David Carlson: Music as soul food

A song comes on the radio that we haven’t heard for decades. Yet, we sing along, somehow remembering all the words. That experience tells us something important about the power of music, a power that religions have always known.

Sound, especially music, expresses the wide range of human emotions better than the other human senses. In the history of religions, when communities were thankful, they expressed their thanks to the sacred in song. When meeting tragedy, religious communities offered laments to the sacred, not just in words, but in song. From birth to death and everything in between, music has been the vehicle that has transported humanity through the joys and sorrows of life.

At times, music speaks to the human soul. At other times, music speaks for the human soul. And often, music speaks both to and for the human soul. From drumming to chanting to gospel choirs to requiem masses, music has always been the “soundtrack” of religions.

Our time in human history is often referred to as “The Information Age.” For humanity to thrive, however, we need more than information. We crave transformation. We crave transcendence — rising above the uncertainties of life. And where do our souls turn when we want to rise above the ordinary, when we seek the divine, the sacred? We turn to music.

When humans imagine what the heavenly world is like, do we not often imagine that realm as a place of song, of music? Notice that we talk of “choirs” of angels, not “lecture halls” of angels.

I thought of the power of sacred sound the other night as I watched a program about the western isles of Scotland, where islanders still sing hymns in Gaelic. Although my wife and I lived in Scotland for three years, I don’t understand a word of Gaelic. Yet, as I listened to a small group of Scottish singers, ranging in age from 10 to 90, singing hymns in that ancient language, I found myself lifted by the sound and brought back to my own childhood.

Having grown up the son of a minister, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t surrounded by hymns. This would not only be in church and on Sundays. My father always woke — and woke the rest of the family — by singing a hymn about having joy in his heart. Given that my father was not someone I would describe as naturally joyful, I realize now that the hymn was a kind of early-morning therapy for him.

I’m sure my father didn’t know that in the moments he was singing as he shaved, Navajo elders were singing the sun’s rising in the American Southwest. I’m sure he didn’t know that Buddhist nuns and monks as well as their Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Christian counterparts were also singing their morning prayers. But all those hymns, chants, and sounds were rising along with his song. He was part of a greater choir; he just didn’t know it.

I am sure that humans can love music without being religious. But humans, it seems, cannot be religious without loving music.

David Carlson of Franklin is a professor emeritus of philosophy and religion. Send comments to [email protected]