Music, Spirituality, and Seeing the World Rightly

Desiring Music, part 3

Music and spirituality. Both of them connect us with others. Both can be developed; they can be learned. We can expand and strengthen our capacities, through study and practice.

In the old joke, the answer to the question, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" is "practice, practice, practice." Practice is also how we develop those capacities we call spiritual: capacities for tapping into the right brain, living in the present moment, more fully present to the uniqueness of each situation and creatively responding to it outside of your personality type, with a joyful and peaceful energy, with an easy and natural compassion.

Musical practice, like playing the piano, and spiritual practice, like meditating, change the brain. Those who put in hours every day for many years get the most substantial changes. Music and spirituality are distinct capacities – some musical experience is quite different from the kind of experience we might call spiritual, and some spiritual experience doesn’t involve music. Yet there are ways they overlap, as experiences and as practice.

Listening to music and making music enriches life so much that Friedrich Nietzsche said:
“Without music, life would be a mistake.”
That desire for music, for seeing and hearing the world rightly -- for experiencing the rhythms, melodies, and harmonies that we know deep down are the truth of life -- is older than humanity.

But the pursuit of our desires sometimes ends up taking us, in some ways, away from the very thing we pursue. With the rise of the recording industry, we have become the first culture in human history to so abandon music-making to professionals. As Philip Ball writes:
“The case for musical education should not rest on its ‘improving’ qualities, however, even if these are real. The fact is that music no less than literacy gives access to endless wonders. To cultivate those avenues is to facilitate life-enhancing experience. But what usually happens instead? Children stop singing and dancing, they get embarrassed about their piano lessons (if they’re lucky enough to be offered them) and frustrated that they don’t sound like the stars on MTV. As adults, they deny that they possess having any musicality (despite the extraordinary skills needed to listen to and appreciate just about any music), they jokingly attribute to themselves the rare clinical condition of tone-deafness. They probably do not know that there are cultures in the world where to say ‘I’m not musical’ would be meaningless, akin to saying, ‘I’m not alive.’”
You probably are more musical than you know.

Yes, there are a few people who really aren’t musical. There is such a thing as “congenital amusia” commonly known as tone deafness, and it affects about 4 percent of the population. People who suffer from congenital amusia lack pitch discrmination, are unable to recognize or hum familiar tunes, do not show sensitivity to dissonant chords in a melodic context, and cannot pick out a wrong note in a given familiar melody. Music consists largely of relatively small pitch changes, which amusics cannot detect, and this makes it extremely difficult for them to enjoy and appreciate music.

There may also be – I am speculating, and haven’t seen any research on this – a congenital condition analogous to amusia – a sort of tone-deafness about spiritual experience. As true amusia renders a person unable in a fundamental way to get what music is all about, there may be a small percentage of people whose brains are wired so that they cannot get what spiritual experience is all about. It may seem to them senseless in the way that music seems like noise to someone with amusia.

At their heights, music and spirituality are senseless from the point of view of reason’s schemes in pursuit of purposes. It's true that there are things we can say about what musical practice and spiritual practice are good for: they both happen to be helpful for lowering stress, or enhancing this or that other mental function. But this misses the essential point. In important ways, neither music nor spirituality is a means to an end. They are the ends.

For that matter, reason’s cherished words and propositions are also, at the end of the day, senseless. Wittgenstein labored to lay out propositions that point us the way beyond all propositions:
“Whoever understands me will recognize that all my propositions are senseless. One must surmount these propositions; then one sees the world rightly.”
So what I want to say is: You can be morally upright without music or spirituality. You can be a good person. You can have a rich and full emotional life. You can have a brilliant intellectual career. There is, however, in this life, more than thoughts, more than emotions, more than social skills and good morals. There is something else. And it sings.

For those of us blessed to desire music and spirituality, they are paths to, and revelations of, what we know as greater truths than words or reason or ethics can be.

Music: the capacity to take it in, to listen appreciatively to music and be fulfilled -- and the capacity to manifest melody, harmony, and rhythm for ourselves, for others, and often with others.

Spirituality: the capacity to take it in, to attend appreciatively to experience and be fulfilled -- and the capacity to manifest inner peace, love, and wisdom for ourselves, for others, and with others.

If you have those capacities, as almost all of us do, they are worth practicing at, worth cultivating. For then one sees the world rightly, as it truly is.

* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Desiring Music"
See also
Part 1: Music: More Real than Reality
Part 2: Music and Religion


  1. Music is something that is really essential in my life.

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