Category Archives: spirituality

Seeking Noise

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“The twentieth century is, among other things, the Age of Noise.” Aldous Huxley included this statement in The Perennial Philosophy, a comparative study of world mysticisms, published in 1944. Huxley’s complaints centered on organized noise: “indiscriminate talk” and the radio, which he described as “nothing but a conduit through which pre-fabricated din can flow into our homes.” The “assault against silence” has continued unabated as the twentieth century has rolled into the twenty-first. The ubiquity of televisions, personal computers, and mobile phones has only exacerbated the problem. Such technologies present conscious and unconscious barriers to the spiritual ideal of inner calm and clear-minded contemplation.

Arguably more damaging than the intentional sound sources Huxley bemoaned are the byproduct noises of human activities. Especially intrusive are noises fitting naturalist Bernie Krause’s definition: “an acoustic event that clashes with expectation.” The tranquil lake is spoiled by buzzing jet skis and motorboats. The pristine forest is tarnished by chainsaws and overhead airplanes. According to composer and environmentalist R. Murray Schafer, who coined the term “soundscape” to describe the ever-present array of noises in our sonic environment, human beings make such noises, in part, to remind ourselves and others that we are not alone. The absence of overt human-generated sounds is for many a painful signal of solitude. Think of the person who keeps the radio or television on for companionship.

An extreme of this view equates excessive noise with human dominance and modern progress. According to Schafer, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of the interior James G. Watt declared that the more noise Americans make, the more powerful the country will appear. This perception has deep roots: cannon blasts and booming fireworks have long been associated with muscular patriotism. Schafer even remarked to Krause that if the ear-pounding decibels of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels were muted, attendance at their air shows would drop by ninety percent.

Nothing could be further from the quietude desired by mystics, who not only strive to muzzle external sounds, but also to cultivate silence of mind. This is hardly the default mode of modernity. As Huxley put it: “Physical noise, mental noise and noise of desire—we hold history’s record for them all.” Instead of seeking silence, most people seek its opposite.

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

Sound and Spirit

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Music is considered the most spiritual of the arts. The designation refers equally to music’s substance and impact. Music is revelation: it manifests in ethereal air. Music is boundless: it transcends physical constraints. Music is invisible: its essence cannot be seen. Music reaches inward: it communes with the inner life. Music conjures: it stirs vivid memories and associations. Music alters: it changes moods and frames of mind. These observations point to the music’s immateriality. Although it abides by the laws of physics and follows a traceable line of causation, it somehow extends beyond them.

Music embodies the fundamental meaning of spirituality: “of, relating to, or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.” Unlike the visual arts, which manipulate tangible matter, music lacks a physical presence. It is force without mass.

This is not to suggest supernaturalism, which is often confused with spirituality. The life of the spirit is not dependent upon an otherworldly plane. From a scientific perspective, everything—including sound—is part of the natural world. The separation of music from material existence is more perception than objective fact. Just as science has demystified the once-taken-for-granted duality of soul and body, the perceived disconnect between music and material reality would not pass scientific muster. Yet, insofar as art is expression and impression, the feeling of otherness is enough to sustain the mystery of music.

Musical responses can be attributed to chemical and neurological mechanisms. For example, dopamine release is the primary inducement of musical “highs.” But, just as scientific explanations of why and how we come to believe in the supernatural do not prevent people from doing so, laboratory studies of music’s effect on the brain do not compel us to pause, analyze, and dismiss musical-spiritual sensations as they occur. We are wired to feel and conceive of music the way we do.

How can these rational/scientific and non-rational/spiritual views be reconciled? One way is by appreciating music’s ability to meet incorporeal needs distinct from the material necessities of food, shelter, clothing, possessions, and the like. The fact that music is a natural phenomenon (like everything else) does not make it any less spiritual. What music accomplishes more than the other arts is a sense of going outside the measurable world, even while being a part of it.

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

Numinous Noises

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Theologians often treat music as a potent tool for fostering sacred awareness. Music’s ethereal abstractness suggests a reality that is beyond the ability of words to describe. Of the resources available to humanity, musical sounds are the closest representation of the divine. To quote Joseph Addison, they are “all of heav’n we have below.” Yet, theologians are quick to remind us that music and theology are not the same. The absorbing impact and amorphous beyondness of music might hint at God’s immanence and transcendence, but this effect is, at best, a useful metaphor.

This cautious approach is conspicuously absent in The Idea of the Holy (1917), Rudolf Otto’s influential treatise on the phenomenology of religion. Giving preference to experience over analysis, Otto claims that supernatural encounters—or numinous experiences—are real events that stand apart from ordinary occurrences. Rationalizations and approximations are used to describe the ineffable event, sometimes giving rise to myths, rituals, and dogma. The experiential moment—the thing itself—becomes religion.

Oddly, Otto assesses the musical experience in an identical way. Music is first received as an all-consuming, supra-rational force. Only subsequently is it understood in emotional or other humanizing terms. In contrast to the visual arts, music is not representational or expressive of anything specific in the physical world. Rather, it is “wholly other”—the same phrase Otto applies to spiritual communion.

Moreover, Otto believes that numinous experiences, while separated from day-to-day activities, are not unreachable or even uncommon. All human beings have access to episodes of transcendence. Thus, the regularity with which music brings about spiritual sensations is not a trivialization of the numinous, but confirmation of its accessibility.

