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.”

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