Music and Spirituality

by Ian Howarth.

In the Oscar nominated film musical ‘La, La, Land’ at a particularly poignant moment when the couple at the centre of the film see each other after a long break, rather than say anything the character played by Ryan Gosling sits at the piano and plays. It is incredibly moving. It is moving because it is the tune he played when they first met, but it goes further than that. Even though it is not a ‘great’ piece of music it is moving because in that context it seems to be infused with meaning. However, if you were asked ‘What meaning?’ it is a meaning that is impossible to put into words except in the most general terms.

Those twin abilities of music, to be able to move people emotionally and to be deeply meaningful without being specific about its meanings are key reasons why music has been so significant in many religious traditions. The combination of speaking deeply to people’s feelings and being ambiguously meaningful for many people enable music to be a symbol of the ‘other’. A symbol that can be simultaneously immanent and transcendent, seemingly reaching deep within us while at the same time offering the sense of being in communion with something/someone beyond.

The power and the ambiguity of music has led to both enthusiasm and caution among spiritual writers as to its use. St Augustine and John Wesley both loved music, but were keen to link it to words that were doctrinally sound, so that its power did not move people in the wrong ways: ‘Attend strictly to the sense of what you sing. See that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually.’ writes John Wesley in his Rules for Singing. St. Augustine may or may not have said: ‘Whoever sings, prays twice’ (it is nowhere recorded in his writings). What he did write in Book 10 Chapter 33 of his Confessions, feeling that his passion for music was potentially dangerous is:  “I am inclined to approve of the custom of singing in church, in order that by indulging the ears weaker spirits may be inspired with feelings of devotion. Yet when I find the singing itself more moving than the truth which it conveys, I confess that this is a grievous sin, and at those times I would prefer not to hear the singer.”

The Methodist tradition is more enthusiastic about the custom of singing in church, and it has perhaps become a key way in our tradition of our worship speaking to people’s deepest feelings, and of offering meanings that go beyond words.

However, for that to happen effectively, we not only need to be careful of the words we sing, but we also need to recognise the potential meanings in the music itself which go beyond both the meaning of the words and the sounds being created and heard. Music, like our worship, exists in a cultural context. In many cultures and sub-cultures music serves as a powerful indicator of identity. Different genres of music relate to different cultural identities.

The type of music that an institution uses will say much about which social groups it can relate to effectively. There are stereotypes in people’s thinking about the fans of different musical genres. A recent article by social psychologists suggests that ‘people have very similar stereotypes about the psychological and social characteristics of most music fans – particularly fans of classical, rap and heavy metal music. For example, fans of classical music are believed to be white, wealthy, hardworking, introverted, physically unattractive, intelligent and artistic, whereas rap  music fans are believed to be extraverted, relaxed, athletic and to drink beer and smoke marijuana. When the content of these stereotypes were compared with the psychological characteristics of actual music fans, the results revealed that many of the stereotypes have some validity.’[1]

I wonder what that would say about the music we use in Methodist churches and who are most likely to relate to it?

Our Christian heritage reminds us that music is potentially a powerful spiritual tool for the reasons outlined above. However, in practice its cultural significance, and the way it helps people define their identity, means that we need to be far more thoughtful and aware about the way we choose and use music in church, so that we can enable it to fulfil its potential to enable people to reach the heights and the depths through which God is encountered.

[1] “The structure of musical preferences: A five-factor model,” by Rentfrow, Peter J.; Goldberg, Lewis R.; Levitin, Daniel J., in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 100(6), Jun 2011, 1139-1157. author’s manuscript version available to read here.

3 thoughts on “Music and Spirituality”

  1. In Endless Song

    We can get a bit too hung up on what we should or should not be singing. Music in all its forms is a gift from God and there to be enjoyed without guilt or shame. I don’t have a great singing voice and I’m struggling to learn the very basics of playing the keyboard but music has been so much a part of my existence that it sometimes feels like my whole life is a song.

    I grew up in a family that didn’t go to church but from a very early age (pre-school) I sensed there was something more. Listening to my mother singing ‘Que Sera Sera’ and my father singing ‘Scarlet Ribbons’ my spirit was awakening to the almighty, loving and benevolent Spirit of God. The first hymn I learnt at school was ‘Jesus Good Above All Other’ and I clearly remember asking the question “What does persevere mean?” I was told it meant keep trying, which led to my next question, “Trying what?” With hindsight I can see this was the seeker emerging and I was later told by my mother that my constant questioning could be very trying indeed!

    When my son came to stay at Christmas he introduced me to the delights of Spotify and I compiled a personal playlist of favourite songs which I called Soul Food. These are the songs that touched me at the deepest level; they trace my life’s journey and, more importantly, my faith journey. They are the milestones along the way, the places where I stopped to hear God singing to me through the voices of Jim Reeves (Welcome to My World) Simon and Garfunkel (Bridge Over Troubled Water) and ELO (Hold on Tight to Your Dreams) and where I returned the compliment, singing I Love You Because (Jim Reeves) How Can I Keep From Singing (Enya) and River of Dreams (Hayley Westenra) with such intense feeling that it felt like we were in whispering distance of each other.

    Ancient hymns and modern worship songs are not the only way we can sing to God, or hear Him singing to us. I wonder how many angry young men sang along with Bob Dylan before they became fathers and grandfathers whose angry young sons and grandsons sang along with Marilyn Manson or Eminem?
    Music in all its diversity can be a channel through which God can reach us and teach us.

    And didn’t someone once pen the words ‘If music be the food of Love, play on’ ……?


  2. ‘Holiness Journal’ has an article by Tom Osborne
    ‘Pretty Amazing Grace: using contemporary popular music in Church worship’ which is on the Holiness website and was published in the Methodist Recorder last October.


  3. Ian’s contribution illustrates how unhelpful it can be listening to social psychologists. At the last symphony concert I attended I didn’t think the audience was all that ugly, and it seems rather a slight on those who enjoy rap.
    It was good to be reminded of the need for music to fit the words and the words to express sound doctrine. Methodism’s StF – its latest effort in that regard illustrates how easy it is to get it wrong.


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