Some reminders before we dive in: There are three different kinds of comments you need to make in these online discussions in order to earn full credit. Refer to the assignment description you received in class (also available here). The most effective comments in this kind of forum are concise, clear, and supported. Instead of responding to every conversation question in one comment, try to make shorter, separate comments that allow other people to digest and respond to your ideas.
Online discussion #3 is open for comments February 12-18.
In many cultures around the world, music is used in religious settings and rituals. Think about all the reasons you listed that you listen to music the first day of class: to escape, to distract yourself, to hang out with friends, to be entertained, to change your mood—all of these are reasons why people use music to enhance their religious rituals and prayers, too. We’ll look at a few examples of religious music from Western music history (Gregorian chant, organum, and the Reformation and Counter-Reformation)—adding more details to our historical road map from Online discussion #2—plus one example from non-Western music. In each case, music helps make religious events more magnificent or impressive, more powerful or moving, or more communal.
As you’re thinking about these examples of religious music, keep in mind the four big ways that music enhances religious experiences:
- Practitioners’ faith. Just as we discussed in class the first day, the listener’s mindset is part of what makes a musical experience meaningful, so if a listener goes into the experience with the expectation that they’ll feel more in touch with a higher spiritual power that they believe in fully, that will shape their musical experience.
- A sense of community. Music brings people together, especially when they’re making music together. Making music with other people is quite an intimate act: you breathe together, focus on the unique sound of another person’s voice or instrument, match your voice to theirs, and feel the vibrations of the sounds you make together in your chest. Music can express a sense of togetherness, make congregants feel powerful and unified, conveys joy about their faith, or show outsiders why their faith is good.
- The sound of the music. In class last week, we talked about how changes in texture, dynamics, and melodic contour can convey all kinds of ideas, including an attitude of faith, but also joy, power, and excitement. These are all feelings that can enhance a religious experience, as can any other mood that music can convey: fear, darkness, awe, solitude, togetherness… Religious music might also exhibit qualities that allow listeners and music makers to feel connection with a higher power, special knowledge, and a part of themselves that’s otherwise inaccessible via repetitious, hypnotic, or meditative sounds.
- Flow. What’s that? Keep reading.
Let’s start by defining what religious experiences can feel like.
Think about a time when you were doing something—anything—and you looked at your clock/watch/phone and realized several hours had passed in what felt like the blink of an eye. Likely whatever you were doing was something that was mentally engrossing, it held your attention, it was enjoyable, it wasn’t so easy that you became bored (and at the same time it was challenging but not frustrating), and it was rewarding in and of itself rather than something you do to make someone else happy (the word for this kind of intrinsically rewarding experience is autotelic).
Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi is a psychologist who has studied the ways in which people experience what he calls “flow” while doing activities that meet these criteria: talking to an interesting conversation partner, reading a book, looking at art, playing chess, athletic competition, or immersion in religious rituals. Even though these are wildly different activities, they all produce flow, a unique kind of positive sensation for the person engaged in them: they stop thinking about themselves in a self-conscious way and no longer have a running inner monologue, they focus on the activity at hand and ignore other distractions, they lose track of time, they feel as if their decisions or actions are inspired or guided rather than having to directly make them happen (like they’re at one with what they’re doing), they’re often aware that their brain feels different while they’re doing this activity (that the feeling the activity produces is special), and overall they feel really, really good because of the activity. Flow is a heightened state of consciousness (meaning it’s not a mental state that you feel at most points in the day and you have to do something to gain access to it). (Csikszentmihalyi has also done an interesting TEDtalk about how you can use the concept of flow to lead a happier life).
Side note: “Heightened state of consciousness” is not the same as “mood” or “emotion.” Cognitively speaking, “normal” mental states consist of our brain functions throughout the day: having a perception, experiencing a sensation, having a recollection, or thinking about something. There are also mental states in which people are not wholly conscious and experience no emotions, such as pathological states like mania, panic attacks, anxiety attacks, and catatonia; and emotion-less dissociative states like daydreaming, hypnotic trance, and deep meditation. A heightened mental state is a more intense version of a “normal” mental state in which sensations and perceptions are experienced more intensely and vividly.
