Category Archives: ceremony

Music and Supernaturalism

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The companionship of music and supernatural speculation appears to be almost as old as humanity itself. Paleolithic cave paintings, possibly created by shamans, are often found in the most resonant parts of the cave, implying their use in a chant-infused ritual. Hurrian song tablets from the city of Ugarit (c. 1400 B.C.E.) are not only the earliest examples of written notation, but are also hymns. Anthropologists observe that all cultures, ancient and modern, exhibit some partnership of singing/chanting and religious ceremony. Explanations for this pervasive phenomenon typically focus on the spiritual-emotional quality of sound. The ineffable essence of music simulates or stimulates the ineffable essence of the supernatural. While intuitively valid, such inferences overlook a more fundamental link between music and supernaturalism: the desire for order.

The Future of an Illusion (1927) presents the emphatic culmination of Sigmund Freud’s lifelong thinking on religion. Among its many proposals is the role of gods and spirits in the “humanization of nature.” The human psyche is uncomfortable with uncertainties. The precariousness of nature and uncertainty of life events suggest a cold and uncaring universe. “But,” Freud writes, “if the elements have passions that rage as they do in our own souls, if death itself is not something spontaneous but the violent act of an evil Will, if everywhere in nature there are Beings around us of a kind that we know in our own society, then we can breathe freely, can feel at home in the uncanny and can deal by psychical means with our senseless anxiety.” In other words, if otherwise inscrutable happenings, good and bad, can be attributed to evil spirits and the deities that combat them, then a sense of purposeful organization can be obtained. The inexplicable becomes explicable.

As a theory of the origin of religion, this is perhaps too reductionistic—a charge Freud himself was willing to entertain. However, its logic does play out in all sorts of theologies and cosmologies. Anthropocentric projections onto nature are instinctual and often subconscious. They underpin descriptions of the weeping willow, raging storm, wise old owl, and pleasant valley. Such humanization brings comprehension to an unstable world. That this impulse would generate religious conceptions seems inevitable.

Music can be understood as a sonic consequence of the yearning for order. Natural sounds, like visible phenomena, can give the impression of disarray and erratic spontaneity. The earliest human-made patterned sounds—what is minimally defined as music—were in all likelihood imitations of sounds from the local habitat, generated by rain, wind, insects, birds, critters, and the like. By mimicking these sounds, humanity could achieve psychological control over them, and, in turn, hear their own sentiments expressed in nature.

Admittedly, this musical conjecture has the same reductionist shortcomings as Freud’s proposal. Neither theory addresses the full picture of why and how human beings invented religion and music. No single theory can do so. Nevertheless, their shared motivation adds some clarity to the age-old union of music and religion. Both aid our largely fanciful quest for reason and order.

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

Is Anything Frivolous?

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

From the critic’s perspective, the world of music consists of three parts: art, folk, and popular. This distinction is sometimes shortened to “serious” (art music) and “popular” (popular and folk). Precisely what makes some music “artistic” and other music something else is not always well defined, but minimum requirements usually include the use of written notation and sophisticated structural and theoretical considerations. The borders are blurred in some technical forms of jazz, and reinforced when classical composers adorn folk tunes with orchestral arrangements (as Aaron Copland did), or when pop musicians conspicuously quote classical repertoire in their songs (as Frank Zappa did). These combinations are appealing largely because they represent an almost taboo juxtaposition.

However, the aesthetic divide between serious and popular is not simply a question of musical attributes. It concerns the values ascribed to the respective music. Sociomusicologist Simon Frith sums up the underlying assumption: “Serious music matters because it transcends social forces; popular music is aesthetically worthless because it is determined by them.” In other words, art music stands apart from our basic human needs, thereby attaining sacredness, whereas popular music reflects everyday life, thus reaffirming mundaneness. The book from which Frith’s comment derives declares his position on the issue: Taking Popular Music Seriously.

An even stronger defense is found in Johan Huizinga’s classic tome, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture, published in 1950. Huizinga sees play as simultaneously superfluous and necessary. Superfluous because it is irrational and entails a stepping out of “real life,” and necessary because it gives meaning to human existence.

