Sacred Sounds

Searching for the mystical within music

From the onset of the written record it’s apparent many have considered music a form of sacred expression.  Regardless of form or instrumentation, the relation of music to the ultimate forces of existence figures prominently within every culture and permeates our shared history.  Those more profoundly affected claim music to be the embodiment of the Divine.  Many of greater circumspection may conceive of music as merely a representation of the divine or, if less theistically inclined, the reflection of some kind of cosmic existential order.  Semantics and nuance aside, music has always been idealized as a medium through which the higher forces driving existence may be known.  This lofty concept has long been propagated, formalized and exploited by powerful spiritual institutions in whose trust the sacred remained.  However, outside the patronage and control of its traditional religious guardians, music has been running rampant and unchecked through the fields of humanity for millennia inspiring as many insights and revelations as there are forms.  Predictably, this egalitarian sense of expression has in some instances undermined what some see as music’s spiritual integrity.  Where once J.S. Bach loftily claimed “the aim and final end of all music should be no more than the glory of God,” today the Death Metal band Deicide has set to music the rather basic directive of “Fuck your God.”  Matters of eloquence aside, the larger, more essential questions remain; is music really the Ultimate or Divine made real, the essence of existence made audible or is it just another sensory phenomena exciting specific neural impulses causing certain emotional reactions?  Does music relate to our understanding of ultimate forces?  Is there such a thing as sacred or spiritual music and if so how does it differ from other kinds of music?  Or, to change perspective and borrow from the mystics among us, are patterns of sound like everything else in this world; in and of themselves a revelation or manifestation of different aspects of the ultimate essence?

The first question in this investigation is obvious; does existence as we know it possess any qualities sympathetic with or conducive to audible representation?   Obviously the answer is yes.  Both mystics and physicists are in rare concurrence when asserting the essence of sound or vibration lies at the core of all existence.  To the physicist reality is conceived as a grand collective of bodies and energy in motion perpetually exuding vibrations.  That energy travels and generates waves of vibration in the process is a simple concept to accommodate.  The vibrating character of physical bodies would also seem axiomatic. All matter is composed of vast numbers of assembled atoms whose corresponding number of orbiting, resonating electrons make them less like “building blocks” and more like “dynamic packets” of energy.  Given these conditions little imagination is needed to recognize all objects as a conglomeration of perpetually vibrating bodies resonating at their own distinct frequency in their own distinct pattern.

Though partial to a different type of reasoning and metaphor, the mystics are nonetheless in lock step with their scientific counterparts on the basic idea of resonance underlying the nature of being.   To the mystic the origination of existence emerged from auditory vibration.  This concept has found vivid expression in virtually every religious form.  At the start of the New Testament this notion is articulated in John 1:1; “In the beginning was the word and the word was with god and the word was god.”  The Vedas have their own sound, (nada,) at the heart of the process of creation; the sacred syllable known as “OM.”  Further Hindu commentary envisions OM as being the hum of atoms and the primal energy holding the world together.  The early Sufi masters claim the original state of being, (dhat,) is vibration and through sound was the world created.  They further assert all elements of existence, (thoughts, feelings and objects,) are composed of their own unique variations of this original vibration.  The only real difference between the scientist and the mystic is the latter dares speculate on the ultimate origin of this existential vibration while the former usually declines.  Regardless to which tradition or paradigm you ascribe, there is obviously great accord in the notion that existence can effectively be conceived as a massive field of subtle sound emanating from the vibrating elements of matter and energy.  But is this music?

That existence is an immense assemblage of vibrating forces is uncontested.  Its conceivable one day science may be clever enough to break down this universal pattern of vibration into its constituent voices and trace them back to the actual forces and objects from which they stem.  Would such an ingenious exercise in audible tracking allow us to better understand and appreciate the essence of existence?  Unfortunately, few would consider this “sum of its parts” approach as revealing the essential character, truths or ideals of being.  Vibratory isolation of this kind may only help define the sterile “what” of existence.  However, the issue of greater concern has always been whether this infinate array of sound holds any recognizable pattern or matrix suggesting a grander order.  Something audible we can identify and understand as a representation of the higher cognitive or spiritual dimensions of existence.  Ideally we wish to isolate the fundamental song or songs providing the clues to comprehend and lend purpose to who and what we are.  We seek the essential harmonies to which we may synchronize ourselves; the tonalities that ground the abstract within the real and turn chaos into meaning.  We search for the language through which we may communicate with or extol the grander forces of our nature.  This is the idealized line cutting between music and vibration; the sacred from the profane.

