Friday 8 June 2018

Music, Sacred and Secular

This piece derives from a conversation I had with someone about what constitutes spiritual music. That is to say, music that potentially expresses a spiritual reality and might even be conducive to helping a listener experience that reality, to a degree anyway. He said that if the composer had a spiritual intention then his music could be called spiritual, and he further thought that words of a spiritual or religious nature could transform any sort of music into spiritual music. I disagreed. The intention of the composer is irrelevant if he lacks insight into what the spiritual really is and interprets it in the light of his subjective limitations rather than being sufficiently open to the objective reality of it. Of course, no one has full insight but there is a big difference between the composer whose imagination, and even soul, is really open to spiritual truth and one who merely aspires to that or who forces it to fit his own idea of it. Moreover it should be obvious that a profane style of music does not become sacred merely by having some spiritual words overlaid on top of it. That might have some ennobling effect but, by itself, it is not enough.
The form of music has its own meaning and influence, and different types of music speak of different psychological states and convey different, sometimes very different, messages to the listener. Words can be added to music and shape the surface message, but they cannot fundamentally alter its basic tone for the music already has its own natural language which remains the primary form and is the keynote to its atmosphere and effect.
Therefore, if you take a musical language that has developed to express physical or emotional states of a particular kind and simply add some religious lyrics, you are not making spiritual music. The words may be saying one thing but the underlying language is saying something quite different, and it is the musical not the verbal content that speaks more deeply to the soul and expresses the real message of the piece.
Most forms of profane music cannot be used to communicate genuine spiritual emotions or states merely by being given a superficial outer coating any more than Gregorian chant would be an effective medium for a pop song.
If you use the style of a profane form of music in a spiritual context then, whatever your intention and whatever words you might employ, you are still making profane music. And the more the musical form you use is linked to lower levels of being and consciousness, the truer that statement is. So, while a Renaissance madrigal, which expresses refined emotion in a refined way, may largely be a secular form of music, its form is certainly less antipathetic to spiritual expression than the crudities of, say, rap to take an extreme example. The musical language of the former is capable of communicating elevated emotion, that of the latter is more to do with physical aggression, and its popularity speaks volumes for the degradation of culture in our day.
Regarding the division between sacred and secular that I have set up here, I should say two things. First of all, it is not absolute. There is a gradation between the two even if they relate to different orders of reality. There is also a cross-fertilization. For instance, Renaissance composers would take a bit of melody from a secular song and weave that into the underlying theme for a polyphonic mass. However, they so transformed the theme in doing this that very little of it was left, and the resulting musical piece was completely in the style of sacred polyphony. A similar thing arose when Bach or Handel re-employed something from secular music in a piece intended for religious use. But, more to the point, the gulf between sacred and secular was not so wide then as it is now. There could be some sort of legitimate interchange. That is not the case with the great bulk of modern pop, rock and jazz and similar 20th centuries musical styles all of which are much more deeply connected, through their strong focus on rhythm, with the physical, and therefore they are more separated from the spiritual than traditional secular music. 
Spiritual music should elevate the soul just like spiritual architecture. It is not intended to excite the emotions or stimulate the passions or arouse the body in a sensual or sexual way which is the aim of much modern profane music.
The music we listen to reflects the sort of person we are, but it also makes us a certain sort of person. It’s a two-way process. Music tends to make us become more like what it isPeople will gravitate towards the sort of music that expresses their hopes and desires but then this music will also foster hopes and desires within the listener that correspond to its own language and form. Those who seek the beautiful and the transcendent will look for music that expresses this and they will tend to avoid music that actively rejects those things. Those attached to the body and lower emotions will gravitate to music that satisfies those desires. Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive but the more someone is interested in the former, the fewer forms of the latter will attract him and some might actively repulse him.
A huge problem today is that many people are never exposed to beautiful music. Their taste is often formed (and corrupted?) when they are young by the commercial and fashionable product of the day, and they then become so attuned to this basic level of musical inspiration that they are unable to progress to something that speaks to a deeper level and demands more input from the listener. There is nothing wrong with profane music (profane means outside the temple) but it should exist within a spectrum of music with the higher clearly denoted as such and the lower (as in relating to more immediately accessible aspects of the totality of the self) also known for what it is. In this way every level of our being is catered for and brought out rather than being over-emphasised or denied. Of course, if this really were the case then many forms of profane music would not be made at all because it would be clearly seen how antagonistic they are to proper all-round development of the soul. I repeat, there’s nothing wrong with romantic music or dance music or even martial music or any sort of music. We actually need all these different types of music. But that does not mean that any sort of music is good. There is music that tends to healthy self-expression and there is music that corrupts and degrades just as there is music that inspires and exalts. You don’t need me to tell you what sort dominates now.
Music is perhaps the most profound of all the arts. It is certainly the most affecting. Its power to uplift or debase is enormous.


ted said...

I was once told it was politically incorrect to dislike hip-hop music. Talk about profane. I will admit though I have not cultivated myself completely to classical music, although when I hear it I very much appreciate it. I grew up with rock/pop/indie music, and it appears what we're exposed to during our formative years tends to leave a lasting imprint. It may be a bit of nostalgia, but I also believe it speaks to the cultural milieu we are part of (for better or worse).

William Wildblood said...

Politically incorrect it may be but it also shows good taste! I grew up with rock music too and I still have a soft spot for the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, the Byrds and others of that era. But though I do enjoy listening to it I wouldn't call Dylan's gospel era music spiritual in the way that music by Bach or Palestrina can be. There's room for all sorts of music but it's not all of equal value and some has decidedly negative value.

People used to say that the devil had all the best tunes but they hadn't heard what he comes up with nowadays!

C.W. Bradley said...

"Spiritual music should elevate the soul just like spiritual architecture. It is not intended to excite the emotions or stimulate the passions or arouse the body in a sensual or sexual way which is the aim of much modern profane music."

Good point.

Many people now seem to think that the only purpose of music is to do those other things, and to make matters worse, music is so associated in many people's minds with sexuality, celebrity, and wealth that the very idea of music in people's minds is corrupted.

Thankfully, the idea of spiritual music has always existed and I am sure it will never fade away completely.

William Wildblood said...

One of the reasons I wrote this post was to try to put right the idea that just because something is called spiritual music, or even sung in church or any religious setting, that doesn't make it spiritual. It's the style (not even the quality) of the music that makes it spiritual or not.

ted said...

That's absolutely true. There is plenty of bad "Christian rock" out there that doesn't elevate my being in any way. But some secular artists have done music that can do that.