Sacred Music: Rhythms of Spiritual Energy (1/2)

Sacred Music & Spiritual Energy

It is a good thing to give thanks unto the LORD, and to sing praises unto thy name, O most High: To shew forth thy lovingkindness in the morning, and thy faithfulness every night, Upon an instrument of ten strings, and upon the psaltery; upon the harp with a solemn sound. [Psalms 92:1-3].

Music can fill us with joy and bring us spiritual delight. However, music can also distract us from our Creator, offering transient pleasures that excites us superficially or erotically, while offering little satisfaction. Such sounds can produce negative emotions that rival and oppose the positive feelings of sacred music.

Neither the greatest excellence of a trained performance from the choir, nor the heartiest and most enthusiastic bellowing from the pews, must be taken to signify that any specifically religious activity is going on. It may be so, or it may not. [C. S. Lewis, Christian Reflections].

The scores of negative emotions range from fear, anger, hatred and jealousy to suspicion, disgust, anxiety and worry. These toxic feelings can produce imbalance in our physiologic systems and even lead to health problems.

Criticism of modern sacred music reflects this concern. When the emotions elicited by music merely titillate or arouse carnal passions, they can produce anxiety and frustration. They can make us forget who we really are, and can eventually lead to very negative consequences.

A Viennese classical composer named Arnold Schönberg … was the first person to openly create negative music early in the twentieth century…. Based on discords, Schönberg’s music caused listeners to feel uncomfortable and irritated…. His theory of twelve-tone music, where all notes assumed an equal identity and the principals of harmony on which the world’s music were based were rejected… The result of all this was the incorporation of negative music into TV programs and movies. Negative music is used to create emotions of suspense, terror, anxiety, and fear. It is the music that accompanies crime programs and horror films. [Don Robertson].

Mood Music

Emotions are sometimes contrasted with moods. The former are temporary and episodic, whereas the latter remain present for extended periods. [See: Emotion: A Summary of Principal Research Findings, David Huron].

Music can generate almost instant alterations of our moods. It can take us from elation and depression and can induce moods of dissatisfaction, restlessness, or anxiety.

The problem presented to modern music aficionados is the constant availability and accessibility of music. Continually responding emotionally to music produces fluctuations in moods. For many adolescents, the persistent availability of music generates a perpetual state of arousal that produces disturbances in many of our bodily functions.

Music is thus, in her health, the teacher of perfect order, and is the voice of the obedience of angels, and the companion of the course of the spheres of heaven; and in her depravity she is also the teacher of perfect disorder and disobedience [John Ruskin].

Sacred Music and Health 

Arousal is a common physiological response evoked by music, with accompanying  increases in heart-rate, respiration, glucose uptake and release of hormones.

[Studies support] the general finding that exercise is associated with state-anxiety reduction, and suggests that music during exercise may improve this effect in active but not in trained participants. Further, listening to music during exercise may prolong the participants’ exercise experience … [Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness].

The purpose of arousal is to prepare the body for action. However, arousal from music does not have an object of response when it is merely trivial entertainment.

The stress response promotes physiological and behavioral changes in threatening or taxing situations. For instance, when we are facing a potentially life-threatening situation, the brain’s stress response goes into action to enhance our focused attention, our fear and our fight-or-flight response, while inhibiting behaviors, such as feeding, sex and sleep, that might lessen the chance of immediate survival. The stress response, however, must be regulated to be neither excessive nor suboptimal; otherwise, disorders of arousal, thought and feeling emerge. [Esther M. Sternberg & Philip W. Gold, The Mind-Body Interaction in Disease, p. 2].

This differs from sacred music where the arousal is directed toward specific acts of devotion and spiritual awareness. Moreover, the joy we experience from sacred music reinforces positive self-esteem and healthy social interaction.

If thou art merry, praise the Lord with singing, with music, with dancing, and with a prayer of praise and thanksgiving. [Doctrine and Covenants 136:28].

Scores of Negative Emotions

Broadway, Hollywood and Madison Avenue are crowded with talented composers who can skillfully manipulate our emotional states through music. They can play with emotional responses such as joy, sorrow, excitement, anger and sexual arousal to direct our preferences toward particular products, programs or celebrities.

An award-winning musical score for a film can change the expressions of an audience. Sadness, joy, surprise, fright, and disgust, along with a few tears, are easily detected on the faces of the enthralled viewer-listeners.

Are pathological or harmful emotional experiences associated with music? Most researchers would answer “yes.” Recent studies have found music to be one of the factors behind bipolar disorder or ADHD. In addition, a recent study suggests that depression among teens may be partly caused by listening to music.

Cultural messages transmitted through media affect other behaviors related to mental health, such as eating disorders and aggressive behavior. Media use may similarly contribute to the development of depression via reinforcement of cognitions and/or affective states … Other media exposures—particularly on television, in music, and in video games—are highly negative or violent, and repeated exposure to these messages may engender a negative and fearful perception of the world, which can also contribute to or exacerbate depression. [Brian A. Primack, M.D., University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine].

Related posts:

Sacred Music: Rhythms of Spiritual Energy (2/2)

Further reading:

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