Mankind’s fascination with rhythmically ordered tones likely existed long before anyone dared formulate such grand and ambitious musical philosophies.  From the beginning of our species there’s little doubt humans of every sort were plucking strings, blowing over tubes and striking objects for their own amusement and satisfaction.  How these sounds affected or inspired our early ancestors may never be known.  Only through the passage of time and the development of writing would the ideas of organized sounds representing something more fundamentally revealing of a higher order gradually evolve.

The sacred nature of music has found active expression from the earliest stages of virtually every culture.  Within the various Hindu schools music is considered a spiritual science and a means in itself to enlightenment.  The worship of sound, (nadapasana,) is based on the conception that music is an extension of the Ultimate, an aspect of the divine revelation.  Music is thought to express the “oneness” within cosmic and natural forces.  Its understanding and appreciation are critical towards the attainment of worldly release or moksha. The revered Dharmasastra text known as the Yajnavalkya Smriti offers the following heady endorsement, “He who knows the meaning of the sound of the lute, its intervals, scales and rhythms travels without effort upon the way of liberation.”  Not to be outdone in the game of flowery prose, the Sufi philosopher Hazrat Inayat Khan asserts “the one who finds the key to the music of life is the one who becomes intuitive, inspired and to whom revelations manifest.”  He speaks for a multiple of mystical traditions when he further notes, “through music can we see god free from all forms and thoughts, it is the picture of the beloved,” (p. 17, 1926.)  A half a world away, the musical ideals of many tribal cultures are expressed through the common Native American belief that the traditional rhythms and chants used within their spiritual rituals were presented to man by the deities and spirits.  The virtual unanimity of early human’s sense of the connection between music and the divine seems undeniable.  However, was there any evidence to support this contention?

One of the most conspicuous attempts within our Western tradition to link music with the greater forces of existence occurred about 500 BC when the Pythagoreans began developing the concept of the Music of the Spheres.   Predictably, their infatuation with numbers formed the heart of this exercise. Convinced music was the ordering principle of existence they began searching for a higher, universal harmony resonating through the cosmos.   The result was an ingenious exercise in reverse reasoning.  They claimed the numeric ratios that produced what they considered to be harmonious sounds on a plucked string, (2:1 was an octave, 3:2 a perfect fifth, 4:3 a fourth,etc,) corresponded to the distances between the ten celestial spheres they believed rotated around a central cosmic point.  They envisioned each sphere streaking through space emitting a sound whose frequency corresponded to the width of its orbit relative to the center.  The combination of these heavenly tones would meld into a fundamental harmony they labeled “the music of the spheres.” Of course the only thing remotely astronomical about this idea was the degree of hubris the Pythagoreans displayed in thinking their particular sense of aesthetic was cosmically ordained.  However, this catchy phrase stuck and for the ensuing twenty five hundred years continued to motivate many an astronomer, (Galileo and Kepler among others,) musician and spiritualist to seek out the music of god and the spirit through the motions of the heavens.  Despite the Pythagoreans obvious problems of logic, cosmology and calculation, the fact remained humans were actively convinced there was such a thing as a divine harmony that could be recognized through or created by music and wanted empirical, or at least reasonable answers.

The Pythagorean ideas regarding the Music of the Spheres turned out to be quite the enduring model, though not without occasional tweaking.  In the early sixth century AD Boethius, in his book “The Principles of Music” continued the tradition of binding the mathematics of music to the fundamental principles of universal harmony and order.  One of his most notable contributions was to subdivide and relate the divine qualities of music into the contexts through which it’s experienced.  He classified music in three descending categories of expression.  The highest order was Cosmic Music, which epitomized the concept of the Music of the Spheres, (the grand harmony of the heavens expressed through all its mathematical dimensions.)  Next was Human Music, the manifestation of the Cosmic Music within the body and soul of mankind.  Finally, we leave the purely ethereal and come to those sounds produced by human voices and instruments.  Boethius called this lowest level of audible expression Instrumental Music.  Through this calculated process was the purity of music’s divine essence transferable to such an ignoble and imperfect creature as man while maintaining the core principles of the Absolute order.  Of course being the sycophantic toady of the Ostrogoth king Theodoric, it comes as no surprise Boethius’ methods well served the ideals of his master.  His musical hierarchy not only reaffirmed the Christian belief that through music was the perfection of existence revealed but continued the process of elevating the essence of the divine from an impersonal cosmos into its highest form in the persona of Christ.

