Music and spirituality

April 20th, 2015

I am on thin ice. I do not read music, and I am not a trained musician. So, whatever I have to say about it arises more from intuition than from knowledge.

But even with my limitations acknowledged, I am convinced there is a strong link between music and spirituality — that in some sacred and observable ways, music is a language of the soul. There are numerous ways to describe this, but for today I will look at music itself.

Among other things, music has tune, harmony, tempo and style. We can learn something about spiritual formation from each element.

The tune of music is what identifies it regardless of where we hear it or what instrument is used to play it. We can whistle the National Anthem or hear it played by a full military band. But when we hear the tune, we immediately know what song it is.

The spiritual life has tune. It comes to us through the classic doctrines of Christianity, revealed in Scripture and interpreted by tradition. We are not free to make up the tune; it has been given to us.

The spiritual life also has harmony — what we might call sub-tunes that align with the basic tune to produce a rich and expansive piece of music: bass, alto, tenor, soprano, etc. Harmony cannot violate or compete with the tune; otherwise there is discord. But with harmony the tune is enriched.

I take this to be the fundamental expressions of Christianity (Roman, Orthodox, Protestant) and the orders and denominations which have emerged over the centuries. Let everyone sing! We get a fuller sound than if everyone sang the same tune.

Music also includes tempo. This not only means that some songs are faster or slower than others, but that the beat of songs varies as well. Most people appreciate multiple tempos, even if they have a favorite. And they may select music with a tempo that reflects a mood or spirit they are in at the time. No problem — music is ready to “soothe your soul” in more than one tempo. So too, the spiritual life varies as to its pace, tempo and beat. No problem.

Finally, there is style. Again, there are many. Some (e.g. opera and country) have been around a long time; others may have only recently been named. But every style attracts fans, even if people enjoy a variety of styles.

And so, we find style in spirituality. The sacred silence, followed by chants at the monastery or in a Taizé service. The pulsating liturgy week after week at an Episcopal Church. The good old Gospel songs at a revival service. A classical or contemporary anthem sung by a choir. You name it. Styles — that touch us in ways no single form could do.

Ending this meditation and realizing I have tried to use words to describe the spirituality of music, leaves me feeling a bit awkward. I think I will stop writing and start listening to some music — and allow it to speak for itself.

Steve Harper is the author of “For the Sake of the Bride” and “Five Marks of a Methodist.” He blogs at Oboedire.

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