Music: Music and Religion

views updated


Music and religion are closely linked in relationships as complex, diverse, and difficult to define as either term in itself. Religious believers have heard music as the voices of gods and the cacophony of devils, praised it as the purest form of spirituality, and condemned it as the ultimate in sensual depravity; with equal enthusiasm they have promoted its use in worship and sought to eradicate it from both religious and secular life. Seldom a neutral phenomenon, music has a high positive or negative value that reflects its near-universal importance in the religious sphere. This importanceperhaps difficult to appreciate for post-industrial-revolution Westerners accustomed to reducing music to the secondary realms of "art," "entertainment," and occasional "religious" music isolated behind sanctuary wallshas nonetheless been per-vasive.

Religious "texts" have been sung, not written, throughout most of human history; and religious behavior has found musical articulation in almost every religious tradition. Navajo priests are "singers"; the primary carriers of Sinhala traditional religion are drummers and dancers; and the shamans of northern Eurasia and Inner Asia use music as their principal medium of contact with the spirit world. Through the centuries, priests, monks, and other specialists have sung the Christian masses, Buddhist pūjā s, Islamic calls to prayer, Hindu sacrifices, and other ceremonies that form the basis of organized religious observances in the world's major religions.

The values, uses, and forms of religious music are as diverse and culture-specific as the religious traditions in which they are found. Christian liturgical music is generally as characteristically "European" as Hindu devotional music is "Indian"; both use sounds, forms, and instruments from their respective cultures and have contributed greatly to the overall musical life of their own regions. Yet music, like religion, can transcend cultural limits; the religious musical systems of Ethiopia and Tibet, for example, differ almost as greatly from the secular musics of their own respective cultures as the musics of foreign countries.

Religious musical systems may also extend across cultural boundaries. Islam, for example, has forged musical links across vast regions of Asia and Africa; and North American traditions such as the Ghost Dance and the peyote cult have created musical bridges between very diverse ethnic groups. Other well-known intercultural religious musical traditions include Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and West African/Latin American possession music. Additional cases may include (1) the drumming and singing of Asian shamans, perhaps constituting a related tradition stretching from Scandinavia to the Himalayas, and possibly even extending into the Americas; (2) the epic songs, based on improvisatory recombinations of traditional song segments, of Central Asia and eastern Europe; (3) the bronze gong ensembles, associated with cosmological and calendrical symbolism and functions, of Southeast Asia; (4) perhaps the ancient sacrificial chants, linked to modal systems built on tetrachords, of Indo-European peoples extending from India to Greece; and (5) conceivably an even wider connection between Chinese, Indian, and Greek conceptions of music as an embodiment of universal cosmological and mathematical laws.

Yet, second only to its universal occurrence, diversity is the most characteristic feature of religious music, even in the great intercultural religious traditions. Christian music, for example, includes not only Gregorian plainsong, Palestrina masses, Protestant hymns, and Bach oratorios but also the resonant basses of the Russian Orthodox choir, the ornate melodies of Greek Orthodox chant, and the percussion-accompanied dances of Ethiopian Coptic worship; in the postcolonial era, it encompasses West African rhythms, and metallic sonorities of the Javanese gamelan orchestra, and the driving beat and electronic tones of the rock band as well. Hindu music aimed at helping to achieve the meditative state of samādhi can employ the very non-Indian sounds of Indonesian bronze instruments. Musical diversity in its religious and cultural contexts will be treated in other articles; here, I shall discuss some panreligious and pancultural issues.

Definitions and Concepts

Given the close links between musical and religious concepts, a nonsectarian definition of music may be impossible. For example, one common definition of music as "humanly patterned sound" conflicts with widely held religious beliefs that music is not humanly, but rather, divinely patterned. To members of traditions holding that music or, at least, religious music originates with the gods or with devils, the assertion of the human origin of music must seem the ultimate in Western materialistic dogmatism, however scientifically neutral it may seem to the outsider.

Even definitions as simple as the dictionary staple "art of sounds" carry ethnocentric and sectarian implications. In many religious contexts, music is less an expressive "art" than a technology applied to produce practical results, from the storage and retrieval of information contained in religious narratives and teachings memorized in song to the attraction of animals in hunting, increase of harvests, curing of diseases, communication with the divine, supplication, and control of the various levels of psychocosmic experience. While aesthetic beauty may or may not be integral to such technologies, individual self-expression plays little part in them and may be detrimental to their intended results.

