Parallels Between Music and Spirituality

Through the years of being both a professional musician and Christian minister I have noticed that there are a number of similarities and interesting parallels between the two subjects.  I am sure that there are many more that can be enumerated, but nevertheless, following are several ‘more than coincidental’ areas of intersection.

1)      Listening, not just hearing.  Many people hear music all day long: in the car, on television, a background radio, etc. but few actually listen, as a musician would.  Listening requires a deeper level of awareness than simply hearing.  The same holds true in Christianity.  “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” (Rom. 10:17)  The word hearing is literally translated as “hearing with understanding”.  “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Matt. 11:15)  Jesus continually challenged those who heard Him to understand what He was saying, beckoning them to a deeper awareness of His words.  Listening is an attitude.  It’s choosing to be aware, not just “having become dull of hearing”. (Heb. 5:11)  The Scripture admonishes Christians to “be swift to hear and slow to speak.” (Js. 1:19)  In music, players who play less and listen more are those who are seasoned in their craft.  They have come to relish the silent moments as much as, or more than, the rest of the musical activity.

2)      A written standard.  Classical musicians memorize entire works that have been carefully written down, notated for successive generations to study and perform.  I was once admonished by a professor to return to the written notation after I had become used to playing a piece for memory for a few weeks.  He pointed out a small detail that I had somehow neglected in my repeated performances for memory.  Having the written notation to go back to ensured that anything I might have forgotten could be reinstituted into my performance.  As Christians, the Scriptural record of God’s dealings with mankind for centuries gives a body of wisdom that warrants continual study.  Many times, Christian believers will endeavor to live the Christian life ‘by memory’ of what they heard in a sermon, or what tradition through a community has taught them, without studying or searching the Scriptures for themselves.  “Now these (in Berea) were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily, to see whether these things were so.” (Acts 17:11)  Constant attention to the written historical record insures that nothing is lost from our daily practice.

3)      Interpretation from the reference point of the author.  I found it curious, when I became a Christian, that so many people made a big deal of how the Bible was interpreted.  As a musician, it was a standard practice to predominantly seek to understand what the composer would have wanted.  The performer’s main objective was to determine the historical mindset of the composer and endeavor to play his work as closely as possible to his original desires.  The same holds true for the ‘interpretation of the Bible’.  The Bible interprets the Bible.  Context and metaphors tie together authors across centuries of testimonies given.  When an individual seeks to understand what the writers have desired to communicate, solely on the basis of grasping their messages at face value, instead of trying to force those messages into a cultural perspective or bias, all the mystery disappears.  Asking the question, “What does the author want me to understand?” is foundational to successful solid interpretation.

4)      Inspiration.  I don’t know one example of a musician, sacred or secular, who has made music for any length of time that hasn’t at some point sensed a power beyond himself, working through his musical performance.  Different people have their own unique way of explaining it, but everyone knows the moment it happened.  It is forever etched in their memory as an artist.  Some people make a futile attempt to try to ‘re-create’ the moment, so that they can ‘package’ it for their next performance.  It’s elusive, though.  It’s beyond human control.  The writers of Scripture knew of this phenomena, “But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” (I Pet. 1:20-21)  The inspiration of God, His goodness, is not confined only to a special group of people.  He is at work through all cultures, “He made from one, every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times, and the boundaries of their habitation, that they should seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist.” (Acts 17:26-28)  “For He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matt. 5:45)  “Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?” (Rom. 2:4)  The inspiration of God is at work in and through all cultures and communities, beckoning anyone who has ‘ears to hear’ to come to Him for help, beauty, joy, prosperity, all the riches of His kindness.  He is the Creator God, and all those who know creative inspiration have sensed His Presence.

5)      Worship.  Music and worship have existed in tandem as far back as human history can be observed.  If there is any quintessential area in which spirituality and music combine, it is in the area of worship.  Time and space in this article prohibit the exposition of the numerous examples of Scriptural texts dealing with music and worship.  However, here are some highlights. 

“And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord.” (Eph. 5:18)

“Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (Col. 3:16)

“Praise Him with trumpet sound; praise Him with harp and lyre.  Praise Him with timbrel and dancing; praise Him with stringed instruments and pipe.  Praise Him with loud cymbals; praise Him with resounding cymbals.  Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.” (Ps. 150:3-6)

Clearly, music and spirituality are intrinsically woven, inseparable in worshiping the Creative God, the One Who most likely ‘sang’ the worlds into existence from the beginning, and in Whose image we have been made to likewise bring forth that which is creative, glorifying Him in song, music and worship.