What Is the Relationship Between Music and Religion?

Trauma, Transformation and Punk Rock (Part VIII)

Originally published in Mental Contagion

Have you ever wondered about the origin of music? What chance event led  some hominid to imitate nature (the sound of wind across a broken reed) or to supplement nature (the sound of bone striking a hollow skull...one can imagine a scene such as the opening to 2001: A Space Odyssey)? What did these original behaviors and sounds express? Was it an overflowing of life energy, a surplus of vitality? Could it have been an air of sobriety and mystery at an archaic funeral when vocal howling gave way to frantic pounding on the hollow and resonant corpse with skin drawn tight like a drum? Or, perhaps, could it have been an attempt to mimic nature in a form of imitation magic - the sound of thundering drums to bring rain, the whistle of bird to attract prey? Did music develop before the concept of gods and goddesses who manifest themselves in natural processes? Did certain sounds or whistles invoke specific gods or goddesses, or was sound thought to be a manifestation of the supernatural? Were early shaman’s repetitive sounds ways to travel on spiritual quests, or did they simply activate the neurons in the brain responsible for “spiritual experience?” It is all a matter of speculation, but we can be certain that music in the current form of the music industry and the cd recording is not representative of the form music has taken throughout the ages.

From a strictly materialist perspective, music is superfluous. It does not seem to confer an evolutionary adaptation (unless it is analogous to the attraction of potential mates, as with birds), yet it is ubiquitous throughout historical and contemporary societies. Music tends to invoke a state in the listener - that seems to be a truth. Music is a tool or technique for invoking (in the listener) or expressing (in the performer) particular moods or emotional states. In this sense, music can be considered a technology whose purpose is an evocation/alteration of the emotional states of performers and listeners. Music is a technology of emotional transformation.

It may be somewhat difficult for us to extract ourselves from our current society and to imagine what music was like and why it was performed in various societies throughout the ages. We can imagine martial, folk, and religious applications of music as three primary categories in which the technology of emotional transformation might be useful. I think a fair argument can be made that music was first, or primarily, used in a shamanistic or spiritual context to express and transform emotional energies and experiences.

There is evidence of the development of musical systems in the context of spiritual/religious systems. For instance, in the Indian Yogic tradition, each chakra (energy centers in different parts of the body) is associated with different tones and letters: The various tones are thought to stimulate or “open” the various chakras which can lead to both healing and spiritual growth. In addition to the different frequencies of sound energy mapping onto the chakras, visual energy, in the form of various colors map onto the physical/spiritual chakra system (from 1-7 respectively, also note the correspondence with the color spectrum of the rainbow).

1st chakra (root/perineum) - LA - red

2nd (genital) - BA - orange

3rd (hara/abdomen) - YM - yellow

4th (heart) - HA - green

5th (throat) - RE - blue

6th (brow/3rd eye) - AH - indigo

7th (crown) - OM - violet

Another system of sound and spirituality is described by Native American, Joseph Rael. He states that since, “people are made of sound, listening is important. It is through listening that you become a true human, and a true human is a listener who is constantly attuned by working with everything that is happening,” (Rael and Marlow, Being and Vibration, 1993, p. 34). He further states that, “[e]verything is made up of principal ideas, and for each idea there is also a sound,” (49). Similar to the Indian Yogic tradition, Rael also describes the association of various colors to sounds and cardinal directions, although instead of relating to the chakra system on the body, the Native American tradition refers to the 4 cardinal directions and the 5th point of the center. In a saying that could equally apply to the vibration of sound, he writes that, “the color is directly connected to a particular vibration that, when used properly, will connect the brain almost instantly to that which it seeks to know,” (113). Rael describes the following associations:

East:               Aah (Yellow)

South:            Eh (White)

West:             Eee (Black)

North:             Oh (Red)

Center:          Uu

Robert Gass reports a number of relations between sound and spirituality. For instance in Christianity, he quotes the well-known Biblical passage, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” but he goes on to state that since, “the original Greek word logos (here translated as “word”) also means “sound,” it would be also accurate for this famous passage to read: ‘In the beginning was the Sound, and the Sound was with God, and the Sound was God...’“ (Chanting: Discovering Spirit in Sound, 1999, p. 36). Likewise, looking at root words for spirit, there is often overlap with breath or sound. “The Greek word psyche (meaning “soul”) comes from the same root as psychein, which means “to breathe.” In Hebrew, the word for breath, ruach, means “Spirit,” while in Latin, the words for “soul” (anima) and “Spirit” (animus) both derive from the word for “wind” (anemos), (p. 53).