The concept of music as an "art" carries overtones of a late European ideology based on the sanctity of self-expression and individualism, ultimately rooted in Greek and Judeo-Christian notions of ego, self, and soul. For some traditions, music is antithetical to the very notion of an individual self or soul. One group of Buddhist texts takes music as the archetypal embodiment of impermanence and conditioned causality, dependent on external sources and conditions, in order to show that there can be no such thing as an individual self. By contrast, modern Western scholars tend to view music, at least in its ideally purest forms, as fundamentally independent of external causes and conditions; they draw a sharp line between "extramusical" elements such as symbolism, function, purpose, and so forth, and "the music itself," which is supposed to consist of pure arrangements of tones. This concept of music seems to reflect European post-Renaissance religious concepts of an autonomous and inviolable soul wholly contained in the body of the individual. Perhaps it also reflects postfeudal economic concepts of individual entrepreneurial freedom, just as the Buddhist concept of an impermanent music resulting from temporary combinations of causes and conditions reflects basic Buddhist religious beliefs.

Even sound may not play a decisive role in religious concepts of music, at least not in any technical sense. When fundamentalist Muslims ban recordings of Western popular music and fundamentalist Christians burn them, they are not necessarily reacting to the melodic or chordal structures that constitute the essence of music for the technically oriented outsider. The "music of the spheres" extolled by early Christian writers was not sound in the sense of physical waves propagated in a gaseous medium; and, in Tibetan Buddhist thought, music consists of both the "actually present music" produced by sound-making voices and instruments and the "mentally produced music" perceived and imagined by each listener, with different results according to individual differences in experience, skill, and imagination. Religious traditions have by and large no more conceived music to consist of sounds and the "extramusical" than they have considered persons to be made up of the physical body and the "extrapersonal." Hence, even the most basic technical definition of music will ignore or deny essential aspects of music as conceived by many religions, while labels such as "symbolism" applied to nonacoustic aspects may appear misguided or even hostile from a believer's perspective.

The very attempt to define music neutrally and open-mindedly might be objectionable from some religious viewpoints. For certain Christians, some kinds of secular music and the musics of other religions are the works of the devil and should not be mentioned without condemnation; on the other hand, for the Mahāyāna Buddhist author Sa Skya Paita, all music deserves praise because it relieves human suffering. Some Muslims would object to a discussion of Qurʾanic vocalizations and other songs under the same heading and would assign negative connotations to music in general; but some ūfī writers discuss music only in terms of highest praise for its capacity to lead to spiritual fulfillment, and they would consider a neutral approach as evidence of a lack of real understanding or appreciation of music's most important meanings and values.

Many religions and cultures do not have a concept corresponding to "music" or "religious music." For Islam, al-mūsīqī ("music") is, in principle, what the West might consider secular music, controversial for its potential to mislead believers into sensual distractions; melodic vocalizations of the Qurʾān and certain religious poetry are not "music," however musical they may seem on technical and aesthetic grounds. To avoid violating the integrity of a tradition by imposing a dissonant external viewpoint, it might help to consider all such cases of performances that sound musical to the outsider, but are not music to the insider, as "para-musical."

Cultures as diverse as those of Ethiopia (Shelemay, 1982) and modern Tibet have distinct terms and concepts for religious and secular music, with no common category of "music" to unite them. The music of the Chinese chin (a type of zither), on the other hand, is clearly conceived as music and has strong roots in Confucian and Daoist concepts and practices; but it certainly is not "religious" in the same sense as the singing of monks in Buddhist or Daoist temples. And, although the point lends itself all too easily to distortion and romanticism, it is a well-known fact that in many small-scale kinship-based societies of hunters, nomads, and subsistence farmers, where formal role distinctions are much less prominent than in bureaucratized state civilizations, it is often as difficult to draw a clear line between "sacred" and "secular" musics as it is between religion and everyday life. Are Pygmy honey-gathering songs part of a traditional ritual, a comic entertainment, a social regulatory system designed to ensure and enhance egalitarian universal participation in community life, or an aesthetically exquisite polyphonic art? The question, if not meaningless, is at least inelegant.

Musics, like religions, are most meaningfully defined in their own terms. Along with aspects of musical sounds and their structural relationships, religious definitions frequently take into consideration such factors as cosmological and mathematical laws, divine origin or inspiration, psychological and emotional effects, social and ethical implications, relations or contrasts between religious and secular musics, and a wide range of other elements.

Since the selection of factors varies widely from one religious tradition to another, as does the relative importance assigned to any particular element, an approach that attempted to define all religious musics "in their own terms" would result in a collection of mutually unintelligible approaches to what must on some level be a cosmically, divinely, or humanly universal topic. For want of a better solution, we must discuss music and religion in the terms most widely shared by the full range of musical and religious traditions; and these, in the first place, require attention to the technical elements of music and of the paramusical phenomena found in religious contexts.

Technical Features

Music has its technical basis in human voices and/or musical instruments that produce sounds with patterned acoustical characteristics. Religious traditions often stress a distinction between vocal and instrumental music and frequently assign higher value to vocal music. This is usually because of its capacity to communicate meanings through the words of song texts, because the human body seems more a part of divine creation than instruments created by human artifice, or because of negative associations of instruments and their music. In some traditions, such as the Mennonite churches and Theravāda Buddhist monasteries, vocal music is performed a cappella, without instrumental accompaniment. No cases are known in which vocal music is rejected entirely in favor of instrumental music; but there are significant examples (such as the Siberian shaman's drum) where instruments and their music equal or overshadow vocal music in religious importance.

