Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
Benjamin Ray includes this optimistic observation in his textbook, African Religions: “Through ritual man transcends himself and communicates directly with the divine. The coming of divinity to man and of man to divinity happens repeatedly with equal validity on almost every ritual occasion.” The thought of a ritual—or another periodic activity—having the same impact or perceived potency each time it is performed is foreign to most people. Human beings are complicated creatures, and the potential elements of complication—interpersonal conflicts, financial worries, professional turmoil, indigestion, etc.—tend to hamper full engagement. Even the most devout will admit that spiritual highs are much less common than spiritual middles or lows. Perhaps things are different in generic Africa, though that is unlikely.
Added to this is the nature of ritual itself. In order to earn its designation, a ritual must be standardized, controlled and occasional. Several benefits stem from this predictability, not the least of which are feelings of stability and authenticity. But the religious ideals of attentiveness and elevation are often lost in repetition. The struggle to find personal meaning in religious ritual is as prevalent as ritual itself. This is especially so in liturgical traditions, where participants are expected to absorb themselves in texts they have read or heard hundreds of times before.
Music is typically turned to as a tool for fixing fractures in devotional concentration. There is an implicit awareness that text alone is not always compelling or stimulating enough to envelope the distracted worshiper, and musical strains are employed to do the trick—or at least aid the process. Of course, musical solutions are not infallible: liturgies are sung in faith communities the world over yet the challenge of focus still persists. Nevertheless, music’s unshakable place in religious services owes greatly to its ability to ameliorate—though not alleviate—barriers to concentration.
The success of music in this regard derives from the close proximity of spirituality and emotions. On some level, these sensations are indistinguishable. A flush of emotions felt in a religious setting—a holy site or house of prayer—and/or linked to texts considered holy—scripture or liturgy—is likely to be designated spiritual. Likewise, a peak or epiphanic moment outside of a formal setting may be understood as spiritual depending on the outlook and vocabulary of the actor(s). Thus, a more precise classification might be that a spiritual experience is an idiosyncratically determined species of emotional experience.
Whether such emotions are a sign of something beyond, a pathway to self-realization, or a combination of the two is, from an experiential standpoint, inconsequential. The important takeaway is that the emotional part of the human persona must be activated in order for worshipers to feel the “coming of divinity to man and of man to divinity,” as Ray puts it.
Herein lies the fundamental value of sacred music. Music serves to dramatize prayer, giving the language a personality and making it come to life. Music also generates psychophysical responses, steering the mind and body to feel a certain way. This influence can be traced to culturally conditioned reactions to musical techniques, such as tension and release, as well as personal and communal associations, such as nostalgic memories. In the end, the effect of the music becomes its character: calming, disconcerting, charming, invigorating, depressing, etc.
Again, music’s emotionalizing function is not a sure-fire way of drawing people into prayer or of retaining their attention. Old tunes, like old texts, can become dry after too many repetitions, and a given piece must be at least moderately attractive (not repulsive) to the individual. But under ideal conditions, music prompts emotional responses, which kindle spiritual connotations, thereby triggering thoughts of a heavenly source.
Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.