Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
Legendary jazz musician Nina Simone once remarked, “Music is my God. The structure, the cleanliness, the tone, the nuances, the implications, the silences, the dynamics . . . all having to do with sound and music. It is as close to God as I know.” These words echo the feelings of many musicians. The experience of making music can (and regularly does) bring one into a spiritual zone: a state of being in which cognitive functions, emotional highs, sensory perceptions and creative energies fuse into a transcendental whole. There is no need for theology in such a state. Holiness becomes a sensation rather than an idea.
Of course, there are devout musicians who contextualize musical sensations in the language of their faith. The God they encounter in music is the same one they read about in holy writ. (They might agree with Luther: “Apart from theology, music is God’s greatest gift. It has much in common with theology because it heals the soul and raises the spirits.”) But countless others feel as Simone did.
Her position is supported by the long list of prominent atheist musicians, including such luminaries as Hector Berlioz, Georges Bizet, Giuseppe Verdi, Béla Bartók, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Frederick Delius. These composers were in contact with their inner-nature and explored the recesses of the human mind and spirit. Music provided them with the sort of spiritual nourishment commonly sought in religious concepts and practices.
A glimpse into this aspect of the musician’s psychology is found in Music as an Asset to Spirituality (1928), an enigmatic book written by Laura J. Richards. The origins and ideology of the book are difficult to decipher, and nothing is available of the author’s biography. In truth, it is an almost incomprehensible work of pseudo-science and pseudo-mysticism, and probably deserves less attention than it is getting here. A random sampling exposes its baffling content: “How to cultivate a musical feeling is a very difficult subject. It takes many centuries for the musician to come to this state of perfection”; “What is mind? It is the soul functioning perfectly according to the laws of nature”; “Winds are nature’s entities to destroy the impure forces that cause the vibrations to intermingle.”
The bulk of the text reads in this fashion. Like other theosophical writings, its sentences can be poetic and may on the surface seem profound; but when we pierce through the flowery language, we discover jumbled thoughts that offer nothing of substance. Richards’ clumsy esotericism and happy disregard for reason are typical of early twentieth-century spiritual literature, and persist in some contemporary New Age publications .
Even so, there are moments when Richards is coherent and insightful—as long as her exaggerations are read as metaphors. One such instance is her section on the musician’s mentality. She notes that musicians are often misunderstood “because their organism is created of an entirely different material than other individuals.” There is no literal or scientific validity to this claim: we are all made of the same matter. But the “material” she refers to is dispositional, not elemental. One who is perpetually engaged in musical activities can, as it were, lose touch with the ordinary. Musicians familiar with the upper reaches of human consciousness can effortlessly drift into a heightened, spiritual or transcendent state (whichever terminology one prefers). “Consequently,” writes Richards, “the material world is very difficult for them to endure.”
Music-making is a sacred act: it is removed from the mundane and hints at something deeper than the physical. This has made it a helpful aid to religion and prayer. However, music is just as readily experienced as an equivalent to (or a substitute for) theological concepts. For the musician, music can be God enough.
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