Patterned human vocalizations take two forms: speech, emphasizing contrastive distinctions between units (phonemes, syllables, words) with distinct meanings, and singing, emphasizing prolonged continuity of sounds with controlled pitch (frequency of vibration). Singing without words produces a melody, a patterned sequence of tones; with words sung to the melody, one has a song. A song may be sung on a single, steady pitch level (monotone); or its melody may rise and fall to any number of higher and lower pitches, the total of which, arranged in ascending or descending order, are its scale; or it may consist of continuous, gradually shifting tone contours without distinctly separate high or low levels. Sets of musical scales may be conceived as modes that incorporate standard melodic patterns, ethical and cosmological implications, and other non-acoustic features.

Religious traditions may place greater value and emphasis on either words or melody; and vocal styles may range from formally simple, with few up-and-down melodic movements to avoid distortion of the words of the texts, to more elaborate, with complex melismatic movements to enhance musical beauty. It was once widely believed that such differences represented an evolutionary sequence from "primitive" chant to musical art; but, as Edith Gerson-Kiwi (1961) has convincingly argued, melodic simplicity may be a deliberately developed stylistic alternative to elaborate secular styles in complex cultures. Varying textual/musical emphasis may reflect varying mythic/ritual applications, stressing either the informational content of religious narratives or the aesthetic beauty or power of a religious offering. Contrasting textual/musical emphases may also reflect differences in communicating with human believers in an intelligible language, or with spirits or gods, who may prefer the special mode of musical communication.

Melodies may be performed as a solo by a single singer or instrument player, in unison by a chorus of singers, or accompanied by other singers or instruments playing independent, distinct musical parts. They may be arranged so as to occur simultaneously with other melodies (polyphony), with a steady-pitch monotone (drone), or with conventionally arranged sequences (harmony) of other pitches or simultaneous-pitch clusters (chords). The most musically complex of these features may occur in the smallest local religions of the sociopolitically and technologically simplest cultures. Generally, such traditions tend toward maximum religious and musical participation by the whole group, while the "great" religions of urban civilizations tend toward complex patterns of religious and musical specialization. However, the existence of religious and musical specialists such as the shaman in small cultures, of complex divisions of musical function in the group performances of hunter-gatherers such as the Pygmies and San, and of movements toward community religious and musical participation such as the growth of the Lutheran chorale and Buddhist monastic chant in urban civilizations in Europe and India, show that even the most general rules may find exceptions in religious and musical traditions.

Rhythms are the product of patterned accents and "long" and "short" durations of sounds. Their patterns may be varying groups of irregular or equal-length beats (abstract or actually played accent/time units) and pulses (shortest units actually played); or patterns may recur in cycles of the same number of beats played again and again. Rhythms and cycles may be classified as appropriate to specific gods and ritual activities, and some traditions (such as Tantric Buddhism) use mathematical beat groups extending into the hundreds to musically embody cosmological and other religious concepts. Rhythms often form a link between music, words, and dance. In songs with prose texts, musical rhythms are often free, varying along with long-short syllable and sentence patterns; while songs with poetic texts often reflect the meter of poetic stanzas, with the same number of syllables and beats recurring in successive lines. However, musical settings may also utilize different rhythmic patterns from the texts set to them. Dance rhythms provide cues of accent and patterning to coincide with movements of the body; they range in style from syncopated (favoring sounds that fall between and overlap beats) and very fast styles associated with some African American possession religions to the asymmetrical, extremely slow rhythms used in Tibetan Buddhist dances.

Musical instruments are scientifically classed into four groups according to the means used to produce sound: idiophones (bells, gongs, etc.), which produce sound by means of a solid vibrating body; membranophones (drums, etc.), which utilize a stretched membrane; chordophones (lutes, harps, etc.), which use strings; and aerophones (flutes, trumpets, etc.), in which vibrating air produces the sound. Instruments of all these classes are widely used in religious music, although one class or another is looked on with special favor or disfavor by various religious traditions. Instruments are often played in groups or ensembles. These are sometimes called "bands" or "orchestras," with the latter term technically implying greater size and more variety of instrument types; but the terms are often used simply to connote a lesser or greater degree of respect on the writer's part.

Some Western writings on religion and music, particularly works by early scholars and missionaries, contain misnomers that convey false technical implications. Most common is the term primitive, which implies both "early" and "simple"; in fact, historical evolutionary chronologies of musical types are speculative and controversial, and the term has been indiscriminately applied solely on racial grounds to musics comparable in complexity and sophistication to the music of any known civilization. Words such as noise, din, and cacophony often simply indicate lack of understanding or sympathy.

