Not Music Alone

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The text-tone relationship is regularly cited as the raison d’être for worship music. Music draws attention to words, breathes life into prayers, provides an interpretive angle, emotionalizes textual themes and so on. This practice has roots in the biblical insistence that vocal music be integrated into devotional practices. The institutionalization of sacred song began with David’s appointment of Levitical singers and instrumentalists (1 Chr. 15:16), and was reinstated with the building of the Second Jerusalem Temple (Ezra 3:10). The ability of music to enhance prayer language is crucial and readily felt; but it is not everywhere applicable. Non-linguistic musical worship is fairly common around the globe. The sounds of humming, bells, drums, singing bowls and wordless chant are used to induce transcendence with equal effect.

The existence of both text-heavy and language-less devotional music necessitates a more universal justification—something that holds true even when words are not present. One explanation is synaesthesia: the simultaneous blending or convergence of two or more senses. In extreme cases, this sensation manifests as a neurological disorder. Unusual crosstalk occurs between specialized areas of the brain, and feelings normally experienced separately are merged together. The affected person may perceive colors when reading a sentence, smell images when an odor tickles the nostrils, or a host of other sensual mashups. Most synaesthetes embrace these extra perceptions as gifts to be used to good advantage.

Some form of synaesthesia is present in as many as one in twenty-three people. But those who do not constantly experience this involuntary response can come to it through music. Exposure to musical stimuli involves much more than the tones themselves. Hearing activates other cognitive-sensory pathways, coalescing in a matrix of impulses that can involve any combination of the fives senses.

Musical sounds might summon vivid pictures or abstract images. Melodies can conjure smells associated with a season or a nostalgic place. Music might touch us as a shivering cold or warm embrace. Motifs can recall holiday meals or dishes long loved. These and other reactions are not just mental connections or memories of past feelings. They are sensations as genuine as those felt through direct sight, smell, touch and taste.

Hearing-induced synaesthesia can occur at any time and with any type of music. When it transpires in a religious setting, like a shrine or house of worship, it often gives the impression of a sacred presence. This is because wholeness is conflated—rightly or wrongly—with holiness. Music is a complete sensory experience (wholeness), which in its overpowering-ness suggests a force larger than oneself (holiness). Since it is difficult to understand or process all that is taking place, it is deemed a mystery and/or discerned as an intimate brush with a supernal being. For the believer, this is more than mere metaphor. The realness of the musical occurrence concretizes the religious interpretation. God is in the music.

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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