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.

Leave a Reply