Instruments are frequently misnamed; for example, flageolet, the name of a flute, is widely applied to oboes and trumpets; tambourine, a frame drum with jingles, is used for every kind of drum; and guitar and harp, applied to almost any chordophone. A more ambiguous usage is chant, a term that should carry technical implications of free rhythm, limited pitch range, and a relatively simple melodic style. In fact, the term is widely used as a simple synonym for "religious vocalization" or "religious song," even in cases of melodically and rhythmically very complex music; hence, it may impart the misleading impression that a music is of inferior aesthetic quality simply by virtue of its being religious.

Origins, Myths, and Symbolism

The close relationship of music and religion may imply, as some myths and legends claim, a common or related origin. From the eighteenth to the early twentieth century, evolution-oriented scholars debated theories of musical origins in the sounds of birds and animals, emotional cries of grief at funerals, language intonations, stylized recitations of religious texts, and animistic awe of "voices" heard in natural objects such as shells and bamboo tubes, and so forth. All such theories proving no less speculative and resistant to objective investigation than the traditional myths they were meant to replace, the issue gradually lost scientific interest, and it is now all but ignored in musical research. But, as if in discouragement at having failed to construct their own myth of musical origins, scholars also made little effort to explore the origin question in its traditional context of religious mythology; and today we still find ourselves in the "surprising" position of finding, as did Alan P. Merriam (1964, p. 74), "that there seem to be almost no available accounts of beliefs concerning the ultimate origin of music."

Accessible information, while insufficient to allow for generalization or systematic analysis, is abundant enough to show that music is as diverse in myths of origin as in any other of its aspects. Music may be thought to originate in a primordial divine power, as in the nāda-brahman "God-as-sound" of Hinduism, or in the efforts and discoveries of such human originators as Jubal and his father Lamech, briefly mentioned in Jewish and Islamic traditions (see Gn. 4:21), or Fuxi and Huangdi, in Chinese legend the discoverers of music and its mathematical-cosmological basis. Music may also play a cosmogonic role in the origin or maintenance of the world, as in the drum-playing and cosmic dance of the Hindu god Śiva Nataraja or in widespread stories of gods who "sing" their creations and creatures into existence.

The creation of individual pieces of music and musical instruments may involve contact with the divine. In the vision quest of the Plains Indians, individuals would go out alone into the wilderness to fast and seek divine messages revealed in songs, which they would then bring back to enhance the religious and musical life of the community. The Asian shaman's quest for a drum may take him to the center of the world and the beginning of time, just as the Australian Aborigine's dreaming of songs may provide a link to the primordial Dreaming. Musical creation may even move in the opposite direction, from the human world to the divine, as in the case of the Tibetan composer Milaraspa (10401123), whose songs are said to have been "imported" to heaven by the mkha' 'gro ma goddesses who, like their counterparts in many other religions, fill the Tibetan Buddhist heavens with their music.

The idea that music originally belonged to "other" places, times, persons, or beings is found in many myths, sometimes with connotations of conflict and conquest, as in the South American and Melanesian legends of male theft of sacred flutes from the women who originally possessed them. However, the discovery or creation of music is more often a joyful or ecstatic experience, as in the many vocal and instrumental pieces and religious dances of Tantric Buddhism experienced in dreams and meditations as celestial performances and then recomposed by the meditator for performance in the human world. Handel's often-quoted account of seeing God and the angels while composing the "Hallelujah" chorusto say nothing of the religious experiences the chorus continues to evoke for many of its performersmay indicate the viability of such concepts even in cultures that favor ideas of human composition of music over divine creation and that tend to conceptualize musical "inspiration" in more secular terms.

Specific beliefs in music coming to us from other realms and beings may be a special case of a more general belief in the otherness, the special or extraordinary nature, of music in human experience. Such beliefs are seldom rooted in simple perceptions of music as strange and alien but rather seem based on recognition of the beauty and power of music. Thus, even when some traditions condemn music, they are condemning aspects of it that other traditions find worthy of praise: music exerts a strong appeal on humans, spirits, or gods; it stimulates sensual, bodily, and mental involvement, and so on. Does the power of music come from physical sensations of breath, motion, and vibration, from cognitions of proportion and symmetry as unexpected and serendipitous in the auditory realm as geometric arrays in nature, from socially and culturally conditioned associations? Is there one explanation, or are there separate causes for different kinds of musics and experiences? Whatever the answer, music enhances, intensifies, andin ways that may elude precise analysis and control but which are nevertheless apparent both to participants and observerstransforms almost any experience into something felt not only as different but also as somehow better. In this transformative power, music resembles religion itself; and when the energies of music and religion are focused on the same object in an isofunctional adaptation of both toward a common meaning and goal, intensification reaches a peak greater perhaps than either might achieve by itself. Thus, the "otherness" of music and the "other" levels of reality and beings encountered in religion merge into a heightened synthesis of religious-musical experience. The possibility of such a synthesis may help to explain the aspect of music in religion that we usually call symbolism.

