How about Music and spirituality?

I got a question the other day: a reader had been told his taste in music was bad for him spiritually. What did I think? I told him to listen to whatever music he liked.

I do however agree that our taste in music says something about who we are. My taste for classic 80’s hits was obviously born by listening to that kind of music in my teens. My taste for Carnatic music (a style from India) is said to be a sign of spiritual development. Well – so what?

Mostly I think our culture’s obsession with music is a bit weird. I’ve puzzled for some time on what to answer when online social networks ask about my taste in music. Then I found the very spiritually correct answer – I put in ‘silence’. Because really: I hardly listen to music. I never had a Walkman (which were all the craze when I was about 10). I don’t even know the slang word for portable cd-player and I don’t own either an i-pod or mp3 player. I went without speakers on my pc for years – until I caved this summer. [There are too many youtube video’s about spirituality]

The larger issue isn’t whether one’s taste in music is an expression of spiritual development – I think to some extent it probably is. But that doesn’t mean that it can be reversed: just make teenagers listen to Carnatic music and watch how angelic they become…

What’s more – I don’t think our habits can be used to predict our spiritual development. I’ve written about vegetarianism. I’ve written about addiction. These are important issues – but I don’t think they are a measure of spiritual development. I don’t think every drunk is less spiritually advanced than every sober person.

There is a story about some spiritual teacher and his students – let’s say it was Jesus

Jesus and his disciples were walking down the street. One disciple said: we’ve been discussing who amongst us was the most spiritually advanced. We couldn’t decide. Who do you think is the most spiritually advanced? Jesus answered: that person over there – pointing to a drunk lying outside some pub.

Changing our habits, avoiding meat and alcohol and crowds, are like the rod you place next to a sunflower: you put it there hoping it will not fall under it’s own weight. For those of us who are consciously working at our spiritual growth, those things become necessary disciplines.

But ultimately spiritual growth is about what happens in our soul.

When pride gets stuck there – proud of being a vegetarian, proud of not smoking, proud of abstaining from alcohol, proud of listening only to spiritual music – there is something seriously wrong. Spirituality should be about learning to see the best in everyone. We should learn to look beyond the superficial and be able to see the spiritual in that drunk on the street, or that beggar. And if we don’t yet have that ability to see where someone is at spiritually (I certainly don’t) – let’s not replace it with the fake version. Let’s not pretend spiritual growth is like a grade in school: points taken off for every bad habit.

For me listening to trance music doesn’t even count as a bad habit – though whether the trance invoked is a healthy spiritual state is a debate for another day.

8 thoughts on “How about Music and spirituality?”

  1. Sometimes I meet people who think that music has something like a magical influence over you. They really think that listening to classical music will make you more intelligent, and that rock music can put subconscious messages into your mind. This definitely is not true at all.

    On the other hand music can indeed change your mood, and has on some level (as all sound) an impact on your nervous system. That doesn’t mean that a certain kind of music will alter you on a fundamental level.

    I also have a big problem with that “spiritual grading system”, with the notion that some things are more spiritual than others. I know they are but on the other hand I could do everything “right” and still not be a spiritual person. I find these things to be very confusing.

    All I can say is that in the end it doesn’t change you if you forbid yourself to enjoy the things (including the music) that bring you joy.

  2. Hi. I’ve just started reading your blog and I love the spirit of thoughtful inquiry you write about. It’s refreshing. 🙂

    The topic of music and spirituality is a topic that’s near and dear to my heart, so I thouht I’d share a few things. I’m a Baha’i and there’s some really fascinating things in our Scripture about music and its spiritual power that I’d like to quote:

    “The musician’s art is among those arts worthy of the highest praise, and it moveth the hearts of all who grieve. Wherefore, O thou Shahnaz,[1] play and sing out the holy words of God with wondrous tones in the gatherings of the friends, that the listener may be freed from chains of care and sorrow, and his soul may leap for joy and humble itself in prayer to the realm of Glory.”

    [1 Shahnaz, the name given to the recipient of this Tablet, is also the name of a musical mode.]

    (Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 112)

    “A wonderful song giveth wings to the spirit and filleth the heart with exaltation.”

    (Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i World Faith – Abdu’l-Baha Section, p. 334)

    Here is the longest one:

    “Music is one of the important arts. It has great effect upon human spirit. Musical melodies are a certain something which prove to be accidental upon etheric vibrations, for voice is nothing but the expression of vibrations, which reaching the tympanum, effect the nerves of hearing. Musical melodies are, therefore, those peculiar effects produced by, or from, vibration. However, they have the keenest effect upon the spirit. In sooth, although music is a material affair, yet its tremendous effect is spiritual, and its greatest attachment is to the realm of the spirit. If a person desires to deliver a discourse, it will prove more effectual after musical melodies. The ancient Greeks, as well as Persian philosophers, were in the habit of delivering their discourses in the following manner: first, playing a few musical melodies, and when their audience attained a certain receptivity thereby they would leave their instruments at once and begin their discourse. Among the most renowned musicians of Persia was one named Barbod, who, whenever a great question had been pleaded for at the court of the King, and the Ministry had failed to persuade the King, they would at once refer the matter to Barbod, whereupon he would go with his instrument to the court and play the most appropriate and touching music, the end being at once attained because the king was immediately affected by the touching musical melodies, certain feelings of generosity would swell up in his heart, and he would give way. You may try this: if you have a great desire and wish to attain your end, try to do so on a large audience after a great solo has been rendered, but it must be on an audience on which music is effective, for there are some people who are like stones, and music cannot affect stones.