Huizinga does not distinguish between types of play—games, sports, arts, entertainment—nor between its forms—professional, amateur, individual, group. He avoids equating “only pretend” with frivolity, noting that players can engage in the activity with utmost sincerity and determination. Most provocatively, he characterizes religious ceremonies as obligatory play. Like a game of soccer or hide-and-seek, a sacred ritual is a temporary and repeatable departure from ordinary life that operates according to its own guidelines. This is not meant to belittle religious rites, but rather to emphasize the potential for seriousness in all play.

Music, as a type of play, resides outside of normal time and space. It abides by its own logic, and the enjoyment of it makes it a human need. The labels “serious” and “popular” have little bearing on the experience itself, which can be taken lightly or seriously. As Huizinga reminds us, “The contrast between play and seriousness is always fluid.”

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

Spirituality of the Human

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Many secular people are averse to the term “spirituality.” To them, it connotes something hopelessly religious, patently unscientific and irrationally romantic. These objections are not unfounded. The popularization of spirituality in the twentieth century owed to theologians like Rudolf Otto, religious enthusiasts like William James, and New Age groups like the Theosophical Society. We have inherited the term from pious sources, associate it with mystics and proselytizers, and encounter it in devotional discourse. As a result, the very idea of “secular spirituality” might seem a careless cooption of a faith-filled concept or, worse, a laughable oxymoron.

But a growing number of secularists are adopting “spirituality” as a useful designation. They discard the supernaturalism of an immortal soul, divine entity or astral plane, but recognize opportunities for transcendence in human qualities such as compassion, love, harmony and contentment. These ideals exist prior to and independent of religious doctrine. Without relying on otherworldly interpretations or deistic explanations, secular spirituality seeks inner tranquility, pursues higher virtues and cultivates awareness of something greater than our physical selves.

While this process takes place in the realm of cognition, the overall effect is, by definition, beyond the ordinary experiences of mind and matter. It is thus better to describe it by way of example than to rely upon the limited resources of language.

There is a church in Albuquerque, New Mexico that boasts of offering Sunday services “minus religion.” It is called the Church of Beethoven, a congregation dedicated to presenting “professional live music performances of the highest quality, together with other artistic expressions from fields including poetry . . . in a manner that transcends the commonplace.” The church gathers each week for a one-hour program, typically comprised of a short musical selection, a poetry reading, a two-minute “celebration of silence,” and a substantial work of chamber music. According to its founder, Felix Wurman (1958-2009), the gathering places music “as the principal element, rather than as an afterthought.”

It is no coincidence that music plays a key role in many of the world’s religions. Melodic expression, it is widely believed, helps prepare us for transcendence. Yet music designed for sacred purposes is generally used in support of words (“worship music” usually refers to song-settings of poetry and prayer). Such music is programmatic, guided by textual narratives and meant to convey specific extra-musical themes. In contrast, most of the music performed at the Church of Beethoven is absolute, or music for its own sake. For example, a past service consisted of Bach’s Sonata in E-minor, Höller’s SCAN for Solo Flute, and Mozart’s Quartet for Flute, Violin, Viola and Cello. The intent behind this music is not religious per se. However, as the church insists, these performances can foster the ecstasy and communal bonding one would expect from a religious service—just without the dogma.

Music has the potential to bring us to a higher place. This can occur within or outside expressly ecclesiastical contexts, and may be achieved with music made for many purposes. The Church of Beethoven embraces this realization. It offers an alternative to conventional worship services, which are cluttered with rules of doctrine and practice. Its gatherings are, in a way, “pure” activities, unhindered by agenda or ideology. The same applies when we find spiritual uplift in a child’s joy, the sight of nature and other this-worldly pleasures. Spirituality belongs to us all.

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

Art and Apartness

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Art is a sacred endeavor. Not in a theological or ideological sense—which is clouded by intellectualism and socio-religious determinations—but in the purer and more experiential sense of apartness. The primary aim and impetus of art is connection with the “beyond-the-ordinary”: a sensation of transcending the confines and occurrences of the mundane world. The artist who labors undisturbed in the creative process occupies a separate and all-consuming sphere of consciousness.

This explains the casual observation that artists are rarely drawn to the usual aspects of religious life: regulated rituals, group affiliation and formalistic prayers. Without having statistics to support this perception, it nevertheless seems that utterly artistic people—those who exist in an almost perpetual state of inward reflection and inspired invention—live the ideals that religion strives to impart through texts and structured practices. The artist is intimately familiar with transformation and elevation, making religion’s attempt to manufacture these qualities superfluous or even disruptive.

