Tag Archives: Sacred Music

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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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.

Music of Champions

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In the preface to Breakfast of Champions (1973), Kurt Vonnegut describes the book as a fiftieth-birthday present to himself. It is a gift more therapeutic than celebratory. He likens the novel to “a sidewalk strewn with junk, trash which I throw over my shoulders as I travel in time back to November eleventh, nineteen hundred and twenty-two.” The junk consists of childish drawings (of assholes, flags, underpants, and so on), characters recycled from previous stories, and absurd science-fiction plots he never intended to develop into books. At the end of the confessional prelude, Vonnegut assures the reader that while this garbage must be emptied, he does not want to throw away any “sacred things.” The sacraments he cites are Armistice Day, Romeo and Juliet, and all music.

The categories these things represent are fairly conventional. Most religious systems include holidays, stories and music deemed sacred. But Vonnegut’s choices are more personal. He was a humanist without creedal ties. Armistice Day, which happened to be his birthday, was an important part of his childhood (he had no similar regard for the Veteran’s Day that would replace it). He considered Shakespeare the wisest of human beings (though, he admitted, that wasn’t saying much). He was less selective when it came to music. In fact, he was not selective at all.

Is there any wisdom in Vonnegut’s view that all music is sacred? Strictly speaking, sacred music is an established taxonomic classification. It is music performed or composed for religious use and/or created under religious influence. It goes by many names: worship music, religious music, liturgical music, devotional music, ecclesiastical music, etc. But Vonnegut was not referring to any specialized musical purpose or context. To him, music—generically and without judgment—is a sacred thing.

To understand this viewpoint, we should look at the word “sanctity,” which derives from the Latin term sanctum, or “set apart.” (This is also the meaning of the Hebrew term kadesh.) Specifically, it denotes something that is set apart from the profane or ordinary.

Music fits this description in at least seven ways: (1) It is perceived as distinct from other noises; (2) Words set to music rise above everyday speech; (3) Our capacity for music-making distinguishes us from other animals; (4) Musical sounds penetrate otherwise untapped areas of consciousness; (5) Music has “extra-physical” power over our emotions; (6) Music is suggestive of a force greater than ourselves; (7) Any music can be set apart as special by an individual.

As inherently judgmental creatures, we might not agree with Vonnegut’s uncritical appraisal of music. We might also be cautious not to take his statement too seriously, given his track record of sarcasm and his usual penchant for sharp criticism. However, it is reasonable to accept his words at face value. All music likely was sacred to him, even as most other things were not (and many things were merely trash).

Breakfast of Champions was not the only place Vonnegut expressed this opinion. Elsewhere, he contrasted the brokenness he saw in the world with the purity he heard in music. This is most clearly written in his collection of essays, A Man Without a Country (2005): “No matter how corrupt, greedy, and heartless our government, our corporations, our media, and our religious and charitable institutions may become, the music will still be wonderful.”

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