The Communal and Individual Power of Music

Music has an incredible power to excite both the human mind and body like few other things. This effect that music has on humanity has been well documented by theologians, philosophers, and scholars throughout the ages. It is not much of a wonder that such a force has been so strongly connected not simply to religion, but to worship. Music’s inherent compatibility with worship stems from its power not simply to elate individuals but to also drive the religious community’s experience as a whole.

St. Augustine speaks directly to the intoxicating effect that music can have on the individual’s soul in his “Expositions on the Psalms” (on the Jubilus), when he says, “It is a certain sound of joy without words, the expression of a mind poured forth in joy.” It is this palpable, yet indescribable joy that caused tears to flow down his face and “truth seeped into his heart.” To anyone who had never been exposed to music before, it is remarkable to think that a wordless sound could reveal some greater truth to an individual.

What really brings music to its full importance in worship is the power that it has to move individuals within a community. The legend of St. Augustine’s baptism makes specific note of the collective singing of the Te Deum after the conclusion of the baptism. This collective tradition of music in worship is not simply limited to Christianity however. Anthony Seeger discusses the collective tradition of music in the Suyá culture of Brazil. The musical tradition in the Suyá culture not only relates very specifically to the souls (or lack thereof) of individuals, but also to the collective nature of their practicing/performing of various music that they gathered and developed over time.

Such a potent combination of both individual and communal empowerment was almost bound to become wrapped up in something as fundamental as religion and spiritual beliefs for religion shares some of these same qualities of structure. Like music, religion, and in particular worship, is both an individual and communal act. For this reason music serves as a natural complement to worship. Both music and worship are simultaneously an intensely intimate, personal action/experience, but also an act that intimately causes you to experience something with others and develop a mutual understanding of the bond shared between you.