Sunday, July 10, 2011

How universal is music?

I started work on my master's a few weeks ago (summer session moves at twice the pace of the regular semesters, hence the drought in blog postings). Right now I'm working on a paper on the influence of the Protestant Reformation on music, and vice versa.

One of the key reforms Luther made was to reintroduce congregational singing. He felt very strongly that musical participation should be a part of everyone's worship life and Christian education.

I think music and religion have gone together for as long as either has been a part of the human experience. Music was certainly a huge part of my Mormon upbringing and still plays a major role in my spirituality.

I've been singing and have had an ear for pitch as long as I can remember. Singing time is a part of Sunday School for Mormon kids every week. I remember even as a four or five-year-old hearing one of the teachers singing off key and wondering, Why is she doing that? Couldn't she hear the difference? Another time, we had a lesson about talents and we were supposed to list all of our talents. My teacher asked why I didn't list singing. I didn't list it because I didn't think it was a talent; it was so easy, I thought everyone could do it.

Musical inclination is something I was just born with. I've worked and practiced to develop it further, but it's also just an irremovable part of who I am. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say I would have given up on religion and spirituality altogether years ago if it weren't for music.

But I wonder, how much would music matter to me if I weren't musically inclined myself? Would I still be as moved by it as I am? 

At church, everyone is supposed to sing, regardless of how "good" they are at it. How helpful or moving or powerful is singing for someone who may not necessarily like to sing?

This is a genuine question. I'll try to draw a comparison. I appreciate visual art, but I'm not very artistically inclined myself. I can certainly be emotionally and spiritually moved by other people's works of art, but if someone asked me to draw my own picture in praise of God or the sacred or whatever, first of all, you'd have a really ugly picture, and second, I really don't think I'd get much out of it.

So all of you who can't keep a beat or carry a tune, what does music mean to you, particularly in your spiritual life?


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12 comments:

  1. Music has always sort of been a curious phenomenon for me to think about, if only because it seems to have some sort of cross-contextual appeal that may, perhaps, stand outside of social conditioning in a way that words can't. I'm still mostly inclined to see it as socially constructed, but there's a grey area.

    At least with me, I'm somewhat musically inclined but mostly not (with a *lot* of practice I can sound pretty decent, but belting in the shower has never really been my forte.) I tend to like a couple of different types of music: mostly metal, progressive rock, some alternative stuff, and ambient soundscapes. The first three engage my thinking, the last my emotion, and I'm not entirely sure why that happens. I tend to be fairly cerebral, and perhaps even if I don't really understand the music theory, the complexity of metal and prog rock force me to process music as a built object, something that demands focus and attention and cannot be casually absorbed? Music is, definitionally, the arrangement of sound over time -- and perhaps thinking about music in that way actualizes and physicalizes the flow of time in a way that might otherwise escape my attention, especially since in these genres songs can get very long and when they do, they can escape conventional song structure and begin to experiment with sounds in the temporal landscape, almost sort of like watching a process painting.

    It's a pretty thought, even if not a perfect explanation. But this is a very fascinating question, nonetheless.

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  2. Music has always sort of been a curious phenomenon for me to think about, if only because it seems to have some sort of cross-contextual appeal that may, perhaps, stand outside of social conditioning in a way that words can't. I'm still mostly inclined to see it as socially constructed, but there's a grey area.

    At least with me, I'm somewhat musically inclined but mostly not (with a *lot* of practice I can sound pretty decent, but belting in the shower has never really been my forte.) I tend to like a couple of different types of music: mostly metal, progressive rock, some alternative stuff, and ambient soundscapes. The first three engage my thinking, the last my emotion, and I'm not entirely sure why that happens. I tend to be fairly cerebral, and perhaps even if I don't really understand the music theory, the complexity of metal and prog rock force me to process music as a built object, something that demands focus and attention and cannot be casually absorbed? Music is, definitionally, the arrangement of sound over time -- and perhaps thinking about music in that way actualizes and physicalizes the flow of time in a way that might otherwise escape my attention, especially since in these genres songs can get very long and when they do, they can escape conventional song structure and begin to experiment with sounds in the temporal landscape, almost sort of like watching a process painting.

    It's a pretty thought, even if not a perfect explanation. But this is a very fascinating question, nonetheless.

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  3. Sandra ChristianHereticJuly 10, 2011 at 11:52 PM

    I doubt that the universality of music in religious settings has much to do with the artistic integrity of the congregation/musicians.  I suspect it has more to do with the fact that everyone can make noise, the noise can be made together as a group, and the act of making noise corporately has strong psycho-spiritual effects on both the individual and the group.

    That said, my personal experience of music in corporate worship is that the more musical asthetics are given importance, the less the individual congregants are to participate.  My favorite services are the ones where familiar old songs are sung to simple accompaniment--no fancy worship leader, no soloists or worship team hoopla that interrupts the congregation.  I like good size groups--50+ people so that those who are self-conscious can lose the sound of their own voices in the corporate sound.  

    But I (at least once upon a time) sing well, read music, and like to sing harmony or descant, so I still always managed to garner head turns.  And I know there have been a more than a few people who quit singing after standing next to me.  So I myself proved to be a hindrance to someone's participation.  I always feel bad about that.  Because even if you suck at singing, there is just something wonderful about "making a joyful noise".  

