Music in Worship: a Sensual Argument

Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Chrysostom, Ibn abi’l-Dunya, and countless other dogmatists all agree that music affects humans in drastic and sensual ways. Aristotle describes how music can have an “orgiastic effect” on the listener, which seems to be contrary to a common ascetic concept of devotion to the divine. Thus, it is remarkable that so much of religious worship centers around the use of music.

The Greek concept of dualism between body and spirit fuels most of the justifications which are made for allowing volatile and sensual music within worship. Augustine acknowledges in his Confessions that when sacred words are sung they can often “stir the mind with greater religious fervor . . .  and kindle an ardent flame of piety.” He continues to acknowledge that music can often indulge the listener and obscure the meaning of the words it is attempting to convey. It is the effect on the spirit through the body’s senses where music both holds potential power for worship, but also great danger. It is this risk that some are willing to embrace, and other strictly avoid, but no one denies the great power that music has over the listener.

Worship may feature music widely because some decided the risk of corruption was worth the political gain, as Richard Taruskin suggests in The Oxford History of Western Music. Others like the Islamic mystic “whirling dervishes” see only divine experience in purely sensual worship, and leap toward the risk it poses with arms outstretched. Whatever the motivation, worship music today owes its existence to someone who deemed the risk of corruption worthy of the gains that sensual worship could bring over purely spiritual worship.

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