Symbolism is a problematic concept for both religion and music. Like the gods and spirits who remain invisible to an outside observer or to a camera, music's religious meanings and functional effects that elude capture by microphones and tape recorders may strike the uninitiated outsider as pure symbolism and yet be at least as real as its physical sounds to the aware and sensitive insider. For the Aztec, songs were flowers, birds, pictures, and the spirits of dead warriors called back to earth (Bierhorst, 1985); we ourselves would probably find it easier to agree that a song "is" a picture than that a song is, rather than symbolizes, a spirit. And if we adopt the kind of viewpoint that reduces the symbolic relationship between symbol and meaning to questions of physical-intangible and real-unreal, thus disposing of the spirits, we still have not decided whether songs are the symbols of flowers or vice versa. One senses that either choice is equally arbitrary; but if both are admissible as the real basis of the symbol, then why not the spirits as well?

Even if we take musical symbolism as a comparative and technical question of meanings attributed to sounds and forms, there are further questions of how so abstract and nondiscursive a medium can symbolize effectively, other than by purely arbitrary association, in the absence of explicit content that would lend itself to unambiguous communication. Some hear the diabolical in sounds that others find sacred; cross-cultural searches for even the most general agreement on music's cognitive or emotional significance have been unrewarding. There even seems to be a contradiction in the attempt to encode or decipher symbolic meanings in music: its aesthetic power seems to rely on the manipulation of abstract forms, however defined by a given culture and style, to the extent that subjecting form to an externally imposed system of meanings and functions might imply conflicts of purpose and musically inferior results.

Yet, if a symbol is that which stands for and reveals something other than itself, then music throughout the world has been accepted as successfully symbolizing the "other" of religion. Part of its success must derive from its generally perceived qualities of otherness and extraordinariness, and perhaps even from the very abstractness that frees it from associations too narrow to be associated with religious goals and meanings. But symbolic effectiveness must also rely on more specific associations than arbitrary applications to meanings or goals, which, even though they may be isofunctionally linked to the goals of religious practice, may still appear extrinsic to the music. If such associations do not arise from explicit musical content, then they must result from specific forms that accord with other meaningful forms in the religious sphere. Isoformalism of shared musical and religious forms, then, may combine with isofunctional applications to produce music that effectively symbolizes a religious object, and moreover without compromising the aesthetic integrity or viability of music as a medium of structured forms. Taking religious inspiration as the primary element in the process, this synthesis would occur when the form of a religious experience, action, image, or statement stimulated the creation of a corresponding musical form appropriate to and effective in the context of the musical system of its particular culture or religious tradition.

When religious and musical forms and purposes thus coincide, we have the kind of congruence that allows religious meaning to pervade every aspect of music from its assumed origin to the forms of individual instruments, songs, and pieces, and at every level of meaning from the most central to the most peripheral, from the most general to the most specific. The synthesis may be so complete as to leave no certainty whether either component, religion or music, takes precedence over the other; and it certainly allows for influence in both directions. There are, for example, not only myths of music, but also musics of myths; and the influence of music on mythology is almost certainly more pervasive and more important than the influence of mythology on music.

Contrary to a famous assertion by Lévi-Strauss, Wagner was far from the first, even in the Judeo-Christian tradition, to structurally "analyze" myths through music, for there are European precedents for the musical structuring of mythic narratives and themes going back to the Middle Ages, and far older examples from other parts of the world. These range in complexity from dramatizations as musically elaborate as Bach's or Wagner's (for example, the many performance genres of the Hindu epics Rāmāyaa and Mahābhārata in South and Southeast Asia), to the almost universal forms of mythic vocalization that utilize a simple binary contrast of sung myth/unsung ordinary discourse, or melodic and rhythmic highlighting of important words and passages to create a musically enhanced structure for a mythic narrative. For most religions throughout history, myths have been embodied not in written literature but in musical performance; and such performances provide one of the most characteristic bridges between religious belief and action, between myth and ritual.

Time, Space, and Ritual

Music is widely used as a demarcator of ritual time and space. In traditional settings all over the world, one may enter a community just before or during a ritual performance and be drawn toward the center of religious activity by musical sounds that grow progressively stronger as one moves toward the center. At the ceremonial site, music may emanate from the exact center of action; or musicians may be placed at the borders of the ritual site, creating a boundary zone of maximum sensual stimulation through which one passes to enter the ritual area itself. In either case, the ceremonial space is pervaded by musical sounds that, more than any other element, fill the entire sacred area with a tangible energy and evidence that a special situation has been created.

