Music and religion

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Music (and perhaps art in general) has this wonderful power to uplift one’s mood and change one’s attitude towards life (even if only for a brief moment). In this, it reminds me a little of the promises of religion. Both religion and music actually act more in the realm of human feelings, passions and irrationalities, than in the realms of cold logic, reason and scientific precision. Hence there should be no surprise that many good musicians are actually quite religious folks (with notable exceptions, of course). Bob Marley was a Rastafarian, David Bowie – a Buddhist, Prince – a Jehova’s Witness, Madonna – an esoteric Kabbalist, Michael Jackson – a non-practicing, eclectic Christian of a kind . Being a musician makes you naturally more attuned to the religious lingo and more open to the spiritual experiences of any kind (see for example – http://www.adherents.com/people/100_rock.html).

There is one important difference between religion and music. That being: music has no creed. You don’t have to be a practicing musician to enjoy its beauty. You don’t have to play the instruments or read the notes to take pleasure in it. You can simply listen and feel its influence directly on your spine. Religion at its most polished, sophisticated and, if you like, postmodern form has some similarities with music – it aims at the unity of your experience with all being. It tries to overcome the artificial boundaries of social conventions and create an utopia of everlasting happiness. In fact, today in our postmodern times, it seems that religions are quickly abandoning their dogmas, creeds and belief systems and are zealously adapting themselves to the prevalent mood of modernization, liberalization and globalization, thus making any comparison with music as defined before rather meaningless. Many religions today would actually claim their universality precisely because of their non-sectarian, non-existing demarcation lines. In music as in religion, anything goes today. You can play the piano without touching the keyboard (See the American Zennist hippy John Cage). And you can be religious or spiritual without actually going to the church or participating in collective rituals or belonging to a particular sect (as the sociologist Grace Davie calls it “believing without belonging” or “belonging without believing”). You don’t have to meditate, to pray or to sacrifice an animal for your deity, to call yourself a religious believer anymore. In fact, even an atheist today, unfortunate as it may be, may associate himself or herself with certain spiritual acrobatics.

Now, quite frequently in the past I have had conversations with a couple of comrades in a local Irish pub or some other venue. Usually, I have noticed, in these socializing spots one’s conversations are often accompanied by various musical and rhythmic components which, if well suited, confer a calm and positive atmosphere to the whole setting and even may contribute to the substance of our conversation and enhance it’s aesthetic appeal.

How you ever experienced that a certain song or musical vibration suddenly changes your whole perception of the question or problem at hand? How you ever had this feeling of being, as if, struck by the lightning, dumbfounded but vividly awake, while listening to a mysterious tune that suddenly has taken control over your brain? Imagine. You talk with someone and then in the midst of your verbal interaction: “Boom!”, your sentences and your body language become almost synchronized with the music you have become aware of just seconds earlier. You become possessed by the song and instantly act and speak differently than before. Music is closer to religion than you may have thought before. Music may predispose you favorably to religion or even may get you involved in a cult or two. And yet, without casual lapses in the arms of your favorite melodies, would you remain mentally sane and rational?

P.S. An uplifting tune. 🙂 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5s7frYDrVD4&feature=channel&list=UL

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Music and religion

  1. elmediat

    Music does not have creeds, but it does have styles and target audiences. There are those who love Justin Bieber’s music and those who love the classical or acid-folk fusion-klezmer. The followers can be as intense as those who adhere to a particular religious or political belief , though as a rule less violent ( just don’t say anything negative about the Bieb or those girls will find you).

    There is also a distinction between religion, which is a social construct and spiritual experience/expression, which includes music & the arts.
    Religion is a man made social institution that derives from a set of personal spiritual experiences and their related beliefs. As with all man made social institutions, religions define the Group( family, tribe, nation) and identify the Other ( outsiders who are not us).

    Spiritual experiences and related beliefs are about making contact with an Infinite Divine Presence. By its very nature it is inclusive, there is no Other.
    One can question the nature of the Spiritual experience, but its positive impact is real. It is when that experience is used by others to build up a complex belief system and create a social institution that we shift from the source to purely societal structure. 🙂

    • Thank you for this insightful comment! What is an Infinite Divine Presence and how one can make contact with it? 🙂

      • elmediat

        Based on those who describe it, this would appear to be a direct experience of what physicists describe as reality beyond the limits of our linear experience. There was an interesting study done years ago where they took the descriptions from mystics from various religious traditions of what they experienced and removed all the specific cultural metaphors/symbols. They did the same with theoretical physicists descriptions only removing the scientific terms. When they asked people to separate the mystics from the physicists they couldn’t get it right.

        As to how you experience it, there are all sorts of practises described, including meditation, ritual dance, sand painting etc. . You will ask why doesn’t everyone experience it if they follow those practises. I suspect that there is a neurological component. The same way some people are unable to dance, sing, read or any other set of activities that require certain information processing.