While Boethius had intellectually formalized man’s ability to retrieve music from the spheres with its sacred nature intact one important detail remained; how did one differentiate between sacred music and that of the profane?  Or did such a distinction even exist?  Both Boethius and the Pythagorean’s agreed the position of the heavenly bodies determined the requisite relationships needed between tones to express the sacred.  However, it soon became apparent any music integrating these relationships, (an octave, perfect fifth, a fourth, etc.,) whether played at a holy mass or by a peasant to his adoring goat could be considered sacred.  In the socially stratified sensibility of the time such bewilderment could never stand.  Obviously a more exclusive distinction regarding the spiritual quality of music was required.  Who better to make this delineation than the reigning spiritual authority of the time, the Church itself?  Under the decree of Pope Gregory I, (590-604,) it was deigned the liturgical chants of the time, (known as plainsong,) were to be the only true form of sacred musical expression.  All other songs wafting through the streets and villages were strictly confined to the category of base amusement.  Unfortunately, the wide variety of chant currently in use across the Christian realm soon created a more profound set of problems.  Conflicts over which chant was the more sacred and devout would rage for another two hundred years.  In about 730 Pope Gregory II undertook the effort of standardizing the chants.  Claiming to hear the voice of God himself, Gregory’s favored Roman repertory was eventually anointed as the true, perfect and unalterable musical expression of the sacred.  In honor of their new found patron these musical prayers were henceforth referred to as Gregorian chants.  Once again the sacred nature of music dropped from the purview of the heavens into the hands of man.

Of course not every culture recognized the pope’s authority or infallibility when it came to identifying sacred music.  Nor did all share the aesthetic sensibility underlying the philosophy of the Music of the Spheres or were convinced the Pythagorean harmonies embodied the essence of the divine.  In many Eastern spiritual traditions the template of sacred music was not found in the heavens but in more earthly forms.  Traditional Zen ideals suggest the higher order of existence is most eloquently revealed through nature.  To the Eastern mystics the essential and obvious qualities of form found in water, mountains, trees and other natural features better express the defining characteristic of their spiritual aesthetic; simplicity.  This simplicity of expression is not only complimentary to the essence of nature but of the higher cognitive elements found within Eastern spirituality.  Zen music reinforces the concept of the Ultimate as a singular entity of pure being devoid of distinction and separation.  Needless to say, as the essence of music is itself an intrinsic duality of tone in relation to silence this presents profound artistic challenges.  Sacred Zen music responds by emphasizing the minimal possible means of expression within any work.  The more understated and audibly discreet the music the more congruent with the sacred it becomes.  It’s almost impossible for those of a Western orientation to imagine how far this concept extends.  The Taoist mystic Lao Tzu showed great circumspection when he noted “great music sounds faint.”

The fundamental techniques endowing traditional Eastern music with “sacred simplicity” are wholly different from their Western counterparts.  In these spiritual traditions music is envisioned as the constant interplay between sound and silence; tones “emerging” from silence and returning back.  Each sound is simultaneously conceived as being complete within itself and in a continuing state of “becoming.”  Sounds elide from one tone to the next, integrating and emphasizing all the micro tonics in between.  There are no fixed levels of pitch, concepts of key or harmonic relations.  Rhythmically devoid of hard meter, each note revels in its own point in space and time.  Protracted and uneven periods of silence are common.  The emphasis is on pure sound rather than structure; aesthetic and meaning resides within the essence of each moment, unconnected to the next.  Obviously, the Eastern ideals of sacred music were necessarily  at odds with those of the West.  However, this was destined to change.  Come the turn of the twentieth century the Eastern philosophy would emerge as a dominating influence on the rapid evolution of Western conceptions of sacred music.