    “It was for this reason that His Holiness David sang the psalms in the Holy of Holies at Jerusalem with sweet melodies. In this Cause the art of music is of paramount importance. The Blessed Perfection, when He first came to the barracks (Akká) repeated this statement: ‘If among the immediate followers there had been those who could have played some musical instrument. i.e., flute or harp, or could have sung, it would have charmed every one.’ In short, musical melodies form an important role in the associations, or outward and inward characteristics, or qualities of man, for it is the inspirer or motive power of both the material and spiritual susceptibilities. What a motive power it is in all feelings of love! When man is attached to the love of God, Music has great effect upon him.”

    (‘Table Talk’ by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá Cited in Compilation of Extracts from the Bahá’í Writings on Music, March 1, 1972, pp:6-7)

    And one last one:

    “…The art of music is divine and effective. It is the food of the soul and spirit. Through the power of music the spirit of man is uplifted. It has wonderful sway and effect in the hearts of children, for their hearts are pure and melodies have great influence on them. The latent talents with which the hearts of these children are endowed will find expression through the medium of music. Therefore, you must exert yourselves to make them proficient; teach them to sing with excellence and effect. It is incumbent upon each child to know something of music, for without knowledge of this art, the melodies of instrument and voice cannot be rightly enjoyed. Likewise it is necessary that the schools teach it in order that the souls and hearts of the pupils may become vivified and exhilarated and their lives be brightened with enjoyment.”

    (Compilations, Lights of Guidance, p. 410)

    There’s loads more, but I think this is plenty for now! I teach people to sing and I do notice how singing in particular tends to have an effect on us spiritually.

    I don’t believe that people who are really into music or musicians are more spiritually advanced than those who aren’t into music, but I do feel that music is a pretty universal thing and perhaps even a human birthright. For those of us seeking spiritual advancement, I think music can be an extremely powerful tool and comfort.

    I’m interested to know if any of this makes sense to you at all. Thanks (and back to lurking).

  3. Hey Katinka,

    I loved the story about the drunk. It’s so true that many of us at some point let our ‘goodness’ get to our heads, and in that very moment lose it. One of life’s ironies – you can be good must you mustn’t ‘know’ it!

    The loud, techno, tuneless type of music really unsettles me so perhaps that is bad for my soul? Haven’t really thought about music’s impact on spirituality. Thought it was the other way round, that your spiritual state determines what music you like. Some food for thought here, thanks.

  4. Hi Katinka,
    I really agree with what you’ve written here – about spirituality and growth happening in our soul. And the whole idea of not judging another – for we are not perfect, ourselves. Sometimes we look through our lens of life, and assume it is a lens that makes our spiritual vision 20/20. In fact, nobody has that good of spiritual vision – and because of that, it is not our place to judge others for what they do. Excellent, excellent post today.

  5. Spiritual growth is about what happens in our soul — Didn’t you just hit the nail on the head right there! For me music is a great form of soul communication. Having grown up in a musical household and started playing instruments almost before i could walk, I’ve always found that music speaks to my soul, and that whatever I’m listening to heavy metal or sitting at the piano playing Bach, it’s exactly what I need in that moment. This was made really clear to me when I read Soul Communication by Dr. Sha. His new book The Power of Soul is coming out soon and I can’t wait to see what it brings me in terms of spiritual growth.

  6. Great job, Katinka!
    I just wish I had more time to read, study and learn from all the wonderful information you kindly share with us.
    Thanks a lot!

  7. Hi Katinka. After so much time on Squidoo, I’ve only recently started to read your blog. I find it very thoughtful and interesting – well done.
    Music is very important to me. My taste varies quite a bit, and at different times I want to listen to different types of music. It might be the Grateful Dead, Mozart, Tibetan chants, the blues, or something else. It just depends on how I’m feeling at the time, what I’m in the mood for. I don’t believe that anyone’s spirituality can be “assessed” according to their musical tastes. Or by any other arbitrary measures. As you so correctly point out, we have to look beyond the superficial.
    Happy holidays!
    (Silver Lotus)

  8. I have never thought of music as being an indication of your spiritual nature. Often times artists will incorporate religion into their music, and then as soon as other artists pick up on the genre and desire to create that style of music they think that they automatically need to adopt the same beliefs system. Even if a genre is supersaturated by a bunch of like minded drones, not every listener is going to be on the same spiritual level as them. That’s not a derogatory statement either. I think that music should be enjoyed depending on whether or not it sounds good and is appeasing to you. All too often too many spiritual tags are pinned to music and honestly, it’s just a gimmick. People get into fights as to which music is “pure” and which is not. It’s totally and completely pretentious to denote a genre of music based upon it’s spiritual nature. I do not understand how musical genres have become something of a status quo. It’s as if everyone is looking for that genre that’s so underground and “misunderstood” that by just mentioning it in a conversation you are all of the sudden sophisticated and enigmatic. Just because a style of music is completely and totally esoteric to the masses doesn’t mean it’s good or on a higher spiritual plain for that matter; it just means that it either hasn’t had it’s 15 minutes of fame OR it’s just not ever going to be good enough or structured enough to be commercialized.

    However, I do think that certain styles of music can influence a weak mind. Not adults in particular, but children especially. A developing mind that is constantly being fed negativity will ultimately produce the negativity that has been propagated to them. Considering the fact that teenagers and children alike are very easily influenced and susceptible to what is being disseminated to them. Especially if it is being publicized to them on a daily basis.

    In the case of adults, well, I think that adults are a bit more mentally stable and sound. An adults life is much too hectic for them to even consider whether or not they agree or disagree with an artist. Adults aren’t wondering how spiritually developed they are; they’re worried about whether or not they can pay the bills on time and feed themselves or their families. Half the time we listen to music it’s in the car on the way to work or something. All we’re looking for is something that sounds good and has a nice beat.

    Great article by the way =).

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