Sometimes architectural or geographic isolation is used to confine the sound to the ritual space, and the music becomes an intimate or secret experience restricted to ritual participants and unheard by the general public. In other contexts, musical contrasts may mark the boundaries of sacred spaces by reserving different styles or sounds for sacred centers and profane peripheries: for example, Christian churches with bells that ring on the outside and organ music on the inside, or Theravāda Buddhist monastic ordinations with royal processional instruments outside the temple and choral chanting inside.

Unlike works of visual art, which exist in their entirety and all their details at any given moment, music unfolds through time. Thus, it creates a temporal framework that may be synchronized with ritual time in various ways. At the simplest level, the beginning and ending of a musical performance may coincide with the beginning and end of a ritual performance. Music may begin before a ritual and end after it, enclosing the performance in a temporal bracket or frame; or music may be performed selectively at temporal high points in ritual activity, highlighting significant periods of religious action.

But music also structures the experience of time in more complex ways. The tempo of the sounds that constitute the "events" of a musical performance may be considerably faster or slower than the pace of everyday experience, and they may combine in unusual temporal patterns. Music uses formal devices such as cyclicity, repetition, contrast, variation, and development of one pattern of organization into another. Any or all of these devices may be used to create perceptual impressions of the extension or compression of a moment of experience to a longer or shorter time than normal, the return of a previous moment, or the building of intensity toward a climax and emergence of a new structural and experiential framework.

For both time and space, the structuring effect of music and other performance media may thus function in quite distinct ways. The most obvious way is by contrastive marking of boundaries between music-filled sacred space/time and profane space/time without music. The musical preludes and postludes performed before and after Christian services, or the conch-shell trumpet notes sounded before and after many South Asian rituals, often from a temple door or gateway, exemplify the boundary-marking aspect of music used to highlight ritual activity by creating a sonic frame around it in time and space.

A different mode of organization is used when the spatial and temporal centers, rather than the boundaries, of ritual activity are brought into concentrated focus by music. This phenomenon occurs at a conceptual or "symbolic" level when music is perceived as a spatio-temporal axis mundi, a channel of communication with spiritual realms and primordial eras. For example, singing the "drum lineage" songs of the Tibetan Bon religion evokes a link with the beginning of time and the center of the world.

More concretely, the central spatiotemporal foci of ritual actions in the physical world may be highlighted by musical intensification, while movement toward or away from the center is marked by gradually changing intensity rather than a sharp boundary. For example, the religious and musical focus of a Sinhala Kohombā Kankāriya ritual is in the drumming, singing, and dancing of the priests themselves; their sound is heard with decreasing intensity as one moves outward through the concentric rows of the audience in the open-walled ritual enclosure, through the streets of the village, and on out through the fields of the surrounding district, which may be the ultimate space consecrated by their performance.

In such cases, the consecrated space is defined by its relation to the ritual action at its center, rather than by a boundary at its edge; and the gradually diminishing intensities of musical sounds emanating from the center serve well to embody this central-focal mode of spatial demarcation. A similar mode of temporal demarcation seems to occur in, for example, the Shona Bira ritual described by Berliner (1978, chap. 8), in which the mbira musicians begin their performance with unobtrusive, unelaborate playing and gradually build to a peak of musical and religious interaction with the audience. Both musical intensity of creative improvisation and religious experiences of spirit possession occur within this focal period, and both gradually fade away to more ordinary levels as the ritual draws to an end. In such modes of application, music ceases to be a simple boundary marker, enhancer, or accompaniment to ritual action and religious experience: musical and ritual structure and content begin to take on more vital and significant relationships.

The most basic and widespread musical and ritual time-structuring device is repetition, often carried to such lengths as to perplex or bore the outside observer. It may be that repetition and redundancy serve to impart sensations of continuity, stability, and security, that they aid concentration and provide safeguards against distraction, or that they simply allow continuation of a "state of music" to enhance a ritual performance. Whatever the cause, the use of repetition is surely wide enough to show the importance of this little-understood formal device. However, except in unusual cases such as South Asian mantra, Japanese Nembutsu chanting, and some kinds of instrumental accompaniments to rituals, which may involve very prolonged repetitions, musical repetition is almost always found in conjunction with variation, and each depends on the other.

For example, we might consider three possible musical settings for the beginning of the Christian Mass, "Kyrie eleison / Christe eleison / Kyrie eleison." (1) The same melody, musical form, and so forth, is repeated in all three phrases. This would appear to minimize the effect of the textual variation "Kyrie / Christe / Kyrie" and create a musical analogue of the textual continuity provided by the triple repetition of "eleison," reinforcing the conceptual unity of the plea for mercy expressed in all three phrases. (2) Each phrase is set to a different melody or form. Here, the formal analogue is with the variation of initial words, rather than continuity and repetition, and the cognitive effect might be a heightened awareness that each phrase represents a new act of asking mercy, even though there is textual repetition in the first and third phrases. (3) The beginning and ending "Kyrie " phrases are set to the same or a similar melody or form, with the intervening "Christe " set to a different one.

