Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Tuning Slide: 3.3- Spirituality of Music

Weekly Reflections on Life and Music

Music is the language of the spirit.
It opens the secret of life
bringing peace,
abolishing strife.
- Kahlil Gibran

We are in the last few weeks before this year’s Shell Lake Arts Center Trumpet Workshop. In late August I will start blogging about the themes and ideas that grow out of that, applying them to my practice and growth as a musician along with their applications to daily life. But before that, as we continue in the early part of this third year of The Tuning Slide, I want to take several weeks on some other topics that may also show up during the year ahead.

This week is the first of three posts taking a look at music from an angle that I have found more than important to me personally: Music as spiritual expression. There are as many different ways that this happens as there are listeners. Each of us also responds differently to a particular music or piece of music in different ways at different times. Our spiritual readiness and openness shifts as we grow and have other experiences.

The posts this week and next will look at the general topic of music and spirituality. The third post in three weeks will take a look at music as spiritual from the perspective of the musician. This whole idea of music and the spiritual may be one of the most basic links between life and music. What we experience in music may very well have an impact on how we live every day life in a deeper and more profound way than almost anything else we can talk about.

Since describing “spiritual” can be a whole lot like nailing Jello to a tree, I will start with a quick definition of what I mean when I talk about it. It has three parts:

a. Awareness of power and existence greater than one's self.
b. There is meaning, purpose, and direction in this greater scheme of things.
c. Positive, healthy connections with other people as part of a greater community.

We each may have different ways we describe these three parts of spirituality, but I would guess that most can agree with them, even if some may hesitate to use the word “spiritual.” I don’t want to get into a discussion of religious vs. spiritual or any of the other side issues that could bog us down.

I know many who use the word spiritual to describe the way some musicians play. Perhaps more than any other single individual, spiritual is often attached to John Coltrane. Or there may that moment in a song or solo that makes one get goosebumps or a chill up one’s spine. We then say that this is a spiritual moment. Whatever that may mean. But the three things I mentioned above can often be used to describe our experiences. Somehow we know that a piece of music makes us aware there is something greater than us, that there seems to be some sort of meaning or purpose there, and that we can connect with that as well as others.

It may be intuitive and beyond immediate description, but that is a spiritual experience.

As I was doing some research I came across a website ( ) that had a good outline post on the topic. The quotes below are all mefrom that site. As I often do, I give you the quotes in bold and then I will riff on them as a way of thinking about music and the spiritual.

Music resonates within the human spirit. At the heart of humanity is a song of the soul. The spiritual significance of music can transcend communities, cultures, and creeds.

Quantum (and other branches of) physics have taught us that at the very center of all that is, our world vibrates. Some have found an early vibration of the original microwave background sound. Others have looked at the way the atoms and molecules vibrate in each of us. It isn’t too far-fetched to think that each of us has our own “vibration” that is unique since no one else has the exactly similar mix of atoms and elements. That may be a semi-scientific (or, to some, pseudo-scientific) answer to why music, sound vibrations in harmony, can be spiritual. It does seem to be at the heart of who we are.

Some of that may simply be repetition and communal connections (more on that below.) It may be the way a certain song, type of music, or musical progression brings back experiences that have moved us or touched us at some deep level. A particular lyrical passage may bring emotions to the front. Put those lyrics in a piece of music and it vibrates in harmony with us. Does it cause something in us to move in tandem with the music?

Music continues to inspire spiritual expression as sound reflects and affects faith and values. Beliefs and perceptions will transcend the very nature of music and lyrics.

Music, in some form, familiar or unusual can be found in most, if not all religious and spiritual movements. It may be as simple as the ringing of a gong to initiate or end a period of meditation or as complex as a Bach cantata. Or, on the other extreme, it may be the reaction against music in some historic traditions. But even in those there is an awareness that music can have an impact on the spiritual for better or worse.

In my particular religious tradition we have a history of brass choirs. A few weeks ago our concert band played a number that included one section that was directed for the brass to play together as a choir. I found myself responding to that passage from a deep, and even spiritual, place. That transcended the particular piece and took me to a good and peaceful place.

Amazing Grace, as an example, transcends even religion. Many non-believers respond in some deep way to its particular strains, even without the words. The number of instrumental variations of that hymn, its use in many settings- secular and spiritual- show that there is something deeply embedded in the Western traditions. Here’s a link to John Raymond and Real Feels doing a remarkable arrangement of Amazing Grace. Spiritual? At least in my book.

Which leads to the next point…

Our spirituality is an essential part of who we are, and it forms the framework of our world. Community, culture, and creed all offer insights into the connection between music and spirituality.

What is is that is deep within us? Why does music do this? Why do so many of us as musicians report feelings and emotional interactions with our music? Without getting out into some weird left-field ideas, I don’t think it is too far out to think that it is the vibrations of music in harmony that does it. We have common history and it can make a huge difference in what we respond to. Which brings us to one of the elements of that definition I started with:

Music cultivates community, as sound creates communication and unity…. Sound creates a spiritual connection between music-maker and music-lover.

I would add, a connection between music-lovers as well. That is community. They feed each other and give a common gathering place in the music itself. In my highly visual imagination I see the strands of music flowing from the musicians to the audience, around them, bringing them into the power of what the music is about. Not all of that could be called spiritual, of course. Certain music can send people into places that are not healthy. More on that next week as we go deeper to get in touch with spiritual.

With that introduction, let me ask you a few questions:
  • How would you define the spiritual in music?
  • When has it happened to you?
  • How do you know it was spiritual?
Add your thoughts in the comments on this post. I really want to hear from you and bring this virtual community into the dialogue.

A special note:

The copies of the 2nd Edition of The Tuning Slide book for the students at this year's Shell Lake Arts Center Trumpet Workshop have been ordered. They will again be free to the students! In order to help me defray the cost I have a Go Fund Me page where those who would like to can make a donation. Here is the link:

Go Fund Me for Tuning Slide books for students

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