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.