Music and Spirituality
Music is an art form among many others. As an artist, we seek to convey our thoughts to the listener or the viewer. Our creations are often portraits or reflections of experiences we have had, and sometimes expressions of some aspect of how we view life on an esoteric level. Art in a sense imitates life. It is a dangerous thing, however, when life begins to imitate art.
When I was studying music at Berklee and living in Boston, I came to the Christian faith. I can tell you that studying the faith has had a dramatic impact on my character and personality…which has in turn influenced the music I write. While music is an integral part of my life…it is by no means a source for discerning what is truth. At some point in our lives, we eventually ask the questions; Where did I come from and where am I going? For me personally, music has never really played any major part in finding the answers to these questions, be it listening, playing, or studying music. I’ve often heard people talk about how music can be a channel of some sort to the spiritual world. If this were true, shouldn’t the musician’s life demonstrate this? I raise this question because I’ve heard many artists imply that because someone is so gifted musically, they automatically become an authority figure on God and Spirituality…without ever really studying different faiths or philosophies. I’m not building a case for any religion at this point, I’m just making an observation.
Every religion ultimately must address 4 things: origin, condition, salvation, and destiny. In other words, where did I come from, what is my condition, how can I change my condition for the better, and where am I going? Listening to other people’s music (despite how powerful and emotional it is to me) is not really my first choice in trying to find the answers to these very serious questions. Some of the best musicians who have ever lived (in all genres) led empty and unfulfilled lives in that they were constantly depressed, and never able to enjoy the achievements they had worked so hard for. Their music…as beautiful as it is and as much as it has helped other people, could not save them from themselves. Miles Davis changed the face of music many times over and his musical legacy still lives on today.
His music is held as a model to aspiring music students making their way through music academic institutions. Upon reading Miles’ autobiography, we find how much drugs and alcohol abuse dominated his life. To the people that knew him personally, he was a very mean spirited individual who often mistreated his wives and his friends. He died alone in a hospital bed. When I listen to songs of his like “Flamenco Sketches”….one of the most beautiful compositions I have ever heard, I think it was so tragic that he died the way he did.
All music (at least all western music) ultimately uses the same melodic (12 notes) and rhythmic vocabulary. Music is a language, and it does have its own vocabulary and syntax. Words can be carriers of spiritual force….good or bad. By the same token, music can also be a carrier of spiritual force to a certain extent….good or bad. When it comes to instrumental music, I think this is a little less so. Music can convey powerful emotions be it anger or joy, and this can influence the listener’s emotions as well. Still, people have different ways of interpreting what they hear, and no one in their right mind acts strictly by what they feel. This would be a dangerous thing indeed. Some music is more complex and demands much more from the listener as it might contain higher levels of rhythmic/melodic dissonance which certainly evokes feelings of tension and uneasiness. Hearing such pieces as the “Rite of Spring” by Stravinsky, or “A Love Supreme” by John Coltrane…these aren’t exactly pieces that you walk away humming after the first listening. Sometimes it takes repeated listening to get a sense of the substance of the music and all of its intricacies. In both cases, these are two of the best musicians that have ever lived, and the beauty of both compositions is no longer in question…
I think what makes music so powerful is how it can capture our imagination, intellect, and emotions so easily. In music, the extremes of consonance and dissonance, loud and soft, fast and slow, all seem to be amplified exponentially compared to any spoken language. One very well placed note can convey an image of hope or of despair. The thought that happens in a split second that makes a player decide to play one note would take far longer to express in words and convey the same feeling with as much force.. Every musician (regardless of their spirituality) experiences deep emotions….emotions which you and I both feel because we are human. Music can be a way of expressing these emotions, and in so doing, we as the listener are captivated by this. I think we all know how powerful this experience can be. That’s why any player or writer (regardless of their lifestyle or character) can reach listeners of all kinds. They all have the capacity to express their emotions and feelings in some way. We are all human and we all feel the same things at different times.
I think some people mistake feeling emotions very strongly for being a “spiritual” person. Being a spiritual person as I understand it is something quite different than an emotional state, but rather a state of the will. It’s about being there for someone else even when it’s inconvenient to you. It’s about not giving up, even when you feel like you want to quit. It’s about forgiving others even though they sinned against you. It’s about putting other people before yourself. Music can be a way for the player or listener to vent their emotions be it anger, depression, doubt, fear, etc. A listener can equate with a song that seems to tell their story in some way and it can often instill an inner calmness and peace. For me, the aggression in some styles is really inspiring and can instill a sense of inner confidence and motivation. While all of these things are good…emotions are often circumstantial and they are often blown about by the wind in all directions. The will however, is unchanging. I believe that when someone wills to do what they believe is right…they can.
When I feel the worries and cares of life are weighing heavily on my shoulders, I find refuge in playing my guitar by myself or listening to music with the lights turned off and there’s no one around. Doing something that you know is good for you and other people is such a great feeling. For me, playing and writing music is a huge thrill and having the opportunity to share it with other people is also a huge thrill. For someone else it might be being a lawyer, or doctor, or physician. I think that there is no greater high in life than doing something well, and doing it for the glory of God.