The Pagan and the Priest: An agreement over Music’s Unique Access to the Soul

With an attentive ear, music may be heard everywhere. It can be heard in a babbling brook, in the song of birds, in the whistling of the wind, and even in the laugh of a loved one. It is difficult for human bodies to create visual images with only ourselves, whereas it is relatively easy to create sounds. However, music and the creation of sound seems not to stop at only the natural. For Plato, sight was given to humans most fundamentally for the observation of heavenly bodies, and inquiry of the natural universe. Plato believes that it is from such observation that philosophy began, which is of course his end all be all. He goes on to say that the same may be said for speech and hearing, for in a similar manner as our eyes observe the harmony in the rotation of the heavens, music and hearing allow us to access to this harmony by regulating the rotation of our souls. Plato even grants a healing quality to rhythm, that it was given us to counter “the graceless and irrational” ways in which humans so often act. From a Platonic perspective, music would be valuable in worship for the healing properties it has for the wayward soul. Music could also serve as a vehicle with which to give thanks to the gods for the gift of the senses.

Although Athens may have little to do with Jerusalem, Platonic ideals of music were not lost on St. Augustine. Augustine is quite explicit when describing the power music had over him. Music seems for Augustine one of the few ways in which he was able to access the joy that was to accompany right faith in Christ. Augustine even goes so far as to say “A man rejoicing in his own exultation… burst forth into sounds of exultations without words, so that it seemeth to he, filled with excessive joy, cannot express in words the subject of that joy.” (Weisse-Taruskin, p. 25) For Augustine, music done in the right manner could express more adequately than mere speech the impact God could have on the soul. In Augustine’s perspective too it seems fitting that contemplation of the divine should be accompanied by music.

Few people have theologies that differ as grandly as that of Plato and Augustine. However in both their perspectives, music in its proper form is uniquely empowered to access the soul, which is why both a Greek pagan and medieval Christian can agree on music’s importance in worship.   

Music as a Means of Communicating Meaning

Worshipers from countless religions rely on music to deepen their experience of God to the same, if not greater extent, they rely on sacred text.  If we define the purpose of worship as growing in intimacy with God, then we can think about music as a means of gaining knowledge of God.  Sacred music conveys meaning to worshipers in two ways: first, music communicates meaning without text, or meaning inexpressible by words, second, music interprets the text it sets.

Music’s communicative qualities can, in some cases, surpass language.  In learning more about God and divinity, music’s ability to transcend and overwhelm listeners is particularly helpful.  St. Augustine’s account of account of his experiences with music epitomizes what Weiss and Taruskin refer to as a human susceptibility to music.  In recalling his baptism, St. Augustine describes, “The tears flowed from me when I heard your hymns and canticles, for the sweet singing of your Church moved me deeply.  The music surged in my ears, truth seeped into my heart, and my feelings of devotion overflowed” (24).  Without mentioning the texts from the “hymns and canticles”, St. Augustine explains how his experience of music brought him into greater connection with God.  St. Augustine’s account suggests that sacred music, regardless of its text, can evoke deep emotion and intimacy with God.  St. Augustine additionally remarks on music’s greater ability to emote than language when he defines the jubilus as, “a certain sound of joy without words, the expression of a mind poured for in joy.  A man rejoicing in his own exultation, after certain words which cannot be understood bursteth for into sounds of exultation without words . . . he cannot express in words the subject of that joy” (25).  Countless times throughout the passage St. Augustine observes language’s inability to express how the music affects him.  St. Augustine bears witness to music’s capacity to communicate meaning beyond its text, making it crucial as a worship tool.

Although worshipers think of music as an enhancement of the text it sets, music also serves as an interpretation of that text.  Where translations of sacred texts are not accessible, music allows worshiper’s to glean an understanding of the text’s meaning by the way it makes them feel.  The composer, in attaching a set of musically-espoused emotions to their music, contributes a reading of the text to the body of worshipers.  Consider the relationship between text and musical setting.  When composers set text with music, however appropriately or expectedly, they attach an interpretation of the text to their composition.  Luther’s use of folk songs and translated texts in his Deutsche Mass insinuate that worship should be accessible and God should be knowable to worshipers.  Musical settings make accessible the mysterious meanings of sacred texts by offering an emotional explanation.  They uniquely participate in a quest to best interpret sacred texts by capturing the way worshipers ought to feel while singing that text.

Music’s Spiritual and Political Instruments

Historically, many religious communities have used music to approach the divine. For some traditions, texted singing was most appropriate, while for others, a full instrumental ensemble could be used to help listeners reach a state of ecstasy. While debates about the appropriateness of various types of music continue today, the even more basic question remains unanswered: why is music such a common part of worship? Two possible answers are music’s inherent ability to inspire listeners and its usefulness as a tool for political ends.

Theologians from various traditions have written about their belief that music, when used appropriately, has the inherent power to heighten worship. Given this quality, it is no surprise that so many religious congregations incorporate music. St. Augustine discusses how listening to sung text inspires him spiritually, enhancing the truth that the text conveys. 1 Likewise, Mevlevi authors argue that music and dance impact the soul,2 allowing people to reach a state of religious ecstasy. According to the Syrian mystic theologian al-Nabalusi, “If the true believer employs [instruments] with good intention and for beneficial purposes, they cannot be harmful in any way”.2 Many religious traditions seem to find music beneficial as long as it is used moderately and intentionally, and this partly explains why worship music is so widespread.

