to be able to effect the listener’s immune system. The work done by Goldman & Gurin in the area of psycho-immunology revealed that nerve fibers are contained in every organ of the immune system and that these nerve fibers provide biological communication between the nerve endings and the immune system. Their postulate is that a direct link exists between a person’s thoughts, attitudes, perceptions, and emotions, and the health of the individual’s immune system. This being the case, they state that humans have the ability to be proactive in the health of our bodies and minds. One such way to be proactive is through music. Music provides a way for us to tap into the innate knowledge that resides deep in our cells. “We live ‘in’ music. Great music nourishes us in ways we don’t even realize. It inspires us, relaxes us, energizes us–in short, it heals us and keeps us well.”

Music can have profound influence on our minds by evoking memories that, like footprints in the sand, are washed away with the coming of time. Have you ever heard a song that you heard as a child or heard when madly in love and as you listen, not only do the memories flood back in but the sights, sounds, feelings, scents, and emotions of that time return? Music can have strong emotional, mood altering powers over us as well, as the professional music therapist would agree. Music can influence the psyche and bring about major life altering changes. This is not theoretical but is a practice used by composers of advertising jingles as well as film makers, who use mood induction procedure (MIP) music to create a variety of desired moods. Think of the music from any horror or suspense thriller. The music draws us into the world of the film, sets the tone and pace. Often times the music scares us long before the monster of villain appears.

So if music can affect us on a physical level and it can affect our mental and emotion states of being, it only stands to reason that music can and does affect our spiritual self as well. Before going on, I want to ask a question. Do Christians need to listen to “Christian” music (gospel, hymn, etc.) to have a spiritual experience? Can a Christian listen to Beethoven and draw closer to God? What about music from the soundtrack to the film “Snow Falling on Cedars?” In the film “The Titanic” as we watch the ship sinking and the people fighting for survival, the music tugs at out heart strings and we feel compassion and sorrow. As a result of the music’s influence, the soundtrack for that film sold by the hundreds of thousands. Why? Did people want to be reminded of the death and misery? I would say, no. Were they buying it to dance to? Again, I believe I can safely respond by saying, no. I would argue that it was due to the haunting melody that gave the audience goose bumps and seemed to have the ability to take the listener to a place beyond the material.

As I sit here thinking of how music affects us, I am taken back to my childhood. I can recall watching Sesame Street as a child. For one particular lesson they showed a film clip of a snake pursuing (to the best of my recollection) a mouse. The show this film clip twice and only one thing changed between the two times they showed that clip. The first time it was shown, the music was eerie and suspenseful which added a kind of tension that made the snake the predator and the mouse its prey. The second time, the music was quite different. It was playful and bouncy. This change in the music now gave the feeling of watching two playmates; the snake and mouse seemed to be playing a game of tag.

I am convinced that it was nothing short of a spiritual experience as I and countless others sat in the theatre watching “The Titanic” and were brought to tears (which included me). This is the power of music. I call this experience spiritual because of its power to raise us to levels beyond the flesh. Because it stimulates contemplation of things beyond the confines of time and space. It guides us to a place where only the spirit exists and where the “real” self communes directly with our creator. In his book, “Your Best Life Now,” Joel Osteen reminds us of many things (excellent book by the way). One key thing he stated was that happiness is a choice and that environment does not prevent us from being happy. And that as the Bible states, “a merry heart does good like medicine.”(277) Pastor Osteen later states in the book, “Our lives need to be inspired, infused, filled afresh with God’s goodness every day.”(297) Music is one of those tools that we can utilize to do just that. No matter if we are using the music as a calming peaceful mediation or using it to shout praises and glory to God, music fills us with a power that in many ways is unrivalled in scope and magnitude of those it affects. Music is one of those rare forms of expression that is very personal, very intimate to the listener. While Twila Paris or Cece Winans may bring one person to tears or elevate them to worshipful praises, it may take Ray Boltz or Kirk Franklin to the same for another.

Music has a way of reaching beyond and touching us. Many people select their churches based on the music ministry of the church. If the music does not touch them, there is no point in going. Now, I personally do not think that the choir should be the sole defining factor in church selection, I can understand the rationale. Music speaks directly to the listener in a way that often times the pastor’s sermon does not. The words of the sermon remain just words while the music speaks to the soul. Once the soul is moved, the communion with God has begun. Music is a language, a way of expressing our praises and thanks and to glorify God. The reason that is has that ability is that music is a form or prayer, a mantra. In the book “Spiritual RX”, the authors say that, “Repetition of a mantra or short prayer is another proven method used to stay centered on the path of practice . . . The mantra becomes a constant companion, reminding you of your relationship with the Divine and helping you to navigate through all the distractions your mind may be prone to while you are walking down the street, waiting for the elevator, watching the computer retrieve a page, brushing your hair, or engaging in any other activity that doesn’t require concentration.” (Brussat 21)

Many or us sing our favorite songs and in repetition we in effect turn the song into a mantra and in doing that we summon the power of that mantra. Like the person who walks down the dark alley and whistles or hums a tune to chase the fear away, we summon the spirit, the power, the presence of God through our music.

As an artist and a performer, I have found that music has found a way to suffuse itself into everything that I do. When I workout and do my martial arts, I do so with music playing in the background. I also do this when I am drawing, painting, or sculpting. My practice as a dancer and choreographer also has music inextricably bound to it as well. Even my study and love of American Sign Language find music a powerful source of power to my essence, my spirit. Even as I write these words, softly playing in the background are Enya, the soundtrack to The Last Samurai, and a CD called Peace of Mind which is part of the Windham Hill collection.

Music relaxes us, inspires us, and fills us with true enthusiasm (Definition courtesy AOL dictionary: Etymology: Greek enthousiasmos, from enthousiazein to be inspired, irregular from entheos inspired, from en– + theos god) So the next time you turn on the radio, reach for a CD or your IPOD, or are sitting watching a movie, be aware of what you are filling your ears with. Be aware of why you like that type of music, that song, that artist. Be aware of what the music does to your body, your mind, and your spirit. Be aware of its power to unite or separate. The choice is yours.

Go now in peace and be enthusiastically inspired by the hand of God.

Works cited:

  • Brussat, Frederic and Mary Ann. Spiritual RX: Prescriptions for living a meaningful life. New York: Hyperion, 2000.
  • Meyer, Roger H. “The sounds of music: music can have remarkable benefits for your health, or it can be destructive.” Vibrant Life Nov-Dec 2003.
  • Osteen, Joel. Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to living at your full potential.New York: Warner Faith, 2004.
  • “What is Healing Music?” 2000 Healing Music Organization. 2000.

Resources for further reading:

The Mozart Effect: Tapping the Power of Music to Heal the Body, Strengthen the Mind, and Unlock the Creative Spirit.

Appendix 1

The Mozart effect
Outlined and defined

We know that brain waves are modified by sounds. Beta brain waves, those between 14 and 20 hertz are most common. We achieve relaxed concentration or lucid awareness when alpha waves, between 8 and 13 hertz, are present Music with about 60 beats per minute — particularly that of Mozart, Brahms, and Bach — shifts the brain’s activity from beta to the higher-awareness alpha waves. It’s called the Mozart Effect. This type of music lowers stress and increases concentration. A study in England found students scored 10 points higher on an IQ test after listening to Mozart compared to those exposed to silence, white noise, or other music. White noise is just low-level random sounds. Examples are radio static and running water.