Why is music so intricately bound up with worship? What is it about music that affects us, and how should we make use of it as part of our own devotions?
Music is perhaps the most widely practised of all the Arts and the one most easily participated in by all, without training or equipment. While any art requires instruction and dedicated practice to bring a talent to its full potential, you don’t have to be very “musical” to make a nice sound, and the Church has harnessed this since the beginning.
The Psalmist exhorts us to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord”, with all manner of instruments and with our voices. It might have been a trumpet that brought down the walls of Jericho, and another that will announce the end of days, but this merely reinforces the power music has both to carry out the will of God and to amplify our own experience of it.
For most of us, music is a devotional tool, whether done in public or privately. Recent COVID restrictions on singing highlighted how important communal music is to us. A hymn is, literally, a song of praise: for Thomas Aquinas, the “exultation of the mind dwelling on eternal things, bursting forth in the voice”. We use music to concentrate the mind for meditation and prayer but also, often, for joyous abandon. A rock concert, a symphony orchestra or simply a solo folk singer serve equally to heighten our feelings, our mood and, really, our experience of life. That is the essentially spiritual role that music can play: comforting us when sad, consoling us when bereaved, encouraging us when afraid, relaxing us when stressed and invigorating us when happy.
Music has a power to transport us, to connect us to the generations that have gone before; it has a transcendent power to take us to a heightened plane of experience and needs no external “medium” through which to speak to us (as painting, writing or filmmaking do). One person alone can be the creator, the vessel and the receptor: all three in one body. If there is an audience, even a fellow congregant, they may witness our music making and participate in its effects. Yet, unfortunately, these are ephemeral and transient, a one-time experience only. The next time we sing or play, God may speak to us in a different way, or we may hear a different message, just as we may realise a different point on re-reading a book or interpret a painting differently when it is seen in a new light.
Music’s ability to connect directly with the soul, to take us on a journey, is frequently remarked upon. In the fourth century, St Augustine wrote of his own baptism that: “The music surged in my ears, truth seeped into my heart, and my feelings of devotion overflowed”. His description is not about the words that were sung, but about the way the music affected him and the understanding that came, unbidden, to him through it.
But was Augustine merely seduced by the beauty of the music? Perhaps, but he also heard its message. We, too, can allow ourselves to enjoy and admire Art as long we also listen to what is being “said” to us through it. Just how music does this is one of the great mysteries. In that sense, music—whether we are listening or doing—is a deeply spiritual practice, one that we must nurture and cultivate. Those with God-given talent are called to express it for the benefit of all. When we make a joyful noise we sing praise to the Lord. We also bring joy and understanding to others, as well as to ourselves.
Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts. (Psalm 33:3)
This meditation first appeared in the Diocese of Perth’s Anglican Messenger, June 2021.