On the other hand, political power dynamics might be partly responsible for the prevalence of worship music. For example, the Carolingian rulers of the eighth century used worship music as a method of solidifying their centralized power. By standardizing chant, they gained stronger control of their territories and changed the path of Christian worship music.3 The music of the Suyá people of Brazil also reflected the influence of power dynamics. According to Seeger, “Knowledge is an important form of power in most South American Indian groups, and the Suyá were no exception”.4 By incorporating songs from animals, enemy tribes, and foreigners into their religious practices, the Suyá displayed their knowledge, and consequently, their power.

Music’s role in worship stems from people’s sense that, when used carefully, it enhances religious experiences. Conversely, however, music’s use has also grown out of its function as an instrument of political power.


1 Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin, Music in the Western World (Belmont, CA: Schirmer, 1984) 24-27.

2 Amnon Shiloah, “Music and Religion in Islam,” Acta Musicologica 69/2 (July-December, 1997), 143-155, (Accessed August 31, 2016).

3 Richard Taruskin, “Chapter 1: The Curtain Goes Up” in The Oxford History of Western Music, Volume 1, Music from the Earliest Notations in the Sixteenth Century.

4 Anthony Seeger, “The Origin of Songs,” in Why Suyá Sing: A musical anthropology of an Amazonian People (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 58.

Music: the Universal Tool of Worship

So far, we have read how people (Aristotle, Plato, Pythagoras) and religions (Islam, Christianity, Suya, etc.) have regarded music. Since music spans many religions and cultures, it is important to ask ourselves why. Why is music a universal part of worship? What makes it accessible to religions that stem from every culture, race, and ethnicity imaginable? Is it the numerical perfection found in harmony? Is it divine inspiration that gives it life, as though music itself were a living thing moving through all of us?

I honestly don’t think that I have the answer.  I think that the true nature of music’s ability to move us is not something any book or author can describe. Whether I believe it to be divine or not, I believe it to be inexplicable. It is that all-encompassing and such a massive aspect of worship that I nor anyone else can truly determine why it lives deep within us. I do, however, think that it is naturally just a part of us. Perhaps, it is the holy spirit. Maybe, it is because music is tied with spiritual eroticism, as Holsinger notes in his article “The Flesh of Voice.” Perhaps, it is something that lives in us when a witch removes part of our souls, as the Suya believe (Seeger, “The Origin of Songs”). Perhaps, it’s the flying spaghetti monster. I have a hard time believing the last two examples.

Weiss and Taruskin write of Aristotle’s belief of music being cathartic, and in that regard, I agree. However, I disagree with the ideal (mostly addressed by Plato from the readings we’ve done) that “bad” music done by amateurs is deplorable. I don’t think someone can have “bad” music in a worship setting, because I believe that whatever form or genre of music speaks the most to you and connects you most to whatever higher power you believe in, that genre should be the music that you worship with.

I also think that that is one reason why music is a universal part of worship – no matter how often the powers-that-be in the church or any other organized religion try to regulate how worship music should be, people always create new ways of worshiping through different genres of music. Any genre of music can be used as worship – and any genre of music can move someone to action. Therefore, music can be used in Islam, Christianity, and any other religion and not lose its potency just because the style or genre has changed. The many possibilities of music make it so that there are many possibilities to speak to people via that music on a spiritual level.


Bruce Holsinger, “The Flesh of the Voice: Embodiment and the Homoerotics of Devotion in the Music of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179).” Signs, Vol. 19, No. 1. (Autumn, 1993), pp. 92-125.

Piero Wiess and Richard Taruskin, Music in the Western World, (Belmont: Shirmer, 1984) 5-10.

Marcello Sorce Keller, “Why Do We Misunderstand Today the Music of All Times and Places and Why Do We Enjoy Doing So?” in Essays on Music and Culture in Honor of Herbert Kellman, ed. Barbara Haggh (Paris: Minerve, 2001), 567-574.

Anthony Seeger, “The Origin of Songs,” in Why Suyá Sing: A musical anthropology of an Amazonian People (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 52-64.


Music in Worship: a Sensual Argument

Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Chrysostom, Ibn abi’l-Dunya, and countless other dogmatists all agree that music affects humans in drastic and sensual ways. Aristotle describes how music can have an “orgiastic effect” on the listener, which seems to be contrary to a common ascetic concept of devotion to the divine. Thus, it is remarkable that so much of religious worship centers around the use of music.

The Greek concept of dualism between body and spirit fuels most of the justifications which are made for allowing volatile and sensual music within worship. Augustine acknowledges in his Confessions that when sacred words are sung they can often “stir the mind with greater religious fervor . . .  and kindle an ardent flame of piety.” He continues to acknowledge that music can often indulge the listener and obscure the meaning of the words it is attempting to convey. It is the effect on the spirit through the body’s senses where music both holds potential power for worship, but also great danger. It is this risk that some are willing to embrace, and other strictly avoid, but no one denies the great power that music has over the listener.

Worship may feature music widely because some decided the risk of corruption was worth the political gain, as Richard Taruskin suggests in The Oxford History of Western Music. Others like the Islamic mystic “whirling dervishes” see only divine experience in purely sensual worship, and leap toward the risk it poses with arms outstretched. Whatever the motivation, worship music today owes its existence to someone who deemed the risk of corruption worthy of the gains that sensual worship could bring over purely spiritual worship.