Whether inherently sacred or not, music has always been an auditory reflector of the fundamental way in which we understand and interpret our existence and spiritual nature.  Shifting perspectives of the Absolute order always necessitate changes in musical expression.  In the opening years of the twentieth century new scientific discoveries, particularly in the field of physics, were altering the paradigm by which we understood reality and the nature of those Ultimate forces directing existence.  Looking away from the heavens and deeper into the subatomic structure of matter we became aware of the seemingly endless levels of complexity and contradiction underlying reality.   Quantum studies revealed intricate particles popping in and out of existence, new forces of unimaginable power, alternate dimensions of existence, radical concepts of space and time and theories of being postulating human consciousness as an active factor in the creation of reality.  Our conventional view of existence was rapidly dissolving in the face of these new discoveries.  The concept of a universe aligned through the consistent and reliable structure of either an omnipotent persona or static laws was quickly giving way to one driven by a host of chaotic, conflicting and ultimately impersonal forces.  Deciphering the nature of any grand or divine design was becoming exponentially more complex.  To understand the Ultimate required focusing our attention inward to the world of the micro rather than outward to the heavens.  Those who wished to use music as an expression of the Absolute realized the need to loosen up and expand their audio palette.

In the 1920’s Western music was conceptually liberated from its traditional fixed tone structure through the work of Arnold Schoenberg.  Firm in the conviction that strict tonality is an artificial human construction and absent in nature, Schoenberg pioneered the atonal or twelve tone format of composition.  In true Zen like fashion, he swept away all conventional musical structure allowing all possible tones to flow, coexist and combine without regard to harmonic relation or conventional aesthetic; dissonance reigned.  This was true abstract musical impressionism played on classical Western instruments.  While Schoenberg was mum on any spiritual intention, those now familiar with the concepts of the newly revealed dimensions of existence could easily see how these new audio landscapes may better represent the seemingly random and dynamic relations of the Absolute.  Most importantly, by eliminating conventional form and stretching the range of musical possibility, atonality was better able to accommodate more possible variations of the divine in whatever incarnation they may eventually reveal themselves.

Having kicked open the atonal, dissonant door, floods of new composers rushed to embrace and expand this style.  The deconstruction of traditional musical structure was in full flower.  Freed from the restraints of form and tonality composers could now render their spiritual visions in what they felt to be a more literal, accurate manner.  The Eastern concept of exploiting the intrinsic wholeness, essence and autonomy of each sound regardless of harmonic and temporal relation seemed a clear reflection of the new, emerging world paradigm.  The ideal that universal order was dissonant and dynamic rather than harmonic and static strongly resonated within many a contemporary mind.  Composers accused of lacking traditional aesthetic routinely countered that their new vision was the more authentic representation of the divine essence.  Any who had a problem with such heresy should take it up with God or whatever higher power they felt endowed existence with such a turbulent, chaotic constitution.   With each passing year the atonal concept surged dramatically further until in the 1950’s it reached its ultimate forms of expression through the hands of its most iconoclastic practitioner, John Cage.

John Cage was an undistinguished student of Schoenberg and an avid devotee of the Zen master Daistez Suzuki.  To him music was a tool to demonstrate greater philosophical and aesthetic points.  Cage considered all existing musical structure, (atonal included,) ideas, tones and instrumentation to be pure artifice.  Any noise or sound had the ability to be music.  The only differentiating factor between music and random sound existed within the mind of the listener.  He frequently claimed “noise is merely heard, music is listened to.”  To press this point Cage began throwing up musical “frames” around the most unconventional of sounds.  He composed works where the represented notes were selected from star charts, rolls of the dice, patterns of birds on telephone wires and the natural indentations pressed into his staff paper.  And then he really began stretching the issue.  Cage’s later works included pieces where the performers would simultaneously spin the dials of radios, slap the strings of a piano with a dead fish or randomly strike the keys of a piano he’d “prepared” by affixing bolts, screws and washers to the strings.  All of these extreme attempts to expand the concept of music culminated in his most daring and well known composition, 4’33” during which the performer sits silently on the bench in front of a piano for this length of time then leaves the stage.  No piece of music had ever, as the Taoists say, “sounded fainter.”  Lao Tzu would have been blown away by the purity of spiritual expression and divine authenticity contained within this seminal work.

