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.

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