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.