Engaging with music and harnessing its qualities may be something we do every day, from keeping motivated with the aid of a high-tempo workout playlist or increasing concentration with an orchestral arrangement while studying. However, as Amber Frost explores below, these qualities can be put to even deeper use at a spiritual level.
Music is extremely subjective, just like all art forms, but universally speaking, music unites everyone, creating a space that enables one to think and breathe. There are a plethora of religions and spiritual practices that utilize the relationship that people have with music, to create a space that offers a therapeutic service.
Oftentimes, musicians also look to religion and spirituality for inspiration within the creation of music. Each element of life is in some way affected by sound and by music, whether through the call to prayer, adhan, in Islam, or Gregorian and Buddhist chants. Alongside traditional uses of music, spirituality has been used to channel a shift in musical style. For example, John Coltrane found spirituality after taking some time away from music, which inspired the creation of his iconic album A Love Supreme. But when we look beyond music as a commodity, and into how music can be used for spiritual healing, there is an abundance of history and hundreds of different holistic approaches to the relationship between music and spirituality.
‘Music therapy is a specific type of treatment that incorporates sound and is administered by a trained music therapist.’
Sound baths are an example of how spirituality and music unite to provide a certain divine treatment. The exact origins of sound baths and sound healing are hard to pinpoint, but evidence reaches back as far into the past as ancient Greeks, who used sound vibration to induce sleep, aid in digestion, and help with stress. These practices are a holistic approach to relaxation and aren’t necessarily confined to one religion or spiritual practice. A typical sound bath will ask for its participants to lie down after taking part in meditation, then the musicians will use instruments such as gongs, bells, crystal bowls, Tibetan singing bowls, tuning forks, and in some cases digital sound, to create vibrations. These vibrations are said to lead your mind into a deeper state of contemplation and consciousness. Not only are sound baths said to treat mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety, but they are also believed to help relieve pain.
However, these sound baths differ from music therapy. Music therapy is a specific type of treatment that incorporates music and is administered by a trained music therapist. Essentially, a sound bath is a form of guided meditation. Each experience with a sound bath is entirely up to the instructor, many instructors find that using particular combinations of rhythms and frequencies enables a shift from ‘beta state’ (alert, reactive) to an ‘alpha’ (relaxed, calm, creative) and in some cases a theta (meditative state) and delta (deep sleep).
Another example of where music and spirituality interact is with drumming circles. In Paganism and Native American history, drumming circles are an extremely powerful tool used to raise energy and connect one’s soul to the Earth. Within Pagan drumming circles, a circle is cast for protective purposes, and a drumbeat is started. Individuals will then begin to join in, whether it’s in the form of drumming or in dance, to connect to their own Gods, Goddesses, and one another. Drums in general are said to stabilize energies and to aid with feeling physically grounded, with the Bodhran having a similar effect. Whether it’s with Shamanic, Celtic, or Pagan practice, the Bodhran is said to be of sacred essence to music. Within traditional Irish music, the Bodhran’s design is thought to reflect the continuity of life and a spiritual journey: the more worn the skin of the drum is, the more the instrument has been used, reflecting its life.
Outside of specific spiritual rituals and practices, research has shown that playing an instrument can lower blood pressure, decrease heart rate, ease stress, and reduce anxiety. It allows you to reroute your mind away from work, allowing you a mental break from using your brain for work or routine. Music is universal; it creates a concrete and shared experience that doesn’t allow for religious or spiritual prejudice to alter the experience.
Music is therefore deeply personal and can be profoundly therapeutic to an individual. Almost everyone experiences music differently, whilst some listeners use it to increase and boost a mood, some for concentration, everyone relies on music for some kind of cathartic release.
Written by: Amber Frost
Edited by: Louise Dugan