Music and Spirituality

Music has had a significant place in my life and in some ways has been a “character” or perhaps more accurately a kind of dialogue partner in my life story. Music has invited me into new spaces of existence and existentiality, has confronted me, and has comforted me.
When approached with the topic for this month’s edition of RLN, I asked if I might include a bit about music and scripture, and then interview two Winnipeg musicians on their understanding of music and spirituality. Thus, the format for this article includes first some roles of music in scripture and, next, comments on experiences of music and spirituality from two Winnipeg musicians, Cate Friesen and John K. Samson.
Music in biblical texts
Music arrives on the scene very early in the biblical canon. Genesis 4:20-22 relates a brief account of the “origin of skills,” naming three categories of job skills ostensibly considered most necessary by the biblical authors: the ancestor of metalsmithing (Tubal-cain), the ancestor of livestock farming (Jabal), and the ancestor of musicians (Jubal). I have always appreciated this text that ascribes to music the same value as the practical skills of life. What can be discerned from this? How might music be as necessary to life as farming and food? What nutrition/nurturance does the creation of, performance of, and hearing of music offer?
We discover in biblical texts that music accompanies us on all journeys in life – from birth to death, harvests, weddings, joys and celebrations, sorrows and grief. From the coronation of kings to sacred ceremonies, music rang through the streets of Jerusalem in processions and through individual, social, political, economic, and religious worlds. Music was powerful enough to win wars (Gideon’s trumpets and rams’ horns at Jericho), heal illness, and challenge oppression. Music is said to aid prophets in attaining their messages (2 Kings 3:15). Perhaps the culmination in the biblical text is that only the call and invitation of music affords the Divine Presence to inhabit the temple ascribed to Solomon in Jerusalem.
Music, therefore, unites the worlds of human and divine (2 Chronicles 5:13). In a utopic description, the text relays that it is only when the musicians and singers are as one, in complete harmony, that divine glory descends to live among the people. As human and divine co-exist, and as humanity is united in harmony, creator and creation are brought together. Is this in part how we enter into being co-creators in the process of composing and singing/performing music?

John K. Samson
Photo: Leif Norman

Music and spirituality
Music and spirituality have long been intimate companions. Some say music was earliest humanity’s first language. As a Quaker who participates in the contemplative practices of silence and spirituality, I spoke with two Quaker musicians, John K. Samson and Cate Friesen about their understanding and experience of music and spirituality.
JR: Do you consider music and spirituality to be related?
JKS: I do think they are related, but I’m also wary of the connection. I grew up singing in religious contexts and found that music was often used as a form of indoctrination and control. This was difficult for me, so as I was beginning my musical career this is always something I was very wary of – that kind of reactionary element of music.
When I landed with the Quakers many years later, one of the things that appealed to me was the relative lack of music in their gatherings of Meeting for Worship. As I did some research, I was intrigued by this idea that early Quakers (1600s England) were very suspicious of music. I actually really like that about Quakerism. I appreciate this and I think there is something “programmed” about music. There is something that can be enforced.
For me, the lack of music in my religious life is gratifying, because the absence of it provides a shape of it. It allows me to appreciate it in new ways. I find that I use it more sparingly than I used to as a spiritual instrument. And this makes it more powerful than it was before.
I do find that one of things I’ve been interested in lately is shape-note singing. I’m so gratified by this experience. One of the things so profound about it is there is nothing “performative” in it. (There is a joke that people would travel days and days to participate in shape-note singing, but wouldn’t cross the street to hear it.) There is something pure about it, something truly experiential. There is a power to that. When I go to Christian worship services in mainstream services, I’m often struck by how music is used in a way to amplify feeling. I’m also struck by how much “praise” music there is and how little “fear and trembling” there is in music. In some ways, it is so uplifting that it doesn’t lift me anywhere.
Music is a huge part of my life – it’s one of the best things in my life and performing for other people is a real joy and privilege that I sort of can’t get enough of. I grew up in a liturgical Lutheran community and church. Most of the music I make can be traced back to the sung liturgy of the Lutheran church I grew up in. I still find something powerful in that. I’m fascinated by the music of language itself and how profound it can be. Basically I “talk-sing” and that is an intersection I’m interested in – when speech becomes song and recognizing that the line between the two is malleable. Defining what music is for me is also a kind of puzzle I’m interested in teasing out and Quakerism provokes interesting arguments in that regard.
“Wayward” by Cate Friesen

CF: With both music and spirituality is a sense of mystery. There is something intangible and incredibly powerful about music and about spirituality. This is a significant link for me. In my childhood, they were completely intertwined. I grew up Mennonite, singing in harmony and the music was very much around spiritual themes. Even when this diversified for me, it remained incredibly powerful, and is something that is beyond words. There is a quality to both spirituality and music that cannot be described in words and that can move the heart.
I know some find this in art, and I find it in music.
For such a long time, music was the major way I expressed many things: the wonder I had about the world, the hard stuff and the beautiful stuff. I would celebrate all this through making and writing music. Music is never “background” for me. As I’ve grown older, I choose to listen less, because I need more silence. I find I can’t listen to music and work; I have to focus on one thing as I hear music as music. I’m pretty selective about what I listen to, but it still tends to open my heart often in ways I wasn’t aware I needed to be opened up. This is that powerful, unnamable Mystery.
JR: What would you like people to know about music and spirituality?
CF: Music does not always need to be spiritual music. We don’t all find the mystery in the same thing. Also, it never needs to be just church music to find the spirituality in it. There is amazing church music that I love, and my heart is moved even if the lyrics/theology aren’t my own. There is a way for music to be spiritual that is not connected with religious music.
Janet Ross teaches at the Centre for Christian Studies. She is a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and enjoys hiking with her spouse.

Another key thing is that I’ve had very specific spiritual experiences when I sing with others. There is something about collectively singing with a group of people that is moving, and is very much like the difference between collective worship and individual worship. This makes me still love hymn singing, or shape-note singing. I can be sitting with a group of people from many difference spiritual backgrounds, but when singing together there is something amazing that is happening among us. It is an incredibly strong experience.
JKS: Music is democratic and available to everyone. The culture’s obsession with auteurism and originality is in opposition to the spiritual value of music. It should be available to all.

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