Music as Emotional Expression and Practical Teaching

When I state that music has the ability to profoundly affect its listener, I am not profoundly affecting my reader. This idea of music’s emotional impact is as old as music itself (at least as we know it). Aristotle describes an “enthusiasm,” which music provides to some listeners, and even for some, he likens it to a “curative and purifying treatment.”1 It is no question, then, that human beings, being so emotionally affected, should use music in worship to whatever God or gods in which they believe.

Perhaps music is the only form in which some can truly express their faith. Hildegard von Bingen found a medium through which she was able to express her devotion and adoration to the Virgin Mary. The sensuality of Hildegard’s music, and its effect on the body could not have been expressed properly in words alone.2 Augustine states that “by indulging the ears, weaker spirits may be inspired with feelings of devotion.” 3For some, complex and heavy theology is not accessible and weighs too heavy on the mind, but music is a way to ease the teachings of some religions to draw in those with “weaker spirits.”

While keeping in mind the emotional impact of music, perhaps music in worship developed out of necessity and practicality. Before humans were able to write, the oral tradition is how stories were passed down to later generations. As we all learned in elementary school, often lessons are better remembered if they are attached to a melody (I still sing through my ABC’s if I have to place words in alphabetical order). St. Augustine points out that the meaning of the sacred texts is more moving to him if “sung in a clear voice to the most appropriate tune.”3 Of course, if something is moving to us, we are bound to remember it.

Because of music’s strange impact on the human brain, its use in worship seems fitting. Why not take two things we do not understand, and use each to help explain and make sense of the other?

  1. Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin. Music in the Western World: A History in Documents. (New York: Schirmer Books, 1984), 10.
  2. Bruce Holsinger, “The Flesh of the Voice: Embodiment and the Homoerotics of Devotion in the Music of Hildegard von Bingen,” Signs 19/1 (Autumn 1993), 92-125.
  3. Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin. Music in the Western World: A History in Documents. (New York: Schirmer Books, 1984), 27.

Leave a Reply