Musical Suspension of Disbelief

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Creators and performers of worship music come in two basic types: those who are believers and those who are not. While it might be assumed that the first group represents an overwhelming majority, candid admissions from composers, accompanists, choristers, music directors, and even some clergy would suggest that nonbelievers (and people on the fence) have a sizable presence among the makers of prayer-song. On the surface, their involvement reveals a scandalous contradiction: they lead congregations in devotional music, yet they are not themselves devout. However, a poll of people in the pews would show a similar assortment of true believers, nonbelievers, and occupiers of spaces in between.

Among other things, this indicates that level of conviction does not necessarily determine level of sincerity. One can be fully committed to the enterprise of worship music without pledging allegiance to the words. The simple reason for this is that music allows for easy suspension of disbelief—or, more precisely, makes belief secondary to experience. Music-making is an inherently spiritual activity in that it facilitates deep sensations, heightened awareness, and a departure from one’s ordinary state of being. As such, it accomplishes the religious goal of tending to the spirit—and it does so regardless of textual content.

This is especially true for religiously disinclined composers who nevertheless write music for expressly religious purposes. A famous example is Ralph Vaughan Williams, who, according to his poet wife Ursula, was “never a professing Christian.” In her biography of her composer husband, Ursula wrote: “Although a declared agnostic, he was able, all through his life, to set to music words in the accepted terms of Christian revelation as if they meant to him what they must have meant to [religious poet] George Herbert or to Bunyan.”

As a conscientious composer, Vaughan Williams was careful to match lyrical themes with appropriate musical accompaniment. He undoubtedly took equal care when setting secular words to music. In the process of composition, he absorbed himself in the text, not in order to believe its literalness, but in order to turn words into an elevated—and elevating—musical experience. Like so many musicians and congregants, he approached the words of prayer essentially as an excuse for music, and the spiritual gratification he received validated his efforts.

Before we rush to judge Vaughan Williams’ position as false or impoverished, let us reflect on these eloquent words from his wife: “He was far too deeply absorbed by music to feel any need of religious observance.” So it is for innumerable others who devote their talents to worship music.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

6 thoughts on “Musical Suspension of Disbelief

  1. samalabear

    God works through man. I find that some of the worst music is written by religious people — bland and uninspired. Vaughan Williams’ music has always spoken to my soul. Once I divested myself completely, within the last two years, of religion and found God, where God really is to be found, within, I understood exactly why this is. Once upon a time a few years back I went into a chapel in a hospital near me for some quiet time and I was being played through the loudspeakers — so much for quiet, it was annoying. So I had my little MP3 player and I had the soundtrack to “Ben-Hur” on there and I put that on. I love that movie and that book because, again, it personifies faith and trust in God and what it truly means. “Ben-Hur” was, I believe, so successful, as opposed to, again, that written by religious people, because its author started out agnostic. He came to believe in the Christ he wrote about and I think became a professing Christian, but I hope he remained spiritual and not religious.

    To me, however, there is nothing that Ralph Vaughan Williams ever composed that does not speak of the one true God. Who cannot see the beauty of God in “The Lark Ascending”?


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