Since Time Immemorial: Musical Tradition and the Uniquely Human

Insofar as we have examined the history of music and its relationship to religion and worship, a common thread emerges concerning the origin of music. We have seen that even when considering diverse cultures and civilizations, music’s origin is uncertain or shrouded in myth. The truth has been lost to time immemorial, pre-dating the invention of writing and the advent recorded history and belonging only to the remnants of an oral tradition that has since forgotten.

This loss of historical truth is perhaps most obvious in the Suyá culture of South America where, according to Anthony Seeger in Why Suyá Sing, the oldest songs are simply remembered as legends and myths, linking not to historical accounts of origin but to stories about “partly human, partly animal beings in the process of metamorphosis” (Seeger, 52). Nevertheless, this idea of metamorphosis and transformation forms one of the central tenets of their spirituality, and their music, both traditional and newly created, serves to accent and illustrate those ideas.

In Timaeus, Plato speaks of the musical idea of his culture, representing Ancient Greek philosophy. Like the Suya people and the traditions of Islam, Plato offers no connection to a historical account of the origin of music. However, he plainly states that music, like speech and hearing, “is adapted to the sound of the voice” and is “granted to us for the sake of harmony, which has notions akin to the revolutions of our souls”, pointing clearly to a belief that speech and music possess an intimate connection to the essence of humanity (Weiss/Taruskin, 8).

Whether we examine familiar western cultures like Ancient Greece or more unfamiliar ones like that of the Suyá peoples, we find musical and religious traditions so closely intertwined and so deeply rooted in history that nobody can remember them ever being separate. These examples and others we have examined in our readings lead me to believe that this is no coincidence, but rather an artifact of the universal and uniquely human capacities for spirituality and the understanding of speech and language. The ubiquity of music in worship is therefore explained by these transformative and powerfully emotional abilities of music to express our spirituality and illuminate texts, leading to a tradition that spans time and space from modern-day Minnesota to Ancient Greece and beyond.

Music and Worship in a World of Discord

“And harmony, which has motions akin to the revolutions of our souls, is not regarded by the intelligent votary of the Muses as given by them with a view to irrational pleasure…but as meant to correct any discord, which may have arisen in the courses of the soul, and to be our ally in bringing her into harmony and agreement with herself… on account of the irregular and graceless ways which prevail among mankind generally, and to help us against them.”

-Plato, Timeus, as quoted in Weiss and Taruskin’s Music in the Western World

Music’s relationship with religion and worship is often seen as stemming from its power over the human psyche. Beginning with the earliest writings on music, thinkers have explored the profound influence music can have on thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Yet in acknowledging music’s power, humans have had to face the possibility of music being a danger; being something that is capable of producing negative effects along with the positive. Plato’s reference above to “irrational pleasure,” for example, hints at a common thread of wariness that can surround discussions about music’s place in religious practice.

For this reason, music as an element of worship has been hotly contested in some circles. Even within single religious traditions, questions abound as to which instruments can be used, and what text can be sung, and by whom, and in what mode, and for what greater theological reason. Yet despite thousands of years of debate, political manipulation, and occasional moral outrage, religious traditions across the globe still value a staggering variety of musics as integral to their worship.

It is possible that the same things that draw us as humans towards religious practice are some of the same things that underlie our intense connection with music. In this sense, music-making and worshiping can have remarkably similar goals: They both can both foster a sense of greater connection to other people and to something greater than ourselves. They both can provide a way for groups to express their identity, and to communicate complicated thoughts and emotions that are inexpressible through words alone. And to borrow the words of Plato, they both can provide relief, healing, and hope in a world that so often seems “irregular and graceless.”

Worship Music: The Universal Power Adaptor

Worship is about seeking a connection. It can be about seeking a connection with others in the physical worship space, a connection with the meditations of one’s own heart, and a connection with a greater purpose, power, or understanding. To come to a greater level of connection and understanding with something one does not fully understand (for example: God), it seems unlikely that the connection and answers will be found in something that which one fully understands. Therefore, music is the necessary bridge between the known and the unknown and is the connector in worship that so many people cling to for a glimpse into whatever it is they are looking for.

This fall in our music history course at St. Olaf College we have been discussing where music comes from. There is something unique and captivating about music that is unlike mere speech. The sounds and traits of music and song can express so much more than the words of a song alone. This extra quality music carries has been attributed throughout the world by many cultures to different things including sounds from nature such as the Suyá tradition of attributing music as coming from nature through people’s spirits living with the birds.1

In addition to providing a mystery in worship of where it comes from, music also carries with it a mysterious bridge between Earth and Heaven. Often in denying oneself of worldly needs or pleasures (for example fasting or choosing to “give something up” during the Christian season of Lent before Easter), worship and religious practices aim to remind people of the impermanence of their bodies and life on earth. According to an article by Bruce Holsinger, in medieval theology it is understood that the less one gives into one’s senses and worldly desires, the closer that person may be to God.2 For example, St. Augustine wrote in his confessions of his pleasure for sound that he was aware of the “danger that lies in gratifying the senses.” Music in worship has the unique ability to both gratify our worldy senses and desires while still connecting our temporary lives on earth to the greater and larger hope of Heaven or life after death.

