Ear of the Beholder

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Spiritual experiences usually involve intuitive feelings couched in theological or supernatural beliefs. They are regarded as utterly separate from and more intense than ordinary experiences, and reside in a category seemingly impervious to rational criticisms or explanations. Yet this distinction from other kinds of moods and emotional states is, ultimately, subjective. Two people may react with equal intensity to identical stimuli, but how they interpret these feelings depends on their worldview and orientation. The religious person will use one set of terms, the non-religious person will use another.

Take the example of a believer and an atheist who attend a stirring concert of cantorial music. The believer, emphasizing the music’s devotional intent, will perceive the concert as a spiritual affair. The non-believer, appreciating the drama of the music, will see it as a thrilling performance.

This relates to a story evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins tells of his appearance on Desert Island Discs, a British radio show. When asked to choose the eight records he would take with him on a desert island, he included “Mache dich mein Herze rein” from Bach’s St Matthew Passion. “The interviewer was unable to understand how I could choose religious music without being religious,” Dawkins recalls. “You might as well say, how can you enjoy Wuthering Heights when you know perfectly well that Cathy and Heathcliff never really existed?”

The subjectivity of listening is not confined to the modern age. Even the Bible has a tendency to identify one brand of music as sacred and another as profane. Naturally, the biblical authors viewed Israel’s musical worship as exceedingly grand. In First and Second Chronicles, for instance, Levitical musicians are commended for the dignity and exuberance they brought to Temple services. But the authors were quick to denigrate the music of ideologically competing groups. This is implicit in their condemnation of non-Israelite rituals, which were also musically infused. Given their close proximity to one another, the music of Israel and its neighbors was probably similar in aesthetics and emotional impact. Creating a cognitive separation between the settings was therefore crucial: this is their music, not ours. The qualities and effect were comparable, but the judgment they received could not have been more different.

The point here is that beautiful music is beautiful music: it stimulates a shared response in most listeners, and only at the level of interpretation (spontaneous or retrospective) does it become spiritual or something else. True, cantorial music, the St Matthew Passion and biblical worship songs have overt religious themes and purposes; but their musical appeal exceeds parochial confines. Though it is rarely admitted (and despite the composer’s best efforts) there is no essential difference between sacred and secular music: they are comprised of the same raw musical materials. What distinguishes them are text, context and associations—elements that are, strictly speaking, extra-musical. Pieces from virtually any genre can potentially stir us to great emotional heights and soul-searching depths. Whether it is holy or not is in the ear of the beholder.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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