What a mystery music is. A peek at various dictionaries reveals a variety of definition that speak of vibrations, waves of energy that combine with other waves, varying in intensity, combination, tone, harmony and a host of other factors, not to mention lyrics. It is in the composers mind before it is even heard, and in the hearers heart without help from the ear.
How often have we listened with others to some good rhythmic music as, inevitably, feet start to tap, heads begin nod, and no doubt, if the performance is live, hands have started clapping. Good music gets into us, grabs hold, and brings us out of ourselves. The urge to get up and dance at the sound of good music is almost irresistible. We dance in the kitchen just as we sing in the shower, because…well, why is that?
The impact of music on us has a lot to do with our personal history. For example, for many of the older generation in the church, singing the old time favorites, like “The Old Rugged Cross”, and “I Walk in the Garden Alone”, today may have words that make no sense theologically, but which evoke memories of good times past.
It goes beyond personal history, however. Even when heard for the first time, a Gregorian chant has a power that cannot be explained or contained.
Such a captivating experience is not limited by the type or setting of the music. Classical, pop, bluegrass, jazz, country, blues, to name common Western music, all have the capacity to release an energy within us, previously pent up, but now free. That release can and does happen to anyone, any time, any place. Music is one of the great equalizers of persons. No matter who you are, you are susceptible to this unfathomed power. What is going on here?
In answer to that question, there is within us, an energy, an awareness, a wholeness, -how shall we name it?- that becomes overcome by facade, inevitably, and to every one. As we slowly come to consciousness in this world, we are bombarded by bits of information that come to us through our experience of the external world. We want and need to organize this experience into some sort of integrated whole that we can deal with, and so our brain begins to organize and classify, to judge and pre-judge, to pay attention to certain detail and not others. This process is not limited to the brain: by the time information arrives there, it has already been filtered at each step on the neural pathway. Because of this necessary procedure, initially benign, we each and all create our own framework of interpretation, our own little world, and my world is not your world. Not only so, but because of the filtering process, my world is not the real world, and the energy-awareness-wholeness is suppressed by the runaway train of our world creation. The facade takes on the appearance of reality, and Reality becomes lost in a sea of judgement.
Here’s where music enters the scene. Whether it’s a moment of foot-tapping at a bluegrass concert, a moment of awe in a cathedral filled with Gregorian chants, or rockin’ to the Stones, the facade we have created is temporarily dissolved, the world we have created is temporarily dismantled. The experience is not the product of rational thought or analysis, but just happens, directly and without reflection. Tapping one’s foot in time to the music is not the result of a conscious decision to tap one’s foot.
Of course, there are many explanations of such moments. It could be that some part of the brain other than the cerebral cortex is making that decision, our “reptilian composer” brain, for example. Or we might say from a perspective informed by Jesus, that the power to dismantle our world is a power transcendent to us. That the One who enables Reality to dissolve our facade is the One who created. That the one who re-ignites our awareness of truth is Truth itself. That the origin of all these moments is the Divine.
If music thus has the capacity to momentarily break into our parochialism and put us in contact with the divine, then music in a spiritual and communal setting should facilitate that process. The problem, of course, is that – and this is especially true of music- it’s different strokes for different folks. Many older persons personally can sing about “The Old Rugged Cross” with gusto, even though they completely disagree with the lyrics. But if they were doing that in the company of a young secular humanist, that younger person might be turned off by their seemingly odd behavior. Many today enjoy what goes by the name of “Christian” music, a genre that leaves many others cold. Just as it is difficult to develop a ritual that appeals to everyone, it is equally difficult to incorporate music that can appeal to all. It becomes that much more difficult when friends and strangers come to visit.
However that issue is resolved, we can rejoice in the fact that music has the power to dismantle the “world” we have created, the power to re-ignite the wholeness that lies within, and the power to dissolve our facade and put us in touch- if only in the moment- with who we really are.
Further discussion of moments and world-creation may be found in my book The Void and the Vision.