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Music and Spiritual Consciousness

Of all the arts, music is said to be the most spiritual. If by spiritual is meant the boundless, immeasurable, sacred, creative potential within all of us or the universe, then music is. For music can parallel the pure flow of spirit, the ceaseless current of creative energy that we experience when we contemplate upon being. Being is the unimpeded progression of awareness, whether this awareness is pure and undifferentiated or particularized as object-perceiving consciousness.*

. . .music that conveys restless striving and tension, pangs of uncertainty, the impulsive leaps of excitement, or the vicissitudes of pleasure and pain can distract us from deep contemplation of being. . .

But contemplation of being has the quality of deep feeling. Hence, music that is not expressive of deep feeling cannot be spiritual. For instance, music that conveys restless striving and tension, pangs of uncertainty, the impulsive leaps of excitement, or the vicissitudes of pleasure and pain can distract us from deep contemplation of being, of the sacred mystery of existence, and cannot be considered spiritual.

On the other hand, music that can induce a sense of oneness with the pure creative potential of being brings about a supreme inner calm and imperturbability of feeling, akin to an experience of bliss. Such music is spiritual to a high degree. Certain examples of medieval European plain chant, Indian ragas, Tibetan chants, and Philippine holy week chanting and traditional bamboo flute music can fulfill this requirement.

Though not as spiritual as the experience of contemplation or bliss, the deep feelings of devotion, sincerity, honesty, integrity and the like bring about an inner peace and calmness that we consider soulful and akin to spirituality.

Spiritual music is definitely melodic in quality, the more melodic the more spiritual it will be. For melody, of all the musical elements, is the only one that can convey a feeling of continuous, uninterrupted flow and boundlessness of spirit. This melody has to be legato rather than staccato and relatively slow in tempo. If it is too fast, it becomes physical in character.

To be sure, the melody must not be one that progresses towards a climactic ending because this may convey worldly striving for power or success. It should be one that is simply permutative in character and brings out possibilities of one or more themes rather than a Beethoven-like seizing upon one theme and subjecting it to a progressive developmental scheme.

Other main features of spiritual melody are as follows:

  • It should be sung instead of played by instruments because the voice is capable of expressing subtle shadings and nuances of feeling and fineness of the spirit through melismas and microtones, which cannot be played on Western musical instruments especially on the keyboard. The piano is a very secular instrument and its staccato character has to be overcome through ingenious arrangement.
  • If the music is instrumental, it should be arranged for chamber rather than full heavy orchestra. For the spiritual, being transcendent, has the quality of lightness.
  • Choral music is traditionally associated with spirituality. But this has to be one that avoids as much as possible four-part or SATB arrangement of voices because of the unnecessary sense of weight that it creates and thus cannot suggest the buoyant lightness of spiritual energy. Four-part arrangement according to the rules of tonal harmony also has a very rational quality about it that makes the music quite secular and wordly. Two-part arrangement occasionally going to three is preferable, with four parts sparingly used.
  • The music cannot be played in a very loud manner. It has to be soothingly soft and one that can express the inner quietness and serenity of pure being.
  • The sounds have to combine the use of tones, which are too measurable, with the more complex nature and feeling of breadth provided by vocable sounds, which can approximate the simultaneity, vastness of being, and cosmic mystery implicit in the non-finite realm of the spirit.
  • Creating spiritual music for the church can benefit much from the study of our traditional music, which conveys a strong sense of timelessness because of its extensive use of drones or ostinato.

    Correlated with the imperturbability of spirit is an even tempo. The tempo of spiritual music must not fluctuate wildly or feature sudden changes.
  • The sustained rhythms of breath have a more spiritual character than dance rhythms, which are rather secular and must not be used unless they are situated within a timeless spiritual framework of the whole music, as will be discussed later.
  • Long melodic phrases are to be preferred because they are closer to the non-finite character of the spirit than the fragmented melodic phrases of much of popular music.
  • The use of drones or ostinato is highly recommended as the main technique for accompanying or supporting the melody, for only the drone can truly express the ceaseless flow of being—a sense of timelessness—when experiencing oneness with the limitless spirit within. Creating spiritual music for the church can benefit much from the study of our traditional music, which conveys a strong sense of timelessness because of its extensive use of drones or ostinato. A very good example of jazz rhythm given spiritual meaning because of an underlying drone is the music of the Crucifixion scene in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” rock opera.

Most importantly, the music should not have a definite beginning, middle and end. At least it must not have any sense of finality because spirit is boundless. Even when the music ends, the music must evoke a suspended feeling, that it may yet be continued indefinitely, like the feeling that much of Philippine indigenous vocal and instrumental music gives.

This rules out much of so-called gospel music and popular melodies that tend to be used in church services, for they usually end with a bang and thus too triumphalist and worldly character.

Actually, even those secular techniques in music such as four-part harmony or orchestral arrangements can serve the purpose of spirituality as long as they are subordinated to a non-finite over-all framework of organization. For non-measurability or quality of timelessness of the entire work is the key to the evocation of the spiritual in music.

______
*Pure awareness is like a beam of light that is not visible unless it strikes an object, whereupon we see it reflected. Consciousness, likewise, is reflected awareness.

©Felipe Mendoza de Leon, Jr.

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