It is difficult to imagine worship without music. Music is a strong connector between Earth and Heaven, impermanence and permanence, humanity and God. The mysterious qualities that give music power appeal to both the innate human desires and the quest for understanding of a higher power. Universally music has been that bridge and connector in hopes of getting a tiny bit closer to understanding something greater than life on Earth.

The Communal and Individual Power of Music

Music has an incredible power to excite both the human mind and body like few other things. This effect that music has on humanity has been well documented by theologians, philosophers, and scholars throughout the ages. It is not much of a wonder that such a force has been so strongly connected not simply to religion, but to worship. Music’s inherent compatibility with worship stems from its power not simply to elate individuals but to also drive the religious community’s experience as a whole.

St. Augustine speaks directly to the intoxicating effect that music can have on the individual’s soul in his “Expositions on the Psalms” (on the Jubilus), when he says, “It is a certain sound of joy without words, the expression of a mind poured forth in joy.” It is this palpable, yet indescribable joy that caused tears to flow down his face and “truth seeped into his heart.” To anyone who had never been exposed to music before, it is remarkable to think that a wordless sound could reveal some greater truth to an individual.

What really brings music to its full importance in worship is the power that it has to move individuals within a community. The legend of St. Augustine’s baptism makes specific note of the collective singing of the Te Deum after the conclusion of the baptism. This collective tradition of music in worship is not simply limited to Christianity however. Anthony Seeger discusses the collective tradition of music in the Suyá culture of Brazil. The musical tradition in the Suyá culture not only relates very specifically to the souls (or lack thereof) of individuals, but also to the collective nature of their practicing/performing of various music that they gathered and developed over time.

Such a potent combination of both individual and communal empowerment was almost bound to become wrapped up in something as fundamental as religion and spiritual beliefs for religion shares some of these same qualities of structure. Like music, religion, and in particular worship, is both an individual and communal act. For this reason music serves as a natural complement to worship. Both music and worship are simultaneously an intensely intimate, personal action/experience, but also an act that intimately causes you to experience something with others and develop a mutual understanding of the bond shared between you.

Music as Emotional Expression and Practical Teaching

When I state that music has the ability to profoundly affect its listener, I am not profoundly affecting my reader. This idea of music’s emotional impact is as old as music itself (at least as we know it). Aristotle describes an “enthusiasm,” which music provides to some listeners, and even for some, he likens it to a “curative and purifying treatment.”1 It is no question, then, that human beings, being so emotionally affected, should use music in worship to whatever God or gods in which they believe.

Perhaps music is the only form in which some can truly express their faith. Hildegard von Bingen found a medium through which she was able to express her devotion and adoration to the Virgin Mary. The sensuality of Hildegard’s music, and its effect on the body could not have been expressed properly in words alone.2 Augustine states that “by indulging the ears, weaker spirits may be inspired with feelings of devotion.” 3For some, complex and heavy theology is not accessible and weighs too heavy on the mind, but music is a way to ease the teachings of some religions to draw in those with “weaker spirits.”

While keeping in mind the emotional impact of music, perhaps music in worship developed out of necessity and practicality. Before humans were able to write, the oral tradition is how stories were passed down to later generations. As we all learned in elementary school, often lessons are better remembered if they are attached to a melody (I still sing through my ABC’s if I have to place words in alphabetical order). St. Augustine points out that the meaning of the sacred texts is more moving to him if “sung in a clear voice to the most appropriate tune.”3 Of course, if something is moving to us, we are bound to remember it.

Because of music’s strange impact on the human brain, its use in worship seems fitting. Why not take two things we do not understand, and use each to help explain and make sense of the other?

  1. Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin. Music in the Western World: A History in Documents. (New York: Schirmer Books, 1984), 10.
  2. Bruce Holsinger, “The Flesh of the Voice: Embodiment and the Homoerotics of Devotion in the Music of Hildegard von Bingen,” Signs 19/1 (Autumn 1993), 92-125.
  3. Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin. Music in the Western World: A History in Documents. (New York: Schirmer Books, 1984), 27.

Fear, Love, and Music

Music has been a part of religious tradition for an almost incomprehensible amount of time. Throughout history, however, perception and understanding of music has fluctuated greatly. Some might argue that music has remained present in worship because of tradition; it’s always been there, so we keep using it. That may be true, but that’s too easy. What does music do for us as humans, and why do we associate it so strongly with our spirituality?

The usefulness of music rarely comes into question. Aristotle saw it as educational, cathartic, entertaining, and relaxing; most modern music consumers would agree with these purposes. While others, like Plato and some Christian and Muslim fundamentalists, say that music is merely a distraction or an evil pleasure, this does not mean they believe music is useless (Routley/Shiloah). What critics must decide is how to harness this negative purpose (pleasure, diversion, beauty) for the good of their god.

While music cannot be called truly universal when the world’s music is so diverse, the experience of singing and the experience of music as an audience member can be generalized. So, music is something widely experienced, its existence and purpose are heavily debated, and it must affect humans in some of the same ways. Here, medieval experiences of music are enlightening. Medieval writers claim that music is an intensely physical, somatic experience, whether the physicality is in the listening or in the voicing of song. Hildegard von Bingen is one medieval composer who emphasized the physical element of music in her composition and her focus on the female voice (Fassler/Holsinger).

