Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
The conjuring of supernatural explanations for natural phenomena is a hallmark of religious thought. Ancient civilizations freely invented extra-physical explanations for the sun’s apparent rise and fall, the occurrence of earthquakes and droughts, the origins of plants and animals, and the collapse of kingdoms. In the spirit-filled world of the ancients, fortunes, failures, ailments, recoveries, victories, tragedies and all manner of circumstances were attributed to divine intervention. The characteristics of the deities and the ways in which they were worshiped varied from place to place, as each group drew upon its own surroundings and experiences. Similar cultural variations persist in religious systems of our day. And despite the great extent to which physical and social sciences have explained things once thought mysterious, the devout continue to frame material existence in supernatural language and imagery.
The concoction of religious ideas to comprehend nature is apparent throughout the history and diversity of religion. Less often considered is how religious notions were devised to account for events of our minds, or inner nature. Dreams, for instance, were (and sometimes still are) believed to be a mechanism of prophecy, revelation or divine inspiration, rather than an involuntary succession of images, sensations and scenarios that occur during certain stages of sleep. Likewise, psychiatric and mood disorders were (and sometimes still are) attributed to demons or divine punishment, rather than genetic, circumstantial or chemical causes.
The ubiquitous association of music and religion can be grouped with the supernatural explications for human nature. Music’s often-overwhelming and usually unavoidable hold on our emotions has long been a source of theological discourse. The interaction of this abstract art with our inner being is felt as evidence of a spiritual force. There is no shortage of literature describing how music is a portal to human-divine communion, a conduit for the divine presence, a pathway to the heavenly plane.
The intersection of music and theology is so widely asserted that some commentators refer to worship music as “sung theology” or “theology sung.” Contrary to what might be assumed, this is not because worship songs typically involve prayerful words set to music—and thus expose practitioners to theological themes—but rather because our encounter with music transcends the ordinary and hints at something beyond ourselves.
As with other areas of consciousness, religious reasons for music’s impact can only resonate with the theologically or spiritually oriented. The philosophical materialists among us require a material explanation. However, as much success as researchers have had deciphering sources of dreams, mental disorders and other arenas of the mind, music remains largely inexplicable. Despite many reasonable theories and promising discoveries, we cannot yet state precisely why we respond to music the way we do.
Of course, the absence of scientific consensus does not make supernatural claims any more valid. Explaining a mystery with a fantasy is a fruitless endeavor. Instead, music demonstrates that we need not fully understand what is happening outside or inside of us to appreciate our experience of it.
Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.