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  4. I have decent pitch (can carry a tune and not be offensive but am definitely not an artist) and I used to love singing when I was in youth group because the music was louder, more fast paced and fun. When I started attending adult services the fact that I am in NO way a soprano started becoming more and more clear. Mainly because the music slowed down and started becoming more and more gender segregated (men sing one verse women another) and my voice really stuck out. I don't have a singers pipes, I can't hold a measure long high note and my voice doesn't go all that high to begin with. 
    Also, in contemporary Christianity many people say that God gives everyone different gifts but there is this double standard with young women that to be good Christian girls they have to have angelic voices. (And be totally conforming to perceived cultural norms in fashion and interests but that's another rant) If you can't sing you must not be trying hard enough to please God. It was really really frustrating and made it to where I really hated the worship portion of services and would even show up late to skip them. 

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  5. I get very real spiritual fulfillment from singing, but I don't know if it has to do with whether I am any good at it or not, because truthfully, I don't KNOW if I am any good or not.

     I love to sing, and I always have, but I have reached a point emotionally where I can't sing in front of people anymore. Whenever I get a negative reaction, it kills the buzz, and usually leads me into a depression. I sang in the school chorus and did some performance art that included singing in my early 20s, and always got very mixed reviews. Some said I should be releasing albums, others said I should have my jaw wired shut. While I only felt a minimal amount of pride at being praised for it, to hear that I am bad at something that I always considered just a part of life, a way of expressing my thoughts and feelings, is devastating. It's like being told that I don't exist properly, that I am fundamentally flawed because I am "bad" at something that I thought was just supposed to be part of being human. We are auditory beings, we make noises, we speak, and sometimes, we sing. Good or bad never entered my mind, really, until I was told to shut up.

      I never really cared much about whether or not I was "good," I just wanted to enjoy myself, and to feel connected to the wider universe through the sounds coming out of me and the feelings they evoke, because I do feel that it is a universal trait among humans, to associate rythyms and sounds with thought and emotion. Unfortunately, the comments and attitudes of others, that I shouldn't be singing if I can't do it "right" are too discouraging and too distracting from that purpose in order for me to bring myself to sing publicly. I now only let a note escape my lips if I know I am alone in the house and the windows are closed.

     So, to answer your question, if indeed those who say I suck are correct by some objective standard, then no, you don't have to be musically inclined to gain a spiritual "high" from singing or otherwise making music. At least, I don't.

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  6. My apologies if you've already addressed this elsewhere and I simply missed it, but just out of curiosity, do you happen to know if you have perfect pitch or experience any synesthesia with tones?  Does a G just sound like a G for you, similar to how like green looks like green, regardless of context?

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  7. One too many 'like's...

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  8. A very late comment--I am by no means a good singer, but singing was one of my favorite aspects of church, partly because everyone was singing so no one could hear how bad I was! I can carry a tune but my voice is too low for soprano parts and I never learned to sing alto. Being able to belt in sacrament meeting where my voice was masked was nice.


    The most spiritual experiences I've had have been at concerts. Music is very important to me, both as entertainment and as passage to spiritual modes.

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  9. Hi there, I have quite good relative pitch. If you play me a note, I can tell you probably within a whole step where it is on the piano and I'm very good and discerning intervalic relations, but alas, I do not have perfect pitch. Nor have I had any experiences of synesthesia. My relationship to music tends to be more intuitive and emotional than sensory.

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  10. Seyed Hamid BanihashemiAugust 17, 2011 at 6:01 AM

    Hi. There might be something seriously missing from the religious musicology if you make choires, chorus, music, etc. formally part of every religious experience. Don't agree? Imagine that everyone starts praying a certain prayer together. It seems to me that a very pleasent music comes out of it automatically depending on the strength of the prayer. Am I too far off the pitch? On the other hand, it is much easier to make a mistake of idnetifying any old good song as spiritually religious. And I am not saying this just because I am not so much musically inclined!

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  11. I think some of that has been researched.  Check your univeristy databases for fMRI of music.  Also, the anthropology of music (ethnomusicology).  The urge to be musical is universal but not specific styles.  In the West you'd be listening to whether someone is on-key but in Africa you'd wonder why they couldn't keep rhythm.

    In many cultures religion & music combine with dance to put people into a trancelike state.  Even the "quiet" cultures use music to change their brain chemistry.  Sometimes (such as Voudun in Haiti) they dance until the spirit of a god enters their body.  The goal isn't to make a good performance musically but to make sure everyone knows how godly you are... uhh I mean the goal is to render yourself receptive to the entrance of the spirit into your soul or body ;-)

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  12. Yep, you are off pitch for most cultures.  It's a group cultural practice, though some religions encourage more individualty as the spirit enters the person's body.  The Pentacostals start off together but it gets chaotic pretty quickly.  Sometimes a designated musician or group of musicians starts off while everyone else gets their spiritual juice on through the esthetic experience of listening.  Check out this spirit possession "song"  http://youtu.be/o9xx8NqWIL8  (she gets possessed at about 3:35)

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Religion, skepticism, and carving out a spiritual life post-Mormonism