For some, the somatic experience of music feels like a gift from above; but to others, the physical element might feel shameful, animalistic, or too pleasureful. It’s in this dilemma that fear comes into play. As human beings, we all experience fear. We deal with this emotion in different ways, but many people turn to religion. Organized religion often promises a safe place where redemption and forgiveness will happen; this is a place where all the bad things and all the bad people go away, but to get there, one is supposed to act in the appropriate manner. Humans are supposedly dangerous beings who need to be vigilant and do the right things. Because music is such a dangerous entity, capable of enticing listeners into pleasure or distraction, it makes people fearful. Rather than avoiding it altogether, religious communities may try to co-opt music for their own purposes. Music, when used for the glorification of a god or the purification of a person, can redeem itself and become less scary and dangerous. Music used for worship is innocent, so music is used in worship in order to take away music’s dangerous power.

We can’t deny that we also simply love music, even when we fear its power. When religious communities use music in worship, they are acknowledging this and embracing it; including an art form that people love is only more encouragement to participate in a religious community.

The Power of Music with Text

Music, religious or not, has been an important part of cultures for thousands of years. Aristotle believed that music can help people relax, provide psychological relief, and entertain as an intellectual pastime.

Music, as a form of art, has so much more emotional power than simply relaxation. It can serve as a channel to convey ideas in incredibly emotional ways. Societies have had struggles and debates throughout history about whether or not music is safe to engage with. Islam struggled with finding the roll of music within its religion. Christianity did as well. These debates exist or existed because music does have such a unique ability to sway human emotion in different ways. Music can be very pleasurable. If approached with a sinful mentality, it can be sinful; if it is applied humbly in worship, it has the power to convey text in worship in an incredibly meaningful way. This is why music is a perfect conduit for presenting religious text.

Peder Jothen’s analogy of the desires of the brain and heart help explain and support this idea. The brain strives for truth, wisdom, ideas, and reasoning, and the heart seeks pleasure. The brain and the heart in this analogy represent the spiritual needs and the physical needs of our whole selves. Worship music is and has been a useful and desirable tool for religion because it has the power to support the truth with an emotional experience that may transport the listener in meditation or simply make the text more meaningful.

Music: Mediator Between the Spiritual and Sensual

Ludwig van Beethoven once wrote that “music is indeed the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life.” This view of music as an intermediary for humans and the divine beautifully encapsulates why music is an integral part of religious events and sacred traditions all over the world.

Music is one of the most deeply and widely established ways for people to transcend their daily lives. Indeed, music (particularly sacred) and its captivating aesthetic and expressive qualities have been an essential means for religious people to find spiritual fulfillment. For many, singing or playing music is one of the most direct ways (with the exception of prayer) to find catharsis, piety, or simply closeness with their God or religion. Aristotle asserted that “music ought to be used not as conferring one benefit only but many; for example, for education and cathartic purposes, as an intellectual pastime, as relaxation, and for relief after tension.” Additionally, in a wide range of religious traditions (including Christianity, Islam, and Judaism), music serves as a way for worshippers to express or meditate on sacred texts deliberately and meaningfully. Or, as St. Augustine put it: “It is not the singing that moves me, but the meaning of the words.”

However, it’s also important for us to step back and understand that although there is an apparent universality of sacred music, “music” does not have the same definition in all cultures or religions (or even denominations). For example, many – though not all – Westerners today consider music to be something innately human and linked inextricably with self-expression. Yet for many others both historically and from non-Western cultures (including the Suyá of the Amazon, who consider birdsong a form of music), music comes partly or entirely from external sources – usually nature or God. These and many other drastically differing theological perspectives, offered by numerous religious leaders and scholars for centuries, will help us gain an informed and broadened sense of music and religion’s multifaceted relationship throughout history.

Music: A Moral Implication

Music, at its core, is a form of expression unlike any other. Regardless of a religion’s stance on music, one cannot refute that “one finds an unequivocal belief in the overwhelming power of music,” as stated by Amnon Shiloah in Music and Religion in Islam (149). We experience an array of emotions though vocal and instrumental music alike. Although samā view passive listening to music (149), Shiloah argues that one’s faith can be experienced in a far more effective degree with the use of music (148). To incorporate it into warship would allow, theoretically, not only a quicker understanding of the message but also a feeling of closeness with one’s faith and identity. This deepens the impact of one’s own faith.

To further the question Shiloah is refuting, Erik Routley in Church Music and Theology begs this question: in what context is music ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (12)? Music is judged based on the contexts in which it is performed and for what purposes. To judge examples of music outside of the church erases all relevance it has to the argument of how well music can influence religious ideals. While this argument is never explicitly mentioned, it can be implied when arguments are brought against the use of music in the church.

To answer our own question, music is a excellent source of emotion as well as instilling ideas into people over time. A traditional hymn or text provides the message of one’s faith while underlying music, be it accompaniment to the text or the text imposed on a melody, enhances the tone of the hymn or text and thus magnifying its message.

The Universality of Music in Worships

Expressing the grandiose quality of God is an essential part of human worship tradition. For example, architectures of worship from diverse religious background, no matter Christian churches or Hindu temples, usually feature enormously spacial constructions that embody the highness of the deity. Similar to grand architectures, music is also an universal element of worship because of its power to symbolize the magnificence of God.