Though blatant and devoid of subtlety Cage’s perspective is important and in its own way profound; music is solely the product of the listener’s interaction and interpretation.  It has no intrinsic quality.  Any audible experience, (or lack thereof,) holds the potential to be music and within all music is lodged all possibility.  Form and tonality are external and secondary to the greater purpose of impression and meaning.  If music contains any sacred qualities or cosmic significance it’s because the listener imbues it with such distinctions, not the other way around.  Mind, not calculated sensation is the ultimate arbiter of meaning.  Though maddening to positivist analysis, is it possible Cage had it nailed?

If music has any capacity to embody the Divine or reveal the higher forces of existence it would seem this ability lies outside such external features as structure, instrumentation, paradigm or decree.  Stymied by the limitations of the objective many muster a last ditch effort to put a finger on music’s elusive mystical quality by appealing inwards to the more nebulous worlds of psychic effect.  Taking time from the mentoring of his formidable coterie of Western musicians, the Indian spiritual teacher Sri Chimnoy effectively encapsulates the thrust of these subjective forays when he notes “Divine music elevates our consciousness while ordinary music lowers our consciousness and tries to destroy our sincere inner cry.”  Waxing further in equally vague terms he extols the virtues of “soulful” music produced by the “universal, eternal and absolute within us all” while condemning the “ordinary” sound produced by the self.   Well that certainly clears things up.  Of course many of lesser renown have also taken their shot at describing the subjective qualities of sacred music with comparable success.  Some of the favored responses bandied about include dreamy, contemplative, ethereal, somber, dark, grandiose or heavenly.  Those of rosier inclination may use such words as uplifting, inspirational, joyous, energizing or buoyant.  Obviously such subjective descriptions are of dubious value.  Any adjective or phrase thrown on the table is sure to be countered by someone of different psychological bearing and taste.

Despite these problems of definition many still attest to music’s ability to incite a variety of mystical responses and insights.  However, all conviction aside, uniform, identifiable, intrinsic qualities differentiating the divine from the common remain elusive.  The major obstacle is always the same; what is sacred, moving, inspirational or revelatory to one remains quotidian to another.  Those sensing the divine within a Bach cantata or the motets of Thomas Tallis would be baffled by others equally moved by Jello Biafra’s rendition of Religious Vomit.  For every soul entranced by the soaring tones of a choir singing within the powerful serenity of a gothic cathedral or the plaintive sounds drifting from a softly blown shakuhachi amidst a field of wild flowers there are others who swear mystical awareness is best revealed through the strangled chords of an over amped Stratocaster reverberating off sweating throngs inside a converted hockey arena.  There would appear to be no such thing as a uniform response.  Could it be the sacred quality of music will always reduce to the time honored trope of “whatever turns you on?”

Though absolutes will always remain elusive perhaps this conundrum can be circumvented by changing focus.  That much of the sacred quality of music will always be lodged within the personal psychology of the listener is obvious.  However, there would seem to be other elements in play that help lend or suggest a sacred dimension within the music that moves us; factors steering us towards a specific sacred perspective or interpretation as opposed to the host of possible others.  These influencing factors would be intentionality, context and spiritual enculturation.

The intentionality of the composer can have a great influence in directing the manner in which we listen to music.  It initiates a certain mind set, cues us what to listen for and helps shape our possible interpretation.  If we knew the composer was reacting to some deep spiritual impulse when they wrote the music our initial reaction would be to try and evaluate the piece from this same perspective.  As John Cage so ardently strove to convince, often the power and message within music is dependent on the manner in which the piece is framed, titled or located.  Absent any kind of defining structural qualities the composer’s avowed intention does much to ordain certain works of music as sacred.  Title a piece “In Praise of God,” “Hymn to the Ultimate” or “The Unfolding of Being” and voila, you have a sacred song, if only through calculated determination.  The composer has requested the listener evaluate the music in terms of one particular perspective instead of any other.  They are essentially saying, “Within these tones and this arrangement lays a representation of higher forces; my representation.  Can you hear it?”  Of course whether such an empathic or sympathetic resonation occurs is wholly a personal matter that music of every sort must struggle with.  Intention locks in the lens for our further fine tuning.  As we have seen, without any kind of interpretive clues any piece of music is subject to a bewildering number of interpretations.  Many of these bear no relationship to the actual intention of the creator.  For example, though numerous Bach suites were intended as courtly dances, to many they remain profound mystical forms of expression.  Undoubtedly, the great man who wrote so many pieces specifically intended for the glory of God would be amused by such flights of human fancy.  Stated intention does much to ground the manner in which a piece will be listened to and evaluated.  It deliberately narrows the range of possible interpretation while encouraging a particular aesthetic perspective.