This does not mean that artists cannot be religious in the normative sense. The same variations of religiosity and non-religiosity are found among artists and the general population. Obviously, too, numerous artworks have been created for and commissioned by religious institutions, and many performing artists (mainly musicians) find steady employment in houses of worship. Even so, artists need not rely on public rituals or religious calendars to tell them how or when to encounter otherness.

From a humanistic perspective, religion, in all its forms and modes of engagement, is but a particularistic means toward a universal goal. The aspiration for transcendence is present within every human being. It is built into our biology. The fact that religions emerged at all in the course of human evolution is proof of this inborn longing of our species. Those who do not find sacred peaks in the everyday often turn to religious events (or pseudo-religious events, such as sports or concerts) in order to be pushed into that experience.

William Sharlin, a cantor-composer who found ecstasy alone at the piano and transmitted ecstasy through liturgical singing, included this remark in a lecture on the topic of art and the sacred: “The non-artist at best may strive for the occasional moment of transcendence and therefore may need the help of worship to separate himself from the ordinary.” Not so the artist.

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

The Rhythm of Survival

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Of all the elements of music, rhythm and tempo are the most fundamental and most attractive to the human senses. Without thinking, we synchronize body movements to beats inferred from sound patterns, and know precisely when to begin, end, speed up or slow down with the music. Regular isochronous pulses effect a variety of physical responses, from toe tapping and hand clapping to marching and dancing. Beat-based rhythm processing, or beat induction, is a cognitive skill we do not share with other primates (and is perhaps only shared with certain  parrots). It is the basis of our ability to create and appreciate music, and is among the instincts that make us human.

The urge to synchronize to external rhythm is present from the first stages of human development. A recent study of 120 small children, aged five months to two years, confirms what has long been assumed: we are born with a predisposition to move to musical rhythm. According to University of York psychologist Marcel Zentner, who worked on the study, “it is the beat rather than other features of the music, such as the melody, that produces the response in infants.”

Biomusicological reactions occur naturally in small children; they are not learned or imitative behaviors. During the experiment, each child sat on a parent’s lap. The parent was instructed to stay still and was given headphones to block out sound. The child, who was fully exposed to the music, freely waved her arms, hands, legs and feet, and swayed her head and torso from side to side. Intriguingly, too, the child responded to the music with greater consistency and enthusiasm than when she was addressed by her parent’s voice.

While the study records an innate proclivity for rhythmic incitement, researchers are left to speculate why this tendency evolved. One possibility comes from evolutionary musicologist Joseph Jordania. In his book, Why Do People Sing? Music in Human Evolution (2011), Jordania proposes that early human survival was aided by attaining a collective state known as the “battle trance.” Our ancestors were too slow, weak and timid to face predators or enemies on their own. They needed to band together, and would do so through ceremonial drumming and dancing. After several hours of ritual performance, participants entered an altered state where they did not know fear, were immune to pain, acted as a single unit and were ready to sacrifice their lives for the community. Repetitive beats and movements brought them to entrainment, wherein self-awareness dissipated into unified thought and collective action.

If Jordania’s adroit analysis is correct (either in whole or in part), then the spontaneity with which we react to rhythm can be traced to natural selection. Groups best adept at orchestrating rhythmic rituals had the best chances of survival in a harsh and dangerous world. This impulse eventually became ingrained in our species. Though our existence no longer depends on it, we intuitively move to the beat from cradle to grave.

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

Instability and Control

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The concept of liminality was first formulated by ethnographer Arnold van Gennep in 1908. Victor Turner fleshed out the theory in the 1960s. Both men were intrigued by the various ways small-scale societies identify, confront and resolve times of flux and uncertainty, known as liminal periods. Almost without exception, these changes—which occur in the human life cycle and in the cycle of time—are met with rituals designed to ease the precarious movement from separation to transition to incorporation. In large-scale societies, rites of passage and rites of time can be informal, as with birthday and holiday parties, or formal, as with wedding ceremonies and time-specific prayer services. At the root of all these activities is the desire to conquer the “betwixt and between” of liminality and reenter a state of relative equanimity.

Not surprisingly, music tends to play a major role in these formal and informal rituals. The order implicit in most types of music infuses transitional periods with a measure of assurance and stability. The structure of music—especially music that is familiar and that has been used at similar events—injects a steady presence into an unsteady time. Consciously or unconsciously, the music provides an undercurrent of consolation for the actor or actors in transition.