One of the most traditional and spontaneous ways of making music, singing is a fundamental musical practice in religious activities on account of its effective expression of texts. As St. Augustine demonstrated in his analysis of the tension between love of music and Christian conscience, he said:

 I realize that when they were sung, these sacred words stir my mind to greater religious fervor and kindle me in a more ardent flame of piety than they would if they were not sung.1

Universally, from Jewish psalms to Buddhist chants, religious music often integrates liturgical texts with melody, harmony, and rhythm, in order to empower the rhetorical effect of the words. The strength and uniqueness in the conveyance of texts make singing, alongside with other methods of communication, a common practice of worship.

In the same analysis written by St. Augustine, the Church Father also indicated another powerful aspect of music, that is the emotional appeal. He said:

I also know that there are particular modes in song and in the voice, corresponding to my various emotions and able to stimulate them because of some mysterious relationship between the two.2

The recognition of such connection between music and emotion was also reflected in other writings from different backgrounds. Aristotle recognized the “enthusiasm,” or the purely aesthetic pleasure, brought by musical practices; In Islamic tradition, “sama” implicates the irresistible emotional influence of music, despite which triggered debates around the morality of using music in religious activities.3

Referring to various religious traditions, we seldom notice that music is deemed as feeble. Quite the opposite, people realize the overwhelming impact of music, both on their perception and emotion, which in fact keeps music an indispensable part of worship regardless of all the debates around it.

1 Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin. Music in the Western World: A History in Documents. (New York: Schirmer Books, 1984), 26.

2 Ibid., 27.

3 Amnon Shiloah, “Music and Religion in Islam,” Acta Musicologica 69/2 (July-December 1997), 149.

Music: The Power to Change Lives and Develop the Whole Person

I honestly say that the reason that I am a future music educator/conductor is because of my deep faith in God and the influence He has had in my life, and my desire to share that experience/truth with others (full disclosure, I write from a conservative evangelical perspective, very different from the Lutheran tradition we have at St. Olaf, although we have much in common).

Without God, I see no purpose for the music we do and more broadly for the lives we live as human beings. I am uncomfortable with the notion that music is purely a human construct or an environmental evolutionary event, because I am well aware of the intense power of sacred music to move people emotionally and lift people up to experience a little taste of the Divine (in a manner that no purely humanistic/naturalistic invention can truly accomplish) in the midst of the evil and ugly world we live in. Music shapes us as individuals and religious people, showing us the best way to live and inspiring us to allow God to change our hearts and walk with Him, thus changing our lives for the better in the process.

I agree fully with St. Basil and Augustine who claimed that music has the power to bring the Divine down to Earth in ways beyond words (like Augustine explaining the Jubilee in Weiss-Taruskin 10), and as Basil puts it “while we were singing we should learn something useful… the teachings are in a certain way impressed more deeply on our minds” (Weiss-Taruskin 9) . As we sing, we learn more and more about God and His incredible love for us as expressed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (who I don’t believe was just a great teacher, no musical tradition so beautiful could have developed from as C.S. Lewis would put it “a lunatic or a lier”). Music provides hope for the hopeless, healing for the broken-hearted, and a reminder of the amazing love that God has for us, and thus the love we should have for each other.

There’s a reason beyond the musical elements why I wept profusely every time I heard “It is Well With My Soul” paired with “Beautiful Savior” last year at Christmas Festival. It is Well was written after the lyricist Horatio Spafford (the tune was written by Philip Bliss) lost the majority of his family in a shipwreck (all four of his daughters died, but his wife survived), and the words he writes with such deep faith in the midst of unbelievable tragedy comfort me every time I hear them that “Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say. It is well with my soul”. Beautiful Savior reminds me of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and how awesome He is. Combining the loving tenderness shown in “It is Well” with the majesty of “Beautiful Savior”, I am reminded of God as a loving and majestic God at the same time, without needing to hear a sermon about it (as a potential future pastor, I love sermons. I think music does an even better job of conveying truth).

I fully understand the power music has in other faith traditions, and I acknowledge that the reasoning is probably very similar. But for me, my most meaningful moments as a musician have been in choir after we have sung a beautiful anthem to God when everyone is just silent and standing in awe of the aesthetic beauty that just occurred (I get the same feelings in orchestra, but text makes it even more powerful). For me, I just tasted the love of God on Earth, and that is why music is a universal part of worship because I believe others have tasted this as well whatever tradition they call their own.

Singing is Distinctly Human

Faith means something different to everyone and as such, faith and devotion to faith are shown in different ways. I believe that music is and has been a universal part of worship because of the way it makes the singer feel. In a world where people cannot read nor write, it was used as a tool to help congregants hold on to text and retain the word of the Lord. Singing, specifically, is a uniquely human ability and because the assumption is that humans are the only animals on Earth to have a relationship with God, singing is an expressive way of communication with God.

As we all know, being at St. Olaf, choral participation builds community and there is something special about singing with someone that with talking can’t be found. McKinnon talks about how the gradual was worked into the mass in the early on as a distinctly musical element in the service (11). This was not viewed as a song, but as an actual reading from the Bible, which shows that music and worship developed together. Not only does music bring people together, but it was for a long time something that only the elites could partake in. It would draw people to churches because they would nowhere else be able to find musicians of such a high caliber and thus confusing their intrigue with the music and the sermon. This is conjecture, but I think that it is probable that it was a tactic to get people into the churches and then say, “since you’re here, listen to this Gospel reading.” While there are many reasons that music is used for worship, they all come down to music being a tool that can engage people with religion like nothing else can.

