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  • Writer's pictureLife Coach Bindiya Murgai

There's only one shortcut to God. It's through music!

Updated: Sep 26, 2019

Ever since the beginning of time, people from all corners of the earth have prayed, , had their own unique sacred symbols, rituals and beliefs. Slowly, many of these beliefs developed into organised religion, with their own Gods and Goddesses, holy books, guardians, propagators, places of worship, festivals and sacred paraphernalia. Each took its own path, but one element remained common to every single faith that developed across the world -- it's how they used sound and music to invoke the Gods, acquire spiritual insight, and deepen their connection with Divinity. But what is it about sound alone, that qualifies it to cut through geographies, cultures and faiths?

Antonio Damasio, a well known neuro biologist says that the auditory system is physically much closer inside the brain to the parts that regulate life, which means that they are the basis for the sense of pain, pleasure, motivation - in other words, basic emotions. And since religion is a lot about appealing to ones basic emotions (such as fear, love, happiness, hope, and pain), what better way to touch those chords, other than through sound?

According to Damasio, the physical vibrations which result in sound sensations are a variation on touching, they change our own bodies directly and deeply, much more than the patterns of light that lead to vision. Sound penetrates our body. There is no physical penetration with the eye, but there is with the ear. So the impact is way more direct, profound, universal and tangible. And so begins the story of sound...

For centuries, priests, monks, and other conductors of religious ceremonies either sung or narrated prayer services. Ancient Hindu spiritual traditions that were mostly oral, and these were passed down the generations. They ensured that the sanctity of the hymns, shlokas (verses) and chants did not get diluted by devising a complex structure of sound, where if a student got even a word wrong, it would break the rhythm and the recitation would immediately sound wrong. In fact, prior to the Western Renaissance, religious texts in various traditions of the world were sung or recited orally.

Most religions throughout history, had heir myths and mythology depicted through musical performance, rather than the written word. This ensured their reach encompassed the illiterate and kept people engaged and entertained. Instrumental music was combined with vocals, and often dance. It became a bridge between myth and ritual, and became synonymous to a deeper connect with the Divine – one that’s beyond words, or language.

Some religious traditions place a higher value on vocals as they stem directly from the human body, which is considered part of the divine creation. Vocals are also considered a direct gateway to the Divine. The human voice, through words, also has the innate capacity to communicate thoughts, meanings, and messages. Musical instruments, though very powerful vibrationally, don’t seem to enjoy the same clout. Being manmade, they are not considered as powerful in connecting with the Divine. And their solo magic does not seem to have the same impact on audiences, as voice and words do. Think Buddhist chants, Bhajans, Sufi, Shabad Kirtan, Gospel, or Liturgical music!

Spiritual music (both words and instruments together) evokes emotions and invokes divine energies. It also provides a very practical framework that defines sacred time, dramatises text, and assists in religious instruction. But most importantly, when performed in the right manner, it raises the vibrational frequency of all those present, uplifting their spirit, connecting them to their higher consciousness, and providing them a direct connection to the Divine.

Here's a bit of a deeper dive to understand how sound and music work in the context of spirituality and our very being.

1. Emotions

Music has a profound impact on how we feel, our emotions, behaviour, and our consciousness itself. The reason we react differently to different music is because each piece creates different vibrational frequencies. As everything, including our bodies, are made of vibrating particles, we are directly and deeply impacted by sound and musical frequencies. They influence our emotions and mood, which is why different music can make us happy, sad, energised, tense, hyper, or calm.

The reason why music has played an integral role in religious ritual is largely because of the emotional impact it has on the worshiping community. Worshippers intuitively react to sacred music, with reactions ranging from reverence, fear, joy, elation, and peace. Music captures, inspires and recreates feelings connected with certain times, places, and themes. Musical conventions within religious communities across the world, have developed melodies, strains, songs, and themes that inspire collective and personal thoughts and feelings. With repetitive use over centuries these sounds now have very strong emotional associations. For example, in western music, a minor tonality typically implies sadness, while a major tonality is mostly for positive emotions.

Musicologist Hebert Antcliffe said, “Religion without emotion is impossible, and music is the most natural and universal expression of the emotions of joy and sorrow, or faith, love, hope, despair; and of worship. The sense of religion and the sense of music are related in the minds of most people, and religion’s complete expression must, and does always include expression in music.”

2. Dramatisation

Religious music does not exist for the sheer joy of the music itself. It is not music for the sake of music, or the craft of sound. Its main purpose is to propagate and enhance religious text and ritual. Composers work with specific religious themes, subjects and sounds, and the lyrics are extracted from words of prayer. This embeds a clear message in religious music, and minimises the subjectivity that other music enjoys.