Gass states that our, “bodies and energy start to beat with the rhythm of the chant, the repeating pulses start to shift our sense of being into a more aligned, more harmonic state,” (16). He further quotes a prominent, contemporary physicist on the question of what are all things made of, what is matter: “matter consists of particles that are different modes of vibration of the string, such as the note G or F. The ‘music’ created by the string is matter itself,” (Michio Kaku, cited on p. 37). Gass cites numerous examples of sound as a medium which transfers energy from one body to another and how physical rhythms can “entrain” to sound. And, he supports the thesis of this paper with the statement that, “throughout history there has been an intimate relationship between music, health, and healing,” as well as the relationship with spirituality, (43).

Another review of philosophical/spiritual traditions relation to sound can be found in Helmholtz’ discussion of Pythagoras. He cites the Pythagorean doctrine that, “Everything is Number and Harmony,” and also that the term “The Harmony of the Spheres” referred to the belief that the same numerical ratios found in the notes of the musical scale were found in the distances of planets from the sun. Supposedly, Pythagoras could actually hear or sense, this harmony which the planets emanated. Helmholtz further writes that “the five tones of the old Chinese scale were compared with the five elements of their natural philosophy - water, fire, wood, metal, and earth...At a later time the 12 Semitones of the Octave were connected with the 12 months of the year...[s]imilar references of musical tones to the elements, the temperaments, and the constellations are found abundantly scattered among the musical writings of the Arabs,” (Hermann Helmholtz, On the Sensations of Tone, translation of the 1885 edition, original edition, 1862, p. 229).

The concept of the harmony of the spheres calls to mind the alchemical dictum, “as above, so below.” This can be dismissed as superstition, or what James Frazer refers to as “Sympathetic Magic,” which breaks down into two different principles: Homeopathic or Imitative Magic (Law of Similarity) that “like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause,” and Contagious Magic (Law of Contagion) “that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed,” (The Golden Bough, abridged edition, 1922). These concepts are often dismissed as primitive, childish, or superstitious, however they inform shamanism and mythology throughout time and history, also, these principles seem to apply in the growing field of Energy Medicine, as well as in Gass’ discussion of the studies on the effects of music on the body, and even in some principles of quantum, and even classical physics. For instance, Gass cites the Dutch Scientist, Christian Huygens’ observation that if you place a number of pendulum clocks on a wall, their rhythms will eventually entrain so that they are all moving in phase, (Gass, p. 35). Also, Helmholtz describes that musicians “are well acquainted with sympathetic resonance. When, for example, the strings of two violins are [tuned] in exact unison, and one string is bowed, the other will begin to vibrate,” (Helmholtz, 36). Thus, we have an instance in which sound acts as an energy transfer from a body in motion to a body at rest, inducing motion in that body which is resonant with the first, or in other words, like causing like. While this classical physics principle is somewhat challenging to the materialist world view of isolated, objective elements, it is somewhat intuitive and can be found in common language, that we “click” with someone, or we “connect,” or are on the “same wave length.”

Helmholtz also cites Euler reasoning about music, in which he concludes that “order pleases us more than disorder,” (230). This can be seen as congruent with the above discussion of sympathetic resonance, that a stimulus of order from the outside can lead to a feeling of order inside, again, the idea that music soothes the savage beast. However, we now confront the dilemma of why would some people prefer disordered, discordant music (punk, industrial, experimental, certain jazz traditions) to ordered, harmonic music (the majority of music, from classical, to pop, to primitive polyrhythm)? This is the question I keep returning to and cannot satisfactorily answer.