Universal Music or Music for Everyone?

On the first day of class, we talked about if there was music that was inappropriate for worship. As we brainstormed and shared ideas, no one could quite pin down an answer for this question. We struggled with deciding what is good or bad, if the purpose of the music has anything to do with the act of using it to worship, and if any of it really matters anyways. I think all these struggles are the reason music is “universal;” that is, there is some form of music that exists for every kind of worship.

Much of the early church wasn’t concerned with universality, and this continued until chant was codified by the 9th century. Early believers weren’t concerned with singing the same chant (a lot of them were more concerned with staying alive). Routley explains why there isn’t a lot of early history recorded. “Music was to them so natural an activity as to be hardly susceptible at that stage of moral criticism: moral criticism of the music, as we shall see, is in the Old Testament always criticism of the musician.”1 There wasn’t such a thing as bad music, as anything that could give glory to God was acceptable.

Much of the Old Testament is, as always, confusing. Music is both allowed and refuted, sometimes within the same book. Some early church leaders have very clear opinions about music, though, as pointed out by Weiss and Taruskin. Augustine is quoted to define a hymn as a “song with praise of God. If you praise God and do not sing, you do not utter a hymn.”2 I think this mindset is what calls people to believe that music for worship is universal. The texts have now been codified throughout the Church, and many of them cross between different branches of religion as well. But the music is constantly changing. I really think the only thing that matters for music in worship is that there is some sort of text that requires some sort of prayer. In this, music is not universal, but it does exist for everyone.



Music in Intellect and the Body

As worshippers enter a worship space, they are immediately immersed in a common experience. The course of time has changed the way masses worship, and cultural and social influences have affected how various worship styles come into play. Because of this, we have evidence that the attitude towards music (in general and in worship practices) has changed over millennia. With music becoming more accessible and widely accepted by the masses, it has become a universal part of worship.

Music’s role in worship has been debated for centuries, and along with that, it was debated whether or not music was an art in which “good men” participated. In regards to the thinking of Plato and Aristotle, music as entertainment was for the base; in his dialogue Protagoras (and found in Music in the Western World), Plato states that those who were “too uneducated to entertain themselves” would hire girls to play the harp while they drank, neglecting to facilitate their mind and make a contribution to society. However, Plato does recognize the hymns that were standard to worshipping the gods. Such hymns were not to be misused, are to do so would incur a hefty penalty.

Aristotle’s view on music is slightly more realistic, saying that music could suffice well as an education piece and as “an intellectual pastime, as relaxation, and for relief after tension.” He also mentions that music is appropriate insofar as the harmonies are used for educational purposes and improving character. With the writings of these two prolific philosophers, the course is set, at least for the western world, that music is not to be treated lightly.

Over a thousand years later, a very different, yet equally intuitive mind connects music to humanity and worship in new ways. Hildegard von Bingen, as described in Bruce Holsinger’s essay, “The Flesh of the Voice: Embodiment and the Homoerotics of Devotion in the Music of Hildegard of Bingen” takes on the corporeal reaction to divinely inspired music. It is out of Hildegard’s musical compositions that the connection of body to music and the divine is enriched and even fostered. The text of her composition refers to the Holy Spirit entering the Virgin Mother’s body in a strongly sensual and physical experience, which easily relates to the sensual and physical reaction that occurs in other conversion experiences. Hildegard’s synthesis of music and the body opens a new world in theology; perhaps music is not so bad after all. Even if we are not “good men” in the eyes of Plato, Hildegard helps us understand (again, in the western, Christian context) that a physiological and spiritual response to music need not be so taboo.

The Desire for Music and its Importance in Religion

Music has the ability to deepen the meaning of words that accompany it, both in a religious context or even on your local pop radio station you listen to on the way to work. As described by St. Augustine in Weiss and Taruskin’s Music of the Western World, St. Augustine reflects on his baptism, “The tears flowed from me when I heard your hymns and canticles, for the sweet singing of your church moved me deeply…The music surged in my ears, truth seeped into my heart, and my feelings of devotion overflowed…” (24). St. Augustine’s account makes it clear that the hymns and canticles sung at his baptism amplified his personal religious experience all the way back in the 4th century. At the same time, music wasn’t always considered an appropriate mode of worship, so why has music become such a universal part of worship today?

In the early Christian tradition, as with many other religions, one had to be careful with their use of music. According to Weiss and Taruskin’s Music of the Western World, using music for unholy purposes such as pleasure was sinful because pleasure gets in the way of the Lord. If early Christians considered music a pleasure capable of distracting them from their relationship with God, then the impact music had on people of this time must have been significant. Luckily, many religions agreed the sin of music is taken away when it is used for worship. Putting religious text to music allows for a more involved worship experience, incorporating song performance skills that give the performer and the listener a heightened sense of praise. In this way, music can be used as a tool for praise that is appealing to the worshiper.

Music has a way of filling in the gaps in thought, feeling, and emotion that words cannot do justice, which can be incredibly powerful when accompanied by a spiritual belief. Using music for religious reasons also gave early humans the ability to experience and explore the tantalizing effects of music without committing a sin. In the present day, music is used much more widely and for purposes other than worship, which has allowed religious music to grow and expand into many types of praise that have a wider impact many people. Music is a nearly universal part of religion because it appeals to and heightens human senses in a pleasurable way which, in turn, allows humans to praise through a medium that makes worship more enjoyable.