Complimenting the aspect of intention is context.  It would seem obvious the location and circumstances in which sound or music is heard have strong influences on its perception and effect.  Context establishes the parameters of interpretation and reaction appropriate to any given stimuli.  The chanting of the human voice combined with the rhythm of a beaten drum takes on a different dimension of meaning and effect when heard within a tribal ritual than when the same arrangement is played on the corner of 52nd and Broadway.  A chorus of voices engenders a more contemplative reaction when heard within the high mass of a cathedral as opposed to a basement recital room at a local school.  The mind moves in differing directions pending on whether it hears the sound of a flute while sitting at the edge of a deep canyon or over the PA system of the local grocery.  The impression one experiences from the delicate tinkling of a cluster of bells varies when heard in conjunction with a meditative session as opposed to the opening of a shop door.  In all of the above instances context alone imbues otherwise indeterminate sounds with meaning.  Integrating music within a ritualistic, sacred or contemplative context is to sheath it in like qualities as opposed to others.  Once again, it’s important to note the impossibility of making absolute pronouncements regarding the way people react to different audible stimuli.  Some may indeed have profound experiences of the Absolute when they hear the sound of a flute while thumping melons in the produce department of the neighborhood King Soopers.  Such a peculiar possibility in and of itself points up the inherent absurdity in trying to make categorical assertions regarding the subjective affects of music.  However, it’s important to remember we are looking for prevalent characteristics not absolute laws.

Intention and context would seem critical for designating any particular piece of music as sacred.  However, one other major factor demands consideration; enculturation.  The way in which Ultimate powers or divine orders are conceived within any culture contributes to the perception of the sacred.   Every culture has created its own perspective of the Absolute informed and influenced by a wide array of differing paradigms, ideals, historical and material factors.   Whether the Absolute is conceived as an all powerful, controlling and judgmental persona, a disengaged cellestial observer, a nebulous singularity or perhaps an impersonal physical phenomenon does much to determine the manner in which it’s represented.  Those people of medieval Europe who conceived of God as a singular, ordering power residing outside the world in the heavens above would be inclined to link sacred music to similar arrangements of sound.  Soaring, powerful, majestic lines filled with multiple voices tightly interwoven in strict harmonic relations played in a static key and fused to a precise and reliable meter would be the expected compliment to the spiritual sensibilities of the time.  The empty, sparsely rendered, elastic and wandering tones favored by Zen music would hardly do justice to such an omnipotent and calculating force as the Christian god.  To members of a more pre-modern, tribal like existence the percussive rasp of a shaken gourd, the pulse like beat of a drum, the respirating sound of a simple flute or unvarying, circular chanting may better approximate their concept of those Ultimate forces firmly set within nature.  Those of a more modern strain whose earlier theistic concepts now yield to a purely physical, scientific perspective of reality may consider the wholly electronic compositions of someone like Morton Subotnik or Karl Stockhausen the best representations of the Ultimate.  To children of the quantum age flickering sonic impulses dancing upon the subtle modulations of faint, synthetic crystalline tones looping over lumbering waves of indifferent white noise might best represent the subatomic dynamism forming the sacred order of being; the true music of the spheres.  Even the monotonous, grinding, over amplified and discordant power chords overlaying the hollow, nerve numbing beat of the Death Metal bands may to some accurately portray the complete random, chaotic and ultimately nihilistic character of an Absolute power wholly alienated from man.  For music to be sacred it must reflect our particular concept of the Absolute.