So why can’t the words just be spoken instead of sung? It’s simply because for centuries humans have responded better to liturgical text that is set to music. People have made a deeper connect with it as it conveys a greater emotive range and spiritual value, as compared to spoken texts. In fact, even chanting is a form of musical verse or incantation. Plain, spoken words can be devoid of emotion, limited, open to interpretation, convey different meanings, or be too abstract or detailed for immediate understanding. Music cuts through semantics and verbosity, and helps focus on the divinity in and around us. It’s also easier to learn words that have been set to music. Think about it—you may know all the lyrics to your favourite song, but if these were given to you as plain text, they would be much harder to learn. Another important function of music in spiritual texts is its sheer ability to dramatize it. Make it larger than life, or simply have a musical hook to keep people engrossed.

3. Sacred Time

Religious communities all across the world demarcate sacred space by creating their places of worship. Sacred scriptures are handled with reverence, and sacred rituals are set apart from other daily activities. One of the most popular ways to demarcate sacred time is through the use of sounds and music. These mark a clear break from the normal mode of communication.

Many worshippers enter their place of worship with many matters of the world on their mind. Spiritual music, sound, and songs, rise above the hum of everyday speech, and sets time apart from the ordinary. In some religions, such as Hinduism, worshippers ring a bell while entering and exiting a temple, or before starting and ending their prayer at home. Buddhist prayer rituals begin and end with the beating of a gong. These are usually followed with hymns and chants. Even the practice of singing extra-liturgical songs as a prelude to Jewish Sabbath services began for the same reasons. These simple and accessible congregational melodies, mark a sonic division between the “outside world” and the “divine world.”

Historian Mircea Eliade’s said, “Just as a church constitutes a break in plane in the profane space of a modern city, the service celebrated inside marks a break in profane temporal duration.” It is through the use of rituals such as songs, hymns, chants, instruments, movements, and objects, that worshipers enter a defined sacred time.

4. Instruction

Sacred songs rarely have complex compositions and structures. Much like a pop song, or a Paulo Coelho book, they are simple, sticky, and easy for the masses to comprehend. Themes such as praise, worship, commitment, devotion, longing, lament, and forgiveness are regularly woven into spiritual songs across faiths. The aim is to pass on instructions in the simplest possible way, while making it easy to remember. Over the past few decades, people have often taken popular mainstream songs and replaced the lyrics with religious messages -- a new and creative way to allow religious messages to be woven with the times. This practice has become particularly popular in India, where smash hit Bollywood songs often have their saucy lyrics replaced with words of devotional.

5. Divine Contact

Hearing is the purest sense that humans have, in terms of spirituality. This is because sound is non-material, it cannot be seen, touched, or acquired, yet it can permeate every pore of your existence. Its limitlessness goes far beyond the visible or tangible. The impact of sound and music is immediate. It evoking emotional and kinaesthetic responses without any prior mental preparation. Much like a spiritual experience, music is supra-rational in the sense that elements of both can be explained rationally to an extent, but the wholeness and authenticity of the experience remains indescribable in words. Just like a powerful spiritual experience, an extraordinary musical experience can only be felt. Both leave an indelible watermark on the soul. Little wonder then that in both Hinduism and Buddhism, Aum is the sound of creation. In the Bible, God chooses sound, and not sight as the medium of sensory revelation. The infiniteness and omnipresence of sound implies the indestructibility, universality, and mystique of God, and the Universe. Whereas the texts, images and symbols, represent limits, parameters -- a certain finitude.

6. Social

Unlike other sounds, music is a uniquely human phenomenon. It is a combination of patterned and continuous sounds, rhythms, beats and melodies. And its creation and sustenance depends on the combined effort of performers and audiences. Anthropologically, music has always been social in its nature. Much like religion, which has also always been a social phenomenon, based on the experience of shared beliefs and practices. It’s this sense of community or Sangha (as Buddhists call it) that forms the backbone of public congregation and worship, that in almost all faiths includes some form music.

Religious music can be an end to itself, such as during religious musical gatherings like the Hindu satsangs and jagratas. Or it can exist as an accompaniment to other, nonmusical social events, such a weddings, funerals, parades and the likes.

7. Universality

Different people respond differently to varying sounds and music, but certain musical sounds will create universal human responses, at least within a given culture. And it’s almost a certainty that a sad musical piece will not evoke joy for some people, or vice versa. The fact that no culture is without music, that people can clearly identify musical sounds from other sounds, and that people can tell their own ethnic music from that of other cultures, shows the universality of music emanates from shared human responses.

Music, despite the absolute diversity it presents in terms of various cultures, has also hugely helped in creating interfaith and intercultural understanding between distinctly different civilizations and cultures. This is because music is something so pure and universal that it simply cuts through faiths, animosity, doctrines, language, and other boundaries.

The efficacy of sacred music be observed in numerous ways. It marks sacred time, instills religious ideals, inspires emotional movement, enlivens religious texts, creates a sense of community, brings us closer to divinity, and points to the universality of humankind. This is why for centuries, music has retained an intimate role within the gardens of religious ritual. It is, after all, the only shortcut to God, and our higher consciousness.

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