Flow isn’t an idea that Csikszentmihalyi invented, and he’s not the only one who’s studied it. Frank Putnam and Karen Nesbitt Shanor (1999) call it a “peak experience” or “Nirvana,” and when they define it the emphasize the peaceful, euphoric feeling that people describe.
“Peak experience states are rewarding because they enable us to just be. It is not as if they are a means to another end. They are the end. The individual does not feel the need to seek something beyond the experience. There is only the wish to be able to re-experience such a state when it has faded.”
—Frank Putnam and Karen Nesbitt Shanor, “States of Consciousness from Infancy to Nirvana,” in The Emerging Mind, ed. Shanor (Los Angeles: Renaissance Books, 1999), p. 71
Flow is an enticing feeling, and it can happen outside of religious contexts. It’s something that I experience on stage performing, at home practicing, while writing, while in front of you guys in the classroom (sometimes!), while cooking, and while having a stimulating discussion with someone whom I find interesting. As a result, these are some of my favorite things to do—they’re enjoyable while they’re happening, they leave me feeling great, and they’re more vivid and inspiring than other things I have to do in my day-to-day life. In turn, I try to do these things as much as possible, since I know that they can put me in a mental state that other activities can’t.
In terms of religion, music is an important part of how people get in touch with special mental states and create a flow experience—it’s one component that contributes to how religion can be a positive experience that gives their life meaning.
Western music history, part 1: Gregorian chant
In Online discussion #2, we read about how many ideas that shape European culture come from Ancient Greece. Another big source for European culture and habits is the Bible, the religious text of Christian faiths. It contains several passages that describe why people of this faith should make music when they praise God:
Praise ye the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary: praise him in the firmament of his power. Praise him for his mighty acts: praise him according to his excellent greatness. Praise him with the sound of the trumpet: praise him with the psaltery and harp. Praise him with the timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and organs. Praise him upon the loud cymbals: praise him upon the high sounding cymbals. Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord. Praise ye the Lord.
King James Bible, Psalm 150:1-6
We’ve already heard some of the earliest music of the Catholic Church, a genre of music called “Gregorian chant.” Recall in Online discussion #2 that monks and nuns spent their days copying manuscripts, completing chores, and praying. Their prayers were sung—not as a performance for an audience, but as a way to unite with each other. Here’s an example:
The text of this chant, Hodie Christus natus est (Today Christ is born), is available here.
We already possess the vocabulary to describe some of Gregorian chant’s characteristic features: monophonic texture, non-metrical rhythms, and cadences at the end of every phrase.
Monks and nuns sang in this style for a few reasons: (1) it’s relatively simple, so even someone who’s not a confident singer can produce these sounds reasonably well; (2) the melodies and texture are simple, so the people singing can focus on what the words mean; and (3) God said to do it this way.
That last reason is perhaps a little flippant—but that’s the origin story for this kind of music. Gregorian chant is named for Pope Gregory I (c.540-604), who according to the story was visited by the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. This dove sang all the chant melodies to him, and Pope Gregory wrote them down so Christians could sing them. Although this isn’t actually how these melodies came into being, the story lends a sense of power, awe, and magic to the act of singing them—in other words, the weight of faith.
(Gregorian chant actually derives from the Jewish tradition of communal prayers in synagogues, and it ended up spreading across Europe as part of a political effort by Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne (742-814), but those are stories for another day.)
Monks and nuns used Gregorian chant as a way to remember all the prayers they sang at various points throughout the day and the year—music served as a mnemonic device. Depending on the liturgical calendar (meaning the time of the lunar year, which includes different seasons like Christmas, Advent, Lent, Ascension, etc.), different prayers should be recited. On top of that, different prayers should be recited at different times of the day—these are called canonical hours. A little math tells us that any one monk would need to remember several hundred prayers, and music helped make that memorization process easier.
