Music’s Spiritual and Political Instruments

Historically, many religious communities have used music to approach the divine. For some traditions, texted singing was most appropriate, while for others, a full instrumental ensemble could be used to help listeners reach a state of ecstasy. While debates about the appropriateness of various types of music continue today, the even more basic question remains unanswered: why is music such a common part of worship? Two possible answers are music’s inherent ability to inspire listeners and its usefulness as a tool for political ends.

Theologians from various traditions have written about their belief that music, when used appropriately, has the inherent power to heighten worship. Given this quality, it is no surprise that so many religious congregations incorporate music. St. Augustine discusses how listening to sung text inspires him spiritually, enhancing the truth that the text conveys. 1 Likewise, Mevlevi authors argue that music and dance impact the soul,2 allowing people to reach a state of religious ecstasy. According to the Syrian mystic theologian al-Nabalusi, “If the true believer employs [instruments] with good intention and for beneficial purposes, they cannot be harmful in any way”.2 Many religious traditions seem to find music beneficial as long as it is used moderately and intentionally, and this partly explains why worship music is so widespread.

On the other hand, political power dynamics might be partly responsible for the prevalence of worship music. For example, the Carolingian rulers of the eighth century used worship music as a method of solidifying their centralized power. By standardizing chant, they gained stronger control of their territories and changed the path of Christian worship music.3 The music of the Suyá people of Brazil also reflected the influence of power dynamics. According to Seeger, “Knowledge is an important form of power in most South American Indian groups, and the Suyá were no exception”.4 By incorporating songs from animals, enemy tribes, and foreigners into their religious practices, the Suyá displayed their knowledge, and consequently, their power.

Music’s role in worship stems from people’s sense that, when used carefully, it enhances religious experiences. Conversely, however, music’s use has also grown out of its function as an instrument of political power.


1 Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin, Music in the Western World (Belmont, CA: Schirmer, 1984) 24-27.

2 Amnon Shiloah, “Music and Religion in Islam,” Acta Musicologica 69/2 (July-December, 1997), 143-155, (Accessed August 31, 2016).

3 Richard Taruskin, “Chapter 1: The Curtain Goes Up” in The Oxford History of Western Music, Volume 1, Music from the Earliest Notations in the Sixteenth Century.

4 Anthony Seeger, “The Origin of Songs,” in Why Suyá Sing: A musical anthropology of an Amazonian People (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 58.

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