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Is Music Sacred?

Is music “sacred”?

Though I’ve teetered between agnosticism and atheism for the last 8 years or so, there is at least one thing for which I do have significant reverence. As you would probably guess from the title of this piece, it’s music.

Why? Because of the lifelong accumulation of experiences that suggest it much more than just “auditory cheesecake”.

The word “sacred” seems to refer to something spiritual, and importantly, some of the most impressive evidence, for me at least, comes from witnessing departures from this life into (possibly) the next.

This could get a bit uncomfortable, because I’m going to talk about death for a minute.

Perhaps the most moving of these experiences have come at time of death. I recognize that this particular scenario has not been experienced by many of us. But because of my work as a music therapist, I’ve provided music in this very situation many, many times. I’ll talk about that experience more in my next paragraphs, and then I’ll talk about other ways music affects us in a seemingly sacred way.

At the time of death, one of the most profound functions of music is to bring some sort of order to an environment that is sonically chaotic. In a situation where dying is imminent, there is a variety of random, scary, and/or obnoxious sounds that are likely to fill the air. If in a hospital, you will hear alarms, beeps, and other mechanical noises. You will also hear the sounds of the dying (troubled breathing, sometimes crying and moaning), and the heart-wrenching sounds of grief. Hospice has introduced the possibility of something called “a beautiful death”, but these sounds hardly contribute. And we know we are viscerally and emotionally affected by sounds. That’s why movie studios spend stacks of money enhancing both the musical and non-musical sound elements of a film and it dramatically impacts our perceptions and responses.

And perhaps as uncomfortable as these auditory intrusions is the dense heaviness of silence.

So what does music change?

For one, it gives our ears the order that they crave. Music makes sense to us, so we are able to focus on that. The unpredictability and foreignness of the other sounds is antagonistic to any feelings of peace or comfort. The introduction of melody and harmony can mask or even incorporate these sounds. Just giving structure to an otherwise chaotic environment can significantly change the experience.

After the environment is under control, you can consider everything else the music might do in that situation. Song choice can affirm the identity of the person who is passing (true story: I once played “There’s a Tear in my Beer” while a patient of mine was on her death bed and it was comforting for both her and her family). The rhythm of music also helps those present to get control of their breathing, either by singing along or entraining to the tempo. A specific song or message might also give permission and/or strength do the dying, allowing them to let go of life.

Music can also bring a family together. Often when no one knows what to say, nothing is said. There is isolation. But I can’t even recall how many times a song has brought a family together, either in singing or in reminiscence and story-telling.

But the sacredness of music isn’t just felt at the end of life. It’s just that those moments provided the most salient evidence to me.

My guess is that almost all of us have experienced inexplicable euphoria, perhaps even some sort of transcendence, thanks to specific songs or musical moments. They send shivers down our spines. We feel especially connected to another person, an entire group of people, or to ourselves. And I would argue that more people pursue this type of transcendence than any other. It’s why there are so many bands, so many music festivals, and so many people bobbing their ear-budded heads on the subway. Music is a whole-body, whole-brain experience, and you don’t have to make music yourself to “get it”.

Does this make music sacred?

I started this essay with that question, and I’m not convinced yet that it’s an important one. Or that it can be or should be answered with any amount of certainty. And even though I’ve been involved in so many memorable moments, I’ve also heard my fair share of garbage music. I think the question stems from my personal need of a word that is bigger and better than potential substitutes, like “powerful”,  “mighty”, or “potent”. Perhaps the word “sacred” seems apt because it implies that it’s worthy of reverence and does in fact have some mystical qualities.

If we stay the course and attempt to answer it, I suppose we need to turn to our friends at Merriam-Webster. Their simple definition is:

1. worthy of religious worship : very holy

2. relating to religion

3. highly valued and important : deserving great respect

The strongest argument can probably be made for the third definition: highly valued and deserving great respect.

It’s clear that it’s highly valued in both our everyday lives and in extenuating circumstances, such as the approach of death.

We know it’s highly valued given the resources devoted to it and the lengths to which people will go to experience it or even master it as an art form.

The first definition, worthy of religious worship, is also close, but doesn’t quite capture it. There is something mysterious about the ways music moves us, which is probably why it has been involved with religion for so long.

But it’s clear that secular music can have the same mysterious and mystical effects. Does this make it worthy of worship? Maybe. We certainly have examples of the creators of music being exalted as superhuman. For example, the word “diva” is actually an Italian word for a female deity. Similarly, we often refer to the most successful artists in a given genre as “gods” or “goddesses”. I believe that we acknowledge the sacredness of music itself through the colloquial deification of it’s top trendsetters and performers.

Music provides nourishment in so many ways, from facilitating shared social experiences to sparking intellectual and creative growth. It gives comfort, stimulates movement, builds communities, evokes the imagination, and engages the spirit.

So – is music sacred?

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