Yes, this is the question I keep returning to and cannot satisfactorily answer. From the principles of Sympathetic Magic, to the concerns of Tipper Gore over rock lyrics, to scientific studies on the effects of video violence on children, to the concerns of suburban parents about the trench-coat mafia and their music, to Martha Bayles who warns of “the loss of beauty and meaning in American popular music,” well-meaning citizens everywhere say that we should avoid the angry, the depressing, the dark, the bleak, the “bad,” the “negative,” and embrace the “happy-go-lucky glee club of old.” But what about the others, those that for whatever reason, are drawn to discord, to the dark, the violent, to the bad/negative/ugly music? How can Bayles say that “the anarchistic, nihilistic impulses of perverse modernism have been grafted onto popular music, where they have not only undermined the Afro-American tradition, but also encouraged today’s cult of obscenity, brutality, and sonic abuse,” (Hole in Our Soul, 1994, p. 12), while Mikal Gilmore describes the same popular music as it “articulated my losses, angers, and horrible (as in unattainable) hopes, and it emboldened me in many, many dark hours. It also...defined my convictions and my experience of what it meant...to be an American, and it gave me moral (and of course immoral) guidance that nothing else in my life has ever matched,” (Night Beat: A shadow history of rock and roll, 1998, p. 1). And Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground sang, “You know her life was saved by rock and roll,” (“Rock and Roll,” from Loaded, 1970). And Robert Pollard, from Guided By Voices, said, “I made rock my religion; that was my church,” (“Chasing Pollard Crazy,” in The Big Takeover, Issue 48, 2001, p. 55). And Marilyn Manson describes going to charismatic, Christian, faith-healing services as a teenager: “It was terrifying, like a horror show...people were speaking in tongues...I may have been what inspired me to become a rock musician,” (Interview with Marilyn Manson, at beliefnet.com, July, 2001). This starts to echo a religious debate, in which one religion thinks it is right and the other is wrong. We have numerous references to “bad” rock music playing a subjectively positive role in some people’s lives, while others decry it as bad, unhealthy, or even evil.

We return to this unanswered question. Here is a possible answer, perhaps if the individual is, or feels, disordered inside (or views the world as disordered), the application of an ordered, harmonic music will “strike a false chord” in that individual. It is out of resonance with the individuals own vibration and their view of the social realities vibration. Yet, the application of a discordant music will resonate with the way the individual feels inside and with their view of society. Now, the transformation: the hypothesis is that if a resonance is established between the individual and the music, this can amplify the amplitude of the wave and can cause a personal and social transformation through the creation of harmony within disorder. (As always, I again do not mean to imply that this will always happen or will always be a pretty sight, a “harmony” of negative attitudes could also lead to an outbreak of violence, transformation is never certain and this truly is playing with fire). This principle is in contradiction to the above Indian and Native American musical systems of transformation, in that they use the application of the ordered sound to a disordered system, and in the current discussion we are applying a disordered stimulus to a disordered system and creating a degree of order within the disorder. This is similar to Stanislav Grof’s musical/breathing system of Holotropic Breathwork, in which music, “helps to mobilize old emotions and make them available for expression, intensifies and deepens the process, and provides a meaningful context for the experience. The continuous flow of music creates a carrying wave that helps the subject move through the difficult experiences and impasses, overcome psychological defenses, surrender and let go,” (The Adventure of Self-Discovery, 1988, p. 185). This is somewhat reminiscent of the Freudian analytic argument that the discharge of drive energies is necessary (albeit, often in sublimated, or diverted ways), rather than trying to repress them. However, Grof’s system does not hypothesize an unending source of antisocial drives like the id, but rather views the situation more from a system like the chakra system in which there can be imbalances or blockages in the flow of energy. Thus, it is possible that the state of disorder/imbalance/blockage/dissatisfaction/nihilism can be transformed, either by the Law of Similarity through the application of the ordering, harmonic stimulus, or by the intensification of this state through the application of a disordering stimulus which pushes to a natural resolution. A fundamental principle of this latter possibility is that “opposite” states are connected (as Bataille has argued through an “invisible” connection) and the intensification of one state loops back into the other state. 

ConiunctionisDavid Kopacz