Here, the use of musical variation and repetition corresponds exactly with the variation and repetition of "Kyrie / Christe / Kyrie"; continuity and conceptual unity are given cyclic expression in the identity of the beginning and ending phrases, while the middle phrase receives the special treatment of being given its own individual musical setting. Both repetition and variation in this context acquire a different significance than in (1), with its triple repetition, or (2), with its ongoing changes. The individualized setting in the second phrase is likely to be experienced by performers and observers alike as a special or climactic moment between the pattern established in the first phrase and repeated at the end; and a participant might experience it as a special enhancement of asking mercy in the name of Christ, without special attention to the role played by musical forms. But the formal differences remain: (1) with its repetition and sense of continuity and prolongation of a moment and action already begun, (2) with its emphasis on change and newness, and (3) with its variation-repetition structure and sense of return to a previous moment when the text and music of the first phrase are repeated at the end.

Similar cases can be found in many religious traditions; for example, in the various settings of the Buddhist Triple Refuge, with its three-phrase invocation of Buddha, Dharma (teaching), and Sagha (religious community). The actual use of musical structuring through repetition and variation is frequently much more complex, and each tradition tends to develop its own characteristic styles. For example, many Christian Mass settings use extensive repetitions of text phrases such as "Kyrie eleison" with increasingly different variations of the melody, developing it into new forms, and building to climaxes of musical intensity. Buddhist settings of the Triple Refuge, on the other hand, tend to use melodic variation in more restrained ways, and concentrate instead on text/music repetitions that build to mathematical or exponential permutations such as triple repetitions of a three-phrase structure, resulting in a 32 formal structure, and perhaps a sense of transcending cyclic repetition to reach a more abstractly perfect state. However such structures may be felt or interpreted in their own traditions, it is clear that they make equally sophisticated but formally quite different use of such features as continuity, change, and development of basic elements into more complex forms. And since each in its own context is only a small part of a much longer ritual performance, opportunities for complex structuring of musical time are obviously great.

Yet, however natural the concept "musical time" may appear to us, we must treat the issue with caution. Westerners may not be the only ones to conceive of music and its structures in temporal terms. For example, the Javanese prince Mangkunegara VII (1957) and others see the wayang kulit (shadow play) in such terms. For them, this all-night performance, with its chronological ordering of musical modes and its complex alterations of repeating sections and new developments, encapsulates the experience of progress through a prolonged state of samādhi meditation and through life from birth to spiritual fulfillment. And Judith Becker (1979, 1981), in a series of provocative articles, suggests that Javanese music embodies local and Hindu-Buddhist time concepts from cyclicity to the coincidence of differently ordered calendars.

Alan P. Merriam (1981) has warned that we may be imposing our own prejudices on African music by discussing it in terms of a "musical time" for which African languages have no corresponding terms. Nevertheless, we find areas in Africa with both musical coincidence of different-length beat cycles and calendrical coincidence of different-length week cycles, and the parallel seems too exact and complex to be unrelated. Perhaps one solution would be, in studying a culture, to adopt a comparative perspective that takes musical time as one of the fundamental modes of human time perception and organization, whether or not the culture calls it by a term that also applies to calendrical or experiential time, just as we continue to identify and study "music" and "religion" in cultures that have no equivalent terms. Since each culture and religion has its own concept of time, some such artificially neutral viewpoint may be necessary to think clearly about questions of musical and ritual durations and structures, questions that transcend both cultural and religious boundaries.

See Also

Chanting; Drums; Percussion and Noise.


There is no integrated study of this subject on a worldwide scale. Older studies tended either toward ethnographic-scrapbook approaches, indiscriminately assembling all kinds of traveler's remarks on music hastily encountered and little understood, or to evolutionist approaches meant to "explain" the superiority of European religion and music. The articles on music in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings, vol. 9 (Edinburgh, 1917), exemplify both approaches. More recent research has favored field studies of single communities or ethnic groups. Although such studies have resulted in intensive exposure and considerably more extensive and accurate firsthand information, they have also produced works that frequently tend to one-sided emphasis of either religious or musical factors with inadequate attention to their mutual relationships. Readers who want to learn more about the religious music of a given tradition should consult not only the bibliographies of the articles on music that follow but also the general articles on the same religious traditions elsewhere in the encyclopedia.

