Posted in Project 2: Palestrina and the Mass, Uncategorized

Research Point 1.1, Part B: Music and Religion

The second part of this research point is to write a brief article of around 500 words (although I went a bit above this threshold, almost 800 words), regarding the connection between music and religion, interlacing my personal position with the material I’ve discovered. Below is my short essay on the topic.

Music and Religion: The Layered Entanglement

From the historical perspective, although far from the contemporary understanding, in a loose manner, the interplays between music and religion may be traced all the way back to the prehistory, when, as Boivin (2004: 48) points out, ‘percussion and/or other sounds contributed to the creation of an appropriate spiritual or emotional state for viewing or creation of rock art in ritual context.’ In a peculiar way, despite the scarce information that is available regarding the music from this period, the rock art might represent the first musical artefacts that visually depict how early the humanity recognized the value of acoustics and sound-production for the mystical act of worship. Along these lines, the primitive societies today retained the force of music as a type of tone-magic in their percussive shamanistic rituals, often accompanied by trance.

The above contrasts the modern frame of reference, where music is seen to interact with religion, now in the institutionalized settings, in the sense of aiding wakeful and calm meditative states of devotion. This association can be observed in many organized religions across the world, and the scholars usually focus on the sacred music from one of the traditions as the area of their investigation, for example, trying to discover how the vocal music became the dominant form in certain religious landscapes, and how some particular sounds became emblematic of a certain tradition, such as om
in Hinduism, throat-singing in Buddhism, certain vocalizations in Islam, shofar in Judaism, and church organ and bell in Christianity. (Hackett, 2012: 17)

Personally, what I found specifically engaging is the broader discourse on the relationship between music and religion, which repositions the discussion to a wider context. One of the strands, for example, shifted its dialogue from preaching, communication, and musical performance to the whole, wide-ranging area of soundscape and the corporeal, dialogic, and participatory aspects of the process of hearing, and what this might disclose about religion in its specific spatio-temporal contexts. (Hackett, 2012: 15) Noticing how both unfold through time, it discerned the temporal framework of music and how it may be synchronized with ritual time in various ways, with the potency to adjust to the religious needs of the participants, such as in various segments of the mass and other liturgical practices. In terms of the spatial context, it points out to the capacity of music to structure spaces and mark boundaries, as in the Islamic calls for prayer, trumpet voluntaries in Christian services or conch-shell trumpet notes for the commencement and the closure of Hindu rituals. (2012: 17)

Another strand of thought focused its exploration on the theology as a type of philosophical mediator between religion and music, providing theoretical perspectives on the musical aspects in religion and the religious aspects in music. For instance, in the Hindu theology, as Beck (1993) specified, the scriptures reveal the concept of God as the divine sound and describe cosmos as originating and permeating with sound. Another example is the medieval Christian theology, where the mathematical discovery of the numerical order of sound and the interval as an ‘audible law’, allowed music to achieve a status of sciences, along with geometry, arithmetic and astronomy, as a part of classical quadrivium. (Sohngen, 1983: 2) As for the religious quality of music, there are even authors who tackle the popular culture, such as Moberg (2012: 113-115), who highlighted the idea of metal music as a source of darker spiritual inspiration, often conveying the apocalyptic visions of the Bible and the themes of Satanism and pagan mythology, perhaps even constituting a type of dark religion itself.

In conclusion, the relationship between music and religion is one of complex nature with multiple possible levels to discuss and a web of issues to consider. What is certain, however, as Forsyth (1914) indicated, is that there is no way to definitively separate the two, and instead, the main societal question and concern has always revolved on how to combine them. Yet, in general, despite all the aforementioned areas of potential examination I’ve outlined through this short article, including narrower and broader historical, cultural, theological, spatial, temporal, performative and other aspects of the relationship, I found that there exists only a small scope of comparative studies that addresses this intricate topic, which unites music and religion. As such, with many possible questions not yet raised and addressed, I hope to follow and perhaps one day contribute to the future development of this still largely unexplored fertile sphere of prospective research, characterized primarily by the entanglement of its two subjects.


Boivin, N. (2004) ‘Rock art and rock music: Petroglyphs of the South Indian Neolithic’ In: Antiquity. 78 (299) pp. 38-53.

Forsynth, P. T. (1914) ‘Music and Worship’ In: Goroncy, J. A. (2013) Descending an Humanity and Intervening in History: Notes from the Pulpit Ministry of P. T. Forsyth. Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications. pp. 270-277.

Hackett, R. I. J. (2012) ‘Sound, Music, and the Study of Religion’ In: Temenos 48 (1) pp. 11-27.

Moberg, M. (2012) ‘Religion in Popular Music or Popular Music as Religion? A Critical Review of Scholarly Writing on the Place of Religion in Metal Music and Culture’ In: Popular Music and Society. 35 (1) pp. 113-130.

Sohngen, O. (1983) ‘Music and Theology: A Systematic Approach’ In: Irwin, J. (ed.) Sacred Sound: Music in Religious Thought and Practice. Chico, California: Scholars Press.


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