A Meditation On Music

Apropos of nothing in particular, I want to consider the significance of music in the creation. Especially in the modern world of iPods, car radios, and high-tech stereos, music is ubiquitous. But I think even in previous days, it’s probably likely most or many people would at least whistle or hum a tune to pass the time. Music is a part of what it means to be human.

Daniel J. Levitin in his now famous This Is Your Brain On Music, expresses his belief in the idea that we are born with an innate capacity to learn any of the world’s musical languages (109). At the same time, he notes that “Just how this structure [in sound] leads us to experience emotional reactions is part of the mystery of music. After all, we don’t get all weepy eyed when we experience other kinds of structure in our lives, such as a balanced checkbook or the orderly arrangement of first-aid products in a drugstore (well, at least most of us don’t),” (109).

I don’t propose to have a certain answer to this question. Nor its related question: what is the purpose of music? Why do we live in a universe where music has this effect on us at all? But I may have some inkling of a suggestion. Firstly, Bono makes this comment in his meditation, Psalm Like it Hot: “Anyway, I stopped going to churches and got into a different kind of religion. Don’t laugh. That’s what being in a rock ‘n’ roll band is. Showbiz is shamanism, music is worship. Whether it’s worship of women or their designer, the world or its destroyer, whether it comes from that ancient place we call soul or simply the spinal cortex, whether the prayers are on fire with a dumb rage or dove-like desire, the smoke goes upwards, to God or something you replace God with — usually yourself.” Listening to music, and even moreso, being a part of a musical event with other people, often produces this numinous feeling. Consider the lyrics (and the reactions of the concertgoers) of this rendition of the Foo Fighters’ “Everlong”:

Bono is right to note that it can be directed at various different objects. But there is undeniably something about music that takes us out of the merely animal, either moving us in the direction of the angels, or that of the demons.

Secondly, John W. Kleinig has argued that 2 Chronicles 29:30b should be translated “So they sang praises until there was rejoicing, and bowed down and worshipped.” In other words, the Levitical musicians and the writers of scripture recognized that music had this incredible power that humanity has recognized since time immemorial. And they exploited this function of music to shift the minds of Israel towards God in his grace, and to direct them to worship. Now, there is nothing here that suggests the effects of music are the same thing as experiencing God, as some people, both ancient and modern, have suggested. But it leads me to wonder, at least, if one of the main reasons God has given us music is to prepare ourselves for his presence. In other words, and perhaps this is obvious, but is the primary purpose of music to raise our minds above the merely mundane, to open us to something outside of us? And perhaps it is because it has this purpose that it can have all kinds of other wonderful effects on us?