        The other question that we can not answer is whether the sense of presence is an actual entity or just a way for the brain to understand/ come to terms with becoming directly aware of space-time.

        What I can say for sure is that people who experience certain altered states of consciousness have produced beautiful art in a variety of media. Many have expressed an ethical belief system that emphasizes the unity of all living creatures and a social order based on the equality of all people. I can also with certainty that there are far more people who have never experienced this and have used art to for hateful propaganda and intolerance & promote stereotypes. There have also been many who have built complex institutions based on other individuals’ declarations of social unity and created disunity trying to reduce the infinite into a set of rules.

        I do not know what the truth of it or what this all means in the end. As one grows older, and life becomes more and more finite, and you see enormous suffering of so many others – a suffering that will not be ended by politics, science, various economic systems, philosophies or religious institutions – one hopes that there is something more. Perhaps it is a glitch in the brain, a side effect of us being able to communicate and create language and recognize patterns. Maybe it is an evolutionary safety switch to encourage us not to destroy ourselves or the environment. Perhaps there is something out there that we are intrinsically connected to. For most of us, some form of art, either experiencing it or creating it is as close as we get to some understanding. 🙂

        (Just as long as I don’t have to listen to the Bieb’s music – give me Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, or …….)

      • If I understand you correctly you are saying that this Infinite Divine Presence appears to be “a direct experience of reality beyond the limits of our linear experience”. It is “an actual entity” “or just a way for the brain to understand/come to terms with becoming directly aware of space-time”. It is also “certain altered states of consciousness” or “a glitch in the brain”, “a side effect of us being able to communicate and create language and recognize patterns”. It is “an evolutionary safety switch to encourage us not to destroy ourselves or the environment”, it is “something out there that we are intrinsically connected to”. It is “some form of art”.
        You have manged to give at least seven completely incoherent and contradictory definitions of what this Infinite Divine Presence is. Unfortunately none of this makes sense to me. No need to muddle the waters, lest you betray your ignorance even further.

      • elmediat

        You missed it and you mock. Sorry that you do not get it. What I am saying is that how you interpret what they experience can differ in terms of “cause”, not what they feel/perceive. I suppose your point is for you it doesn’t exist. Which is fine. From your account of music compared to religion and you equate any spiritual feeling with organized religion and all the terrible things done in the name of religion are therefore associated with it, be it the poetry of Walt Whitman, Tennyson or any others.

        As I said, I am a 61 year old man looking back at life. I think that the spiritual experience others have had throughout history. It has had a huge impact on world wide cultures. As to the causation of that experience, we do not have enough data collected on the neurological processes. We do not know if those processes somehow activate an actual perception. What you understood for different definitions, I listed as causes.

        Since none make sense, then I will leave it there. My background is in Philosophy, English Literature and Special Education. As a retired teacher and a parent of a special needs child, I spent much of my life witnessing how our society misunderstands and undervalues individuals with special talents and processing differences. My mind is open to the possibility that just as there are those who can hear the music score in their heads before they write it down, there may those perceive other dimensions of reality.

        Enjoy the day. 🙂

        I have thee blogs. A Media Literacy blog started in conjunction with my class resources. The photography blog and the Implied Spaces blog.

        With your interest in the absurd you may enjoy these posts:

        https://darkpinesphoto.wordpress.com/2011/06/12/news-from-the-front-lines/

        https://impliedspaces.wordpress.com/2015/05/08/communication-theory-feel-it-move/

      • You are right. The Infinite Divine Presence does not exist for me, at least I have never experienced anything of that spooky, woo-woo nature. Hence, naturally, I am tempted to make hasty generalizations from my obvious lack of spiritual experience. There is no dispute about the fact that each experience (it doesn’t matter in which conceptual box we try to frame it) has a biological, chemical and physical foundation. These so called spiritual experiences are part of the natural world and as such they are being studied, explored, analyzed, utilized with scientific means and measures. I see no need (beyond that of boosting your social capital by shamelessly obscure lucubrations and intellectually dishonest obfuscations) to classify or to describe a specific experience as something “spiritual”, “mystical”, as something beyond our grasp or as something which points to the divine realms and inexplicable mysteries or ineffable truths.
        The term “Infinite Divine Presence” and other such spooky terms (with which you sprinkle your argument) do not help us to understand these natural phenomena better. Hence my suggestion to refrain from using such incoherent, muddled language which neither clarifies the matter, nor adds any substance to the argument.
        Thank you for sharing your thoughts, nevertheless. If you have any real evidence about the “spiritual world” beyond hearsay or old-wives tales (testimonies of people of questionable credibility), I am all ears.

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