The blending of musical and spiritual language in Otto’s treatise has its climax in the following passage: “Such is the effect of Music in the highest degree, for Music stands too high for any understanding to reach, and an all-mastering efficacy goes forth from it, of which, however, no man is able to give an account.” Replace “Music” with “God” and the point becomes clear. (The capitalization of “Music” further sharpens the effect.)

In a recent article, religious studies scholar Christopher I. Lehrich contends that Otto’s treatment of music in The Idea of the Holy allows for a “disconcerting” reformulation: “Suppose that, instead of writing a book about numinous experience, Otto had chosen to write one about musical experience.” Beyond merely discarding the theologian’s preference to mark distinctions between music and theology, Otto essentially groups them together. Music is not simply a means for coming into holiness. Music is Holy.

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

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 poets] 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.

The Worm-Eaten Clavier

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Musical experiences have been described as mind-altering, soul-stirring, body-consuming, and humdrum-transcending. More than hyperbole, these terms attempt to elucidate the ineffable moment when music fills the whole of an individual. Such occurrences are not regular in the sense of happening all the time or resulting from all exposures to musical sounds. Reaching this higher plane depends on the type of music and the type and level of one’s involvement with it. Still, it is achieved often enough for the above depictions to resonate. Though perhaps not automatic for the majority of us, we can recall experiences of musical captivation.

Moments of this sort can be profoundly life-enhancing (and, in some sense, life-saving). Musical absorption offers temporary relief from fears, anxieties, stresses, ailments, and other burdens. Surrendering to the sounds, the person is transported from an existence fraught with turmoil to one in which all is well.

As might be imagined, those involved in the making of music are especially susceptible to its optimal impact. A quotable espouser of musical relief was Joseph Haydn. In his youth, Haydn possessed an exquisite soprano voice. He was sent off to study music, first at the household of a relative, schoolmaster and chorister Johann Matthias Frankh, and later with composer Georg von Reutter, who was music director at Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Neither master took proper care of young Haydn, who was frequently hungry and often wore filthy clothes. Part of his motivation to sing well was to gain the audience of aristocrats, who treated him to refreshments.

By age sixteen, Haydn’s voice had lost its boyish luster and he was dismissed from the choir. He found himself in destitute conditions, living in a cold and leaky attic. He earned a meager income giving music lessons to children and performing in orchestras. But he was not inclined to complain, for it was then that he embarked on a campaign of composition, which would eventually yield over 750 works. Looking back on those lean years, Haydn recalled: “When I sat at my old, worm-eaten clavier, I envied no king his great fortune.”

So it is with anyone who receives music’s holistic embrace. In that instance, however brief, it is as though reality is held in suspension. Hardships resolve in musical waves, and emotional surges quiet the worried mind. The individual enters another realm where nothing is lacking.

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

Hearing the Sacred

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The term “sacred music” has fallen out of fashion somewhat in recent years. As a label for music used in devotional settings, it is synonymous with liturgical music, ritual music, and pastoral music. However, because “sacred” is an adjective, the term has been criticized as an attempt to distinguish some quality of the music itself. We cannot substantiate any claim of inherent sanctity, since the dividing line between secular and sacred music has never been strong and is increasingly blurred. Another problem is that when the term is expanded to performers, we get the boastful designation “sacred musician,” which may or may not accurately reflect the way a musician lives his/her life or views him/herself.

The issue lies in how “sacred” is understood. If we assume that it modifies the word next to it, then it is a misnomer. But if we see it more as a verb—something that the music does—then sacred is perfectly accurate. As difficult as it is to determine what (if anything) is holy about any sound, it is plain that sacred music is defined by its function.

A few examples from Jewish life illustrate the point. The core musical elements of the High Holy Days (called Mi-Sinai tunes, meaning “from Mount Sinai”) are derived in part from ballads and street songs of medieval Germany. A large portion of Sephardic synagogue music is essentially the same as Ottoman high court music. It is a Hassidic custom to transform popular songs into worship melodies by replacing the lyrics with nonsense syllable like “yai dai dai.” Twentieth-century America witnessed the emergence of liturgical music written in the style of 1960s protest songs; and a number of services have been composed in jazz, country, and other ostensibly “secular” idioms.

The list could go on, but the message is clear: sacred has little to do with the music itself, and everything to do with its purpose. This puts considerations like congregational preference and comfort level at the forefront. In order for the music to work (and thus be called sacred), it must be conducive and not disruptive to the worship experience. If it is sufficiently well liked and shown to succeed on a regular basis, it may earn a spot among the conventional favorites. Indeed, it is easy to forget that even the most popular and frequently sung synagogue melodies had premiere performances, and had to pass through several stages from novel to accepted to standard.

So, what is “sacred” in sacred music? The answer to this question is that it is the wrong question. Sacredness is not found in pitches, rhythms, intervals, or phrases, but in themes, intentions, and performance settings. All sorts of styles have been used in this capacity, and their suitability for worship is, in the end, a matter of taste. It is not necessary (or really possible) to apply objective measurements to sacred music. What is important is that the music helps cultivate a prayerful mood, no matter what it sounds like.

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

Inventing the Supernatural

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.