Western music history, part 2: Organum
Musical styles change over time, and Gregorian chant gave way to other, more complex styles of religious music. One of these is called organum, and the differences in musical style are an indication of changes in how music was made in the 12th century.
Here is an example of organum by Pérotin (c.1160-1230), a work called Viderunt omnes (All the ends of the earth have seen):
In comparison with Gregorian chant, this music obscures the words that are being sung—this tells us that something else is more important for people who created this music than just the words. (Side question: How do you think the sound of this piece does bring out or enhance some aspect of the text?)
The differences of style between Gregorian chant and organum also indicate some important changes that affected how music was made: (1) the music is more complicated and more difficult to sing, and therefore it required professional musicians (not just nuns or monks singing for themselves) who were paid to rehearse and sing on behalf of the congregation; and (2) this specific kind of music was sung in a particular building: a large, high-ceilinged, reverberant Gothic stone cathedral, and the sound of the voices was designed to fill that space.
Pérotin composed music for Notre Dame, a cathedral in Paris built 1163-1365:
Western music history, part 3: The Reformation and the Counter-Reformation
Music is culture, and the way it’s made reflects what people value or care about. This includes people’s disagreements or arguments.
When Protestants broke away from the Catholic Church in the 16th century to form their own denomination, one of the first things they did was create a new style of music for their church services (it also helped that their leader, Martin Luther, was an avid amateur musician himself: it’s something that mattered to him, so he made sure it was a part of the worship services he helped design). In Lutheran churches (and other Protestant denominations that emerged later), members of the congregation do the singing themselves—it doesn’t matter if the music sounds good or polished because it feels good to sing as part of a community.
Here is a hymn by Martin Luther, Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott (A Mighty Fortress is Our God), (1528):
This music is not very hard to sing, which makes sense since all the citizens of a town, regardless of how musical they were, would be singing. The melodies are repetitious, and the congregation is unified by a homorhythmic texture. Also notice that the Protestant church had no problem with instruments, but the Catholic Church didn’t allow them.
Music is “the excellent gift of God.”
The Catholic Church’s response was to (1) excommunicate Martin Luther (meaning his soul could never enter Heaven for all of eternity), and (2) revamp their own music making away from organum and more towards a kind of polyphony we’ve listened to in class already. At the Council of Trent, a summit of leaders convened to fix the Catholic Church, the Church created a set of rules its composers (who were its employees) were required to follow when composing music. Here’s an example from Giovanni Maria da Palestrina, and all Counter-Reformation Catholic music is similar: polyphonic, no surprises in melodic contour, a reverent and holy mood, and the words are clearly heard.
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c.1524-95), Pope Marcellus Mass, Kyrie (1567):
“[My goal is] to compose … Masses… [so] that the powerful and sweet sound of the voices should soothe and caress the ears of the listeners in a pious, religious, and holy way.”
—Vincenzo Ruffo (1508-87), Catholic Church composer
“I… have considered it my task… to bend all my knowledge, effort, and industry towards that which is the holiest and most divine things in the Christian religion—that is, to adorn the holy sacrifice of the Mass in a new manner.”
—Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c.1524-95)
Western music history, part 4: After the Counter-Reformation
We’re going to leave Western religious music here in the 16th century—after this point, secular music keeps changing with the times, but religious music isn’t terribly innovative or trend-setting. There are some beautiful pieces of religious or quasi-religious music composed in later centuries, but they’re just following trends set in other genres rather than leading the way. Much religious-inspired music from later periods in Europe captures the awe, power, and magnificence of God rather than a purely meditative, communal, or private experience.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91), Requiem, Dies Irae, K.626 (1791)
Johannes Brahms (1833-97), Ein Deutsches Requiem (1868)
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), Messa da Requiem, Dies Irae (1874)
Composers continue to make religious classical music in the 20th and 21st centuries, too, adopting the various musical trends that shape their modern world.