The most extensive collection of studies of religious music by individual authors writing on different areas and religions is the Encyclopédie des musiques sacrées, edited by Jacques Porte (Paris, 1968), and, in English, articles listed under the names of individual religions and countries in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 20 vols., edited by Stanley Sadie (London, 1980). Other collections of recent studies are found in two special "Sacred Music" issues of the journal World of Music (Berlin; vol. 24, no. 3, 1982, and vol. 26, no. 3, 1984), and in Sacred Sound: Music in Religious Thought and Practice, edited by Joyce Irwin (Decatur, Ga., 1984). Standard works on the theory and method of research on world musics, including religious music, include Bruno Nettl's The Study of Ethnomusicology (Urbana, 1983), in which see especially chapters 11, 12, and 15, and Alan P. Merriam's The Anthropology of Music (Evanston, Ill., 1964), in which see chapters 4, 11, and 12. The most comprehensive cross-cultural theoretical approach to a single aspect of religious music is Gilbert Rouget's Music and Trance: A Theory of the Relations between Music and Possession (Chicago, 1985). Less helpful applications of cross-cultural theory are found in works such as Man, Magic and Musical Occasions by Charles L. Boilès (Columbus, Ohio, 1978), which subsumes all kinds of religious practices under "magic," or Arnold Perris's Music as Propaganda (Westport, Conn., 1985), which evaluates the musics of other religions by European Christian standards.

A number of studies of religious music in specific traditions make effective use of anthropological approaches to religion, particularly those approaches that focus on language and symbolism. Classic anthropological studies include works by David P. McAllester on the Navajo, Enemy Way Music (Cambridge, Mass., 1954), and on the peyote cult, Peyote Music (New York, 1949). A broadbased anthropological approach is used in Horses, Musicians, and Gods: The Hausa Cult of Spirit Possession by Fremont E. Besmer (South Hadley, Mass., 1983), while a focus on symbolism marks Steven Feld's work on the Kaluli of Papua New Guinea, Sound and Sentiment (Philadelphia, 1982). Works in the emerging category of "performance studies" place less emphasis on technical description and analysis of music but give it an important place in a multidimensional exploration of the multimedia world of cultural and religious performances; examples include Bruce Kapferer's study of Sinhala lowland possession cults, A Celebration of Demons (Bloomington, Ind., 1983), and Ellen B. Basso's study on the Kalapalo Indians of Brazil, A Musical View of the Universe (Philadelphia, 1985). These newer studies often show a sophisticated approach to the sung and narrated "texts" of oral traditions that may eventually enable more meaningful comparisons with traditionally text-oriented studies of the literate religions of Asia and the Mediterranean.

Studies of musical and ritual time include Judith Becker's "Time and Tune in Java," in The Imagination of Reality, edited by Aram A. Yengoyan and A. L. Becker (Norwood, N.J., 1979), pp. 197210, and "Hindu-Buddhist Time in Javanese Gamelan Music," in The Study of Time, edited by J. T. Fraser et al., vol. 4 (New York, 1981); Alan P. Merriam's "African Musical Rhythm and Concepts of Time-Reckoning," in Music East and West, edited by Thomas Noblitt (New York, 1981), pp. 123141; and Lawrence E. Sullivan's "Sacred Music and Sacred Time," World of Music 26, no. 3 (1984): 3352. Other works cited in this article include Paul Berliner's The Soul of Mbira (Berkeley, 1978); John Bierhorst's Cantares Mexicanos: Songs of the Aztecs (Stanford, Calif., 1985); Edith Gerson-Kiwi's "Religious Chant: A Pan-Asiatic Conception of Music," Journal of the International Folk Music Council 13 (1961): 6467, which has an overstated but important thesis; Prince Mangkunegara VII's On the Wayang Kulit (Purwa) and Its Symbolic and Mystic Elements (Ithaca, N.Y., 1957); and Kay Kaufman Shelemay's "Zēmā: A Concept of Sacred Music in Ethiopia," World of Music 24, no. 3 (1982): 5267.

New Sources

Brulé, Pierre, and Christophe Vendries. Chanter les dieux: musique et religion dans l'antiquité grecque et romaine: actes du colloque des 16, 17 et 18 décembre 1999, Rennes et Lorient. Rennes, 2001.

Collins, Mary, David Noel Power, and Mellonee V. Burnim. Music and the Experience of God. Edinburgh, 1989.

Danielson, Virginia, Scott Lloyd Marcus, and Dwight Fletcher Reynolds. "The Middle East." In Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, vol. 6. New York, 2002.

Leonard, Neil. Jazz: Myth and Religion. New York, 1987.

Marini, Stephen A. Sacred Song in America: Religion, Music, and Public Culture. Urbana, 2003.

Moody, Ivan. Contemporary Music and Religion. Reading, U.K., 1995.

Reed, Teresa L. The Holy Profane: Religion in Black Popular Music. Lexington, Ky., 2003.

Shelemy, Kay Kaufman. Music as Culture. New York, 1990.

Sylvan, Robin. Traces of the Spirit: The Religious Dimensions of Popular Music. New York, 2002.

Wuthnow, Robert. All in Sync: How Music and Art Are Revitalizing American Religion. Berkeley, 2003.

Ter Ellingson (1987)

Revised Bibliography

About this article

Music: Music and Religion

Updated About content Print Article