Music is part of the spiritual fabric that makes us human. It is a universal language upon which many other sacred arts are built and informed. From tonality and harmony, pitch and rhythm, we have adapted to express ourselves through the spoken word and also through song. It is hardwired in us from the moment we are conceived. In utero, we grow accustomed to the rising and falling of our mothers’ voices, our very first melody. After we are born, we learn the sounds of our environment like the rustling of leaves in the wind or the ebbing of an ocean tide. As we get older, we are taught by loved ones the music of our culture. Music is an art form, expressing that which so easily escapes our recognition on a day-to-day basis. It’s wonder digs deep into the roots of our primal being.
It is, perhaps, for this very reason that each culture is so clearly defined by its musical style. Take the elaborate polyrhythms in African tribal music, used as a way to enter into a trance-like dance with each drummer, tightening the spiritual bond between each tribesman. In many ways, this same exchange between music and rhythm is found in the complex noodling of Appalachian bluegrass, where stories of mountain life are cherished amongst family and friends through both song and dance.
Then there is the multi-tonal vocalizations of Tibetan monks, echoing contemplations like the comfort of an ocean tide lulling one to sleep. Completely different is the droning of Scottish bagpipes, which enliven the mind and lift the spirit.
Think of Indian ragas and American jazz, two forms whose inspirational improvisations invite us to live in the moment. There is so much diversity to celebrate.
Each of these musical styles distinguish one culture from another, yet if you peer a bit closer, you come to find the musical language bridges any boundary. Whether it is zydeco, ragtime, hip hop, rock and roll, ricercar and fugues, symphonies, tango, bolero, samba, salsa, mambo, calypso, reggae, timba—all music carries with it a story. And not just any story: the human story.
We may respect or even reject the music of our own time and space, and yet it touches us. It stirs in us an existential awareness of what it means to feel what we do, whether that be joy or anguish, hope or fear, expectation or surprise. Music is so effective at bringing us back to this heightened consciousness of the soul, that we rely on it again and again to mark the passage of our time here on earth.
From accompanying a mundane traffic jam or daily morning shower rituals, to the profundity of a college graduation or spiritual gathering, whether in the roaring pulse of a crowded music festival or the hushed attention of an audience at a symphonic hall, music is present. We mark our holidays and festivals, wedding celebrations and funeral ceremonies, the solemn passing of the offering plate at church, all the moments we give acknowledgment to are accompanied by music.
To create these sounds out of bits of wood and metal and through vocalization… this is the art of the musician. His/her relationship to the instrument, as well as the dynamic between the performer’s mind and the audience is what joins art with humanity. It is what gives our stories a voice, communicating the ineffable, to even extract something hidden within ourselves. With endless variety music covers our time and space with sonic wonder. So this is the musicians miracle, that in the midst of such vast variety our many voices become one song. Our faith mingled with sound creates harmony from the cacophony. With one great crescendo of purpose our shared humanity brings unison from our diversity. This is the mystery and ministry of music!