Arvo Pärt (b. 1935), Cantate Domino canticum novum (1977):
Beyond Western music history: Shakuhachi
Much religious music doesn’t require an audience; it’s not music that’s performed, just music that’s made. This means that the only person who needs to hear it is the person making it (and, of course, whatever higher power that person believes in). One such example is the shakuhachi.
The shakuhachi is a Japanese flute made out of bamboo. One of the traditional uses of this instrument was by monks in the Fuke-shū sect of Zen Buddhism. They don’t describe what they do as music at all. They refer to the shakuhachi not as an instrument at all but rather as a hōki (a religious tool)—it is a means to an end.
Practitioners of this faith work to achieve an ideal mental state they refer to as Zen, which they describe as a physical transformation or sensation similar to the idea of flow that Csikszenmihalyi (see above) has studied in musicians of other traditions and non-musicians alike: loss of ego, transcendence of individuality, weightlessness, time dilation, attentional focus, mental clarity, intense pleasure, and a transformed sense of self. The experience is not necessarily a religious one, but most practitioners do describe a sense of communing with or coming into contact with timeless, universal knowledge (through the ironically impermanent medium of sound) and emerging transformed for the better.
People who play the shakuhachi use the instrument as a means to achieve Zen (players call it suizen, or “Zen that comes from blowing”). Making a sound on a shakuhachi at all is a difficult task (required intense concentration, one of Csikszentmihalyi’s criteria for flow), and players focus on controlling gradual, subtle changes in the quality of sound they make. Through years of study, they become more in tune with their bodies, become more intimately aware of the feeling of air moving through the instrument, and become more sensitive listeners—the control and awareness they develop are all ways to get closer to a Zen state of mind. Shakuhachi players regard suizen not as a momentary occurrence, instantaneous revelation, or passing goal, but rather as an ongoing process or lifestyle because it causes a permanent transformation of the self.
“The biggest joy of all to be found in the shakuhachi, however, is in the actual playing. To describe it to someone who doesn’t play the shakuhachi is almost impossible, even more so when he plays no musical instrument at all. For example, how would a bird explain to a human how it feels to fly? With that in mind, I shall try to describe my feelings while playing any musical instrument. There are times, rare indeed, when I’m playing along, and suddenly it seems that I’m not playing at all. That is, everything seems to go on automatic. My fingers continue to move, my lips adjust themselves properly, but my conscious self seems to be sitting to the side watching it happen, listening to the music with extreme pleasure. And maybe once or twice during the five years I have played the shakuhachi, even the consciousness of the listener seemed to disappear. Everything disappeared. All that remained was the music of the shakuhachi. Pure, timeless and eternal. How does it feel to fly?”
—Riley Lee, “An American looks at the shakuhachi of Japan: 1 April 1986,” in The Annals of The International Shakuhachi Society, Vol. 1, ed. Dan Mayers, p. 114
This is a kind of music that isn’t intended for any audience—it doesn’t matter if anyone else is around to hear the sounds of the instrument (or even if the sounds are any good!). The purpose of playing is for the shakuhachi player himself (women didn’t traditionally play this instrument) to enter into a heightened mental state and return to the real world a better, more enlightened person. As an added bonus, for those who happen to be listening, the sounds are beautiful, as well!
The idea of music having the ability to create transcendent experiences—something beyond the typical human experience, that lifts you out of the physical world, and in which you feel a connection with God, the universe, or something equally cosmic—is something that’s found in many different musical styles around the world. The fact that many different human experiences in different times and different places share the same sensation is part of why I enjoy studying music: it underscores our humanity despite our differences. We can feel a sense of kinship or connection to people whose lives are quite different from our own because we understand how music makes someone feel.
Some questions to get the conversation started
Don’t feel like you have to answer all or any of these, they’re just here to, well, get the conversation started!
- Describe a time that you had a flow experience: what were you doing that triggered it, and how did it feel?
- Which would be the most important thing to you for a meaningful religious experience: your faith, a sense of community, sound of the music, or having a flow experience?
- How have you seen or experienced music in the context of another religious faith (i.e., not Christianity or Zen Buddhism)?