Intention, context and enculturation may help designate or ground the conditions of sacred music.  However, little suggests these factors intrinsically empower sound with the ability to align with or reveal the higher forces of existence no matter how well executed or acutely perceived.  Given the assumed nature of reality, (vibrations and process) it would seem sound or music could theoretically have the capacity to embody the divine, manifest the essence of existence and provide clues through which the Ultimate order may be understood. Certainly enough historical thought and experience exists to verify this sentiment.  However, such objective promise has to date eluded objective recognition or classification.  Every instance of rapture or revelation is countered by one of indifference and confusion.  And this is the real issue.  That many people experience powerful physical, emotional or cognitive responses to certain types of music is unquestionable.  Under these circumstances it would appear we are left with and undeniable claim grounded in inexplicable reasons.

Of course the possibility exists that rational discussions of the qualities of sacred music miss a larger point.  Perhaps the mystics among us have it right; the potential for the sacred lies within all. Music is a reflection of the Ultimate order in the same way as all else within existence.  Everything, (ourselves included,) through its fundamental being becomes an expression of the very powers and order that brought it into and sustains its existence.  If only we could hear it, the undeniable resonance within everything is perpetually revealing the grander order of which all remain a part.  Within every musical composition or rendition is the sacred or divine expressed.  The inspiration to recognize certain aspects of this divine manifestation lies within us, not the inherent format or structure of the stimuli.   In their own way, each composer renders a perfect picture of some aspect of the Ultimate order.   For a myriad of cultural and psychological reasons some revelations may be more pronounced or readily grasped than others.  However, all remain different and authentic dimensions of the same fundamental truths.  The mystics remind that the same truths can be revealed within an infinite number of different forms.  As such aesthetic arguments speculating on what is the more inspiring or moving to the listener can rage forever, and do.  However, no matter how vehemently or rationally argued, aesthetic issues will always remain peripheral to the greater forces they reflect.   Anything has the ability to be everything.

There is likely profound truth in this “mystical” perspective of the potentiality of music.  However, if this be the case we once again face the initial question; if all qualities and revelations lie within all music, if all music can be sacred why do some songs strike us in this manner while others don’t.  Why do we “extract” sacred meaning or “sense” reflections of the Absolute from some pieces of music and not others?  I would again suggest we look to the guiding forces of intention, context and enculturation but with one minor alteration.  While context and enculturation remain crucial to determining what passes for the sacred, I would expand “intention” to include a word better describing the listeners perspective; inclination.  In this case inclination refers to the listener’s state of mind when hearing a piece of music; their mental predisposition.  When confronted with sounds that can be all things to all psyches the listener extracts what is complimentary to their current mood and arc of curiosity.  We resonate with those elements of sound that align with our current state of mind or psychological inclination.  When we feel positive about life and ourselves we interpret most facets of life we encounter in the same manner.  The same could be said when feeling sad or dejected.  When we find ourselves in a reflective, contemplative or spiritual mood the tendency to view and order the stimuli we encounter through this prism comes easily.  However, once again, as the exceptional entities we are there is no absolute correlation between mood and perspective.

The question as to whether there is such a thing as sacred music has engendered a great deal of passionate and methodical consideration while providing little consensus.  There would seem no uniform reaction or awareness that resonates within all who listen to a select piece of music.  Searching for internal elements or archetypal structures within the collective unconscious or psyche of human beings that resonate and respond to certain tones has been as fruitless as trying to analyze the external frameworks of structure, instrumentation, modulation, frequency etc.  Breaking the analysis down into smaller subgroups of study has also failed to yield consensus.  While the reactions and interpretations of those within a specific culture, age, geography or faith may be more predictable and consistent, differences of preference nevertheless abound: (Bach vs. Handel, Rachmaninov vs. Scriabin, Beatles vs. Stones, Sex Pistols vs. Ramones and onward into the night.)  Factors of intention/inclination, context and enculturation can function as the basic steering currents directing us to the sacred.  However, in themselves they can never effectively encapsulate all the various dimensions of subjective interaction that ultimately determine the interpretive result of any musical experience.  It would seem the most any can say is music holds the potential of revealing spiritual truth or awareness to certain people under certain conditions.  Unfortunately, as with all things, to endow music with any qualities without exception is both foolish and unproductive.

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