The Universal Power of Music

On a purely practical level, music is one of religion’s most potent tools. No spiritual convictions are required to see that music touches something deep within us. Take, for example, its mnemonic properties. From “Jesus Loves You” to “Amazing Grace”, music can give theological ideas a special durability and accessibility. This power can be seen outside of religion as well, with things like the alphabet song. Just as Plato and Aristotle noted, music is quite educationally useful. Music can educate spiritually as well as it can practically.

Music can reach people in ways that other forms of expression can’t. One of the most powerful examples of this is its effect on those suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s. Patients who have lost all communicative faculties, even those who are essentially catatonic, often still have intense responses to music. Patients who never speak will sometimes still sing along with familiar music. Music’s therapeutic properties extend far beyond dementia and its ilk. Music heals the broken heart and the troubled mind. Music’s healing property is an empirical fact. There is a great deal of literature on the efficacy of music therapy.

Religion heals as well. People often find great solace in faith. It provides answers to moral, emotional, and existential questions. Studies of well-being typically show religious people to  be generally happier than the non-religious. Because of their healing roles, it’s natural that music and religion would have an affinity for each-other.

If we move beyond secular, naturalistic conceptions of the world, another reason emerges. Music is numinous. To borrow language from Rudolf Otto, music can put us in touch with something “wholly other”. It inspires great and terrible feelings within us. It connects us to the Divine. The goal of many religions it to become closer to the Divine. Whether it is the God of Christianity, or Nirvana in Buddhism, religion so often involves seeking something “other”, something divine. Music is one such connection, and as a result is indispensable to worship.

Music as a “Universal” Part of Worship

While music is now largely seen as a universal––and sometimes even fundamental––part of worship, this positive affiliation has not always been the widely accepted view. Writing and performing music has long been a source of debate regarding whether it is beneficial or corruptive to the mind.

In his writing about music, Plato makes strong claims about the importance of music in strengthening one’s mind; however, they only apply to the educated. He asserts that only people who know and appreciate good music should take part in it, because they are able to separate their desire for pleasure from their altruistic inclination toward learning and self-improvement. Aristotle writes with a more liberal view, accepting two separate approaches to music: one that is critiquing and using music for bettering the mind by the educated and one that accepts music as a pleasing and indulgent activity. These two great thinkers’ ideas about music both leave room for argument that music can be an asset in worship––if worship is considered a time to improve the mind.

Much later, St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom speak more specifically about the role of music in worship, addressing the immorality of instrumental music and attempting to justify related imagery in the psalms. These scholars describe a metaphorical understanding of music in relation to worship. However, Augustine feels much more conflicted about these ideas, as he finds music in worship to strongly enhance the experience. Weiss and Taruskin write that “the jubilus was the most mystically meaningful part of the chant for Augustine” (25). It is clear that early Christian thought had moved away from being so concerned with the mind, and was more interested in issues of morality and dedication to God. Therefore, music was viewed often as a distraction from the most important part of oneself: spiritual devotion––an evolution of Plato’s thinking. Augustine struggled to accept this because for him, music had a spiritual power that enabled him to actually feel closer to God.

Today, most religious people identify more with Augustine’s thoughts, which is why music is considered a universal part of worship. However, it is important to recognize that this debate is, in fact, still ongoing. There are many types of worship and worship services that do not use music, or even do not condone it. For example, in Quakerism, music has been traditionally viewed as trivial and inappropriate in worship, and while some may have a more modern and progressive ideas, the majority of Quakers still do not use music as a part of their worship. Thus, one might argue that although this debate has evolved and become much less important over time, music as “a universal part” of worship is still too broad to describe its presence and role in all traditions and religions.

Music: a Means and an End

Music and worship are two pillars of human society that have existed for so long that it is difficult to judge which preceded the other. As St. Basil suggests in Weiss and Taruskin’s Music in the Western World, music during worship may have been a useful method of helping followers to comprehend the ideology and doctrine of the religion, similar to putting honey in a medicine that is difficult to swallow (21). In order to facilitate such an approach, a fairly utilitarian view of music is needed—one that is quite different from those of Plato and Aristotle.

Plato’s opinion with regard to music is that it should be used to enhance the intellect, and that to enjoy it capriciously is reprehensible: “[Plato] looked down on the use of music for mere pleasure” (5). Music and gymnastics are the two halves of the path to human perfection, and thus should be treated with scholarly respect. The fundamentals of Aristotle’s view are much the same, but with different judgment. The categories of intellectual and pleasurable music remain, but neither has a good or bad connotation; they must simply be kept separate (8-9). The way in which Plato and Aristotle concur is that music can be an ideal form of art. Its purity can be achieved through study, and the system of self-improvement that it is a part of is of the utmost importance.

These are the two ways of thinking about music presented in certain chapters of Weiss and Taruskin’s book. Music can be utilitarian—like honey on the rim of a cup—or ideal, almost becoming a form of worship in itself. Fortunately, both methods of thought mentioned here seem to encourage the use of music in worship, which perhaps points to the reason why it has been so universally accepted there. Music is both a tool for worship and an ideal to be worshipped, and because of that, its place in religion is well cemented.