Two cases drawn from the anthropological literature help illustrate this point. The first is an eight-day puberty ceremony enacted for girls of the Mescalero Apache tribe. During the rite, the girls take on the persona of the female deity and are celebrated into womanhood. Physical changes are translated into a spiritual transformation. Time-structuring elements of song—pulse, modulation, repetition, silence, etc.—are carefully arranged to give the ritual a sense of flow and logical progression. The imprecise and seemingly haphazard events of the first day gradually resolve into coordinated actions through the rhythm of rattles and the jingles of dresses. As the days move along, formulaic songs, chant-like verses and contoured refrains are performed to mark and enhance sections of the ceremony. On the eighth and final morning, the music comes to an end, the tipis are dismantled, food and sweets are passed around and ordinary time resumes. Liminality is overcome and the actors assume their new social standing as adults.

The second example involves lullabies sung by Iraqi Jewish mothers. In contrast to a formal rite of passage, the setting of this ritual is informal, private, domestic and daily. Yet it, too, confronts a liminal period: the disquieting shift from day to night and wake to sleep. The mother’s songs are more than just solace for the child; they are opportunities for her to address her fears, worries and emotional pain. The anxiety of evening brings life’s uncertainties to the surface, and the mother sings herself (and her child) into reassurance. A typical lullaby contains these lyrics: “And when I am depressed you will cheer me, and when I am troubled you will come to me . . . and you are safe, precious ones, so you will be my help.”

Our species is keenly aware of thresholds in life and time, and instinctively greets them with ritual behaviors, whether religious, civic or personal. At moments that challenge the normal pattern of existence and evoke palpable uncertainty, we long for and manufacture a means of control. And because music projects order and stability, it frequently assumes a prominent role in the process.

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

Music Itself

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Conventional thought holds that liturgical song is of two basic kinds. The first is logogenic (word-born), where rhythm, shape, movement, phrasing and cadences are directed by the ebb and flow of a text. This is essentially musical grammar—sometimes called speech-melody or stylized speaking—and is the dominant trait of scriptural cantillation and modal prayer chant. The second type is melogenic (melos-born), where words are fitted to the music. This includes prayer-songs in which musical considerations, like meter and melody, outweigh textual concerns. There is room in each of these categories for simple and complex music, literal and interpretive approaches, prosaic and creative treatments.

While the full range of liturgical music can be divided between these groupings, there is a third, somewhat different class that deserves our attention: pathogenic. Strictly defined, pathogenic (emotion-born) songs are distinguished by vocables: meaningless or nonlexical syllables sung to deliver melodies. This is a common feature of Native American songs and the wordless tunes of Hassidic Jewish origin. The music is devoid of verbal syntax and substance, and emotional outlet is the foremost purpose.

Although pathogenic songs are technically extra-liturgical—they do not involve prayer-texts—many who attend liturgical worship experience the music in a pathogenic way. This is especially so in settings where texts are in a foreign language and/or contain ideas foreign to a participant’s worldview. An example would be a Jewish congregant who is an atheist and does not understand (or care to understand) Hebrew, but still finds satisfaction in synagogue song. He may be an object of pity for the pious clergyperson or the high-minded composer; but he is common—perhaps the majority in some places—and his experience is as authentic as anyone else’s.

Whether the design of a prayer-song is logogenic or melogenic, the music has an essence and vitality of its own. Of course, the skilled composer or presenter will use musical devices to bring out qualities they find in the text, and they generally expect worshipers to pick up on the word-music interplay. However, once notions and emotions are translated into sound, they tend to take on an independent life. Although the text is the reason for the music, it is not always the reason a person is attracted to the music. (In fact, one’s affection for a song may be diminished when he or she discovers its meaning.)

If we expand the discussion of liturgical song to include the experiential aspect, then pathogenic becomes a legitimate and profitable classification. This approach is consistent with the updated understanding of ritual music, which sees text as one of several components of musical worship.

In contemporary scholarship, ritual music addresses the entirety of the rite: words, actions, artifacts, music and physical space. This holistic view looks beyond language and transcends debates about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of a particular musical setting. It is the rite—not just the message—that shapes and reinforces identities and brings meaning to the lives of participants. The words may or may not be understood and may or may not be relevant for everyone in attendance. But there is acknowledged value in all elements of the rite, including the music itself.

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