Category Archives: religion

The Original Echo Chamber

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“A temple is a landscape of the soul. When you walk into a cathedral, you move into a world of spiritual images. It is the mother womb of your spiritual life—mother church.” These words from mythologist Joseph Campbell touch on the primitive spatial and acoustic appeal of Medieval and Renaissance cathedrals. Campbell connects the sensation to that of pictograph-adorned Paleolithic caves, which were also likely used for mystical and spiritual ceremonies. The melodic conventions and vocal techniques adapted to these acoustically active stone-walled spaces—epitomized by the straight, drawn-out, and separated tones of Latin ecclesiastical chant—exploit the echo chamber effect, creating an all-encompassing sonic and physical experience. As I explain in an earlier blog post, these ethereal sounds became synonymous with the cosmic voice.

The impression of safety and repose these spaces provide is captured in Campbell’s phrase, “the mother womb.” This image can be taken a step further. The sonically induced, archaic feelings take us back to the literal womb: the original acoustic envelope where direct and indirect sounds are experienced as an undifferentiated gestalt. Psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu describes it as a “sonorous bath”: a lulling sense of weightlessness, rebirth, and being transported.

The ear awakens during the fourth month of fetal development. By week twenty-five, the cochlea—the ear’s frequency analyzer—reaches adult size. From that point forward, the fetus receives, processes, and responds to a growing array of amalgamated sounds, including pressure variations in the bodily walls, two cycles of heartbeats (the mother’s and her own), and acoustic input from outside the womb. The unfiltered sounds are presumably analogous to those heard in a reverberating space, such as a cave or cathedral.

Only in early childhood does the ear begin to categorize different sounds. Following R. Murray Schafer’s concept of the “soundscape,” or the combination of acoustic signals heard in an immersive environment, normally functioning ears automatically distinguish between background and foreground signals, both natural and human-made. This behavior, which combines innate capacity and cultural conditioning, is not present in the echoing womb. The lively reverberations, so closely associated with sacred spaces, recall that original echo chamber. Indeed, conceptions of God (or gods) as compassionate, protecting, loving, comforting, and so forth may even be rooted in this simulated return to the womb.

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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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.