Music and Coherence

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Religious faith is commonly conceived of as a cognitive process. Those who are drawn to beliefs and practices are, by implication, convinced of their hypotheses, evidence and/or explanatory reasoning. Adherents accept the claims—or many of the claims—as consistent with reality, and assert the overall truth of the religious system. While this intellectual component is certainly crucial, a religion’s emotional resonance is nearly (if not equally) as important. Believers pressed to justify their allegiances frequently bypass logical arguments altogether, citing instead confirmatory experiences. These might include a personal encounter with otherness, a feeling of profound consolation, or some other sensation that evades scientific validation but is felt to be real. To quote eighteen-century preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards, “True religion in great part consists in the affections.”

There is a growing body of psychological and neurological studies showing the extent to which we attach emotional attitudes to concepts. When appraising the value of an idea, we rely not only on reasoned thought but also on the sentiments we ascribe to that idea. Thus, the discerned accuracy or inaccuracy of a religious concept hinges in part on its ability to address specific human needs, such as social bonding, avoidance of anxiety, moral certainty and life after death. This is not mere wish fulfillment, but a rational choice informed by irrational and usually subconscious desires. As philosopher Paul Thagard puts it in his theory of emotional coherence, “people adopt and maintain religious beliefs for a combination of evidential and emotional reasons that provide satisfaction of cognitive and emotional constraints.”

Worship music is one area in which the intellectual and sentimental regularly converge. For reasons still not fully understood, combinations of pitches, timbres, rhythms, durations and dynamics effortlessly penetrate the seat of sentiments. When words are added to music, they tend to take on the character dictated by the tones. In most cases, the songwriter seeks to match a text with corresponding sounds, thereby reinforcing the thematic content. However, the force of music is such that upbeat lyrics sung to a sad melody will be perceived as sorrowful, while melancholy words set to a gleeful tune are felt, on some level, to be uplifting.

Whether the music matches the basic meaning of the language or shades it in a particular direction, the emotions stirred act as a type of confirmation. In devotional settings, this effect serves as affirmation of themes and ideas present in a prayer. With the aid of melody, a prayer of peace becomes a sensation of peace, a prayer of hope becomes a sensation of hope, a prayer of compassion becomes a sensation of compassion, and so on. Worship music can satisfy more general concerns as well, like the need for communal bonding and connection to heritage.

In these instances and more, exposure to music creates or enhances the emotional coherence of a religious system. It is an area of experience wherein cognition and affections seamlessly merge, and truth is as much a matter of feeling as it is of thought.

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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