What if a connection between music and spiritual realities could be proven?
What if music is God’s way of speaking to an increasingly secular world?
What if churches knew if live-streamed worship services help or hinder spiritual experiences?
Music has long been linked to spirituality – across history, cultures, and religions. Although the forms used in rituals vary greatly – from the wild ecstasy of whirling dervishes to the solemnity of a requiem Mass – all seem to hold the potential to stir our souls.
More than any other art form, music seems to provoke an intense spiritual experience. People say they lose themselves in music. That it moves them. That it’s otherworldly, transcendent. That it pulls them toward God. That it’s the voice of God.
The persistence of music throughout religions seems to validate such experiences. However, a cause-to-effect relationship has been difficult to research, much less prove. Spiritual experiences simply don’t lend themselves to investigation in a science lab. Their occurrences are a tangle of sounds, sights, touch, postures, memories, associations, and interactions. Music isn’t easily isolated from the mix.
Can the apparent connection between music and spiritual realities be demonstrated empirically?
George Corbett, Ph.D., professor of theology, and Sarah Moerman, Ph.D., research fellow in theology and music, at the University of St Andrews’ School of Divinity, Scotland, have pondered that question often. During the Covid crisis, they realized that the disruptions in worship it caused presented a unique window in time to search for an answer to that question.
In much of the world, in-person worship shut down because of Covid. The shift to online services allowed for different kinds of worship music experiences. Traditional music in traditional spaces was no longer the default. More congregations began to explore contemporary music and other styles of worship. Parishioners could select which service to live stream based on their preferences. This accelerated a long simmering culture war around music within churches: traditional versus contemporary.
Another impact was that people participated in worship music in different ways – singing together in a virtual space or distanced from each other outdoors. In cities, spontaneous music sometimes occurred across streets, balconies, and yards as people sought solace with others. Even when congregations came back together, communal singing in the worship space was often restricted.
In so many ways, Covid reminded us that we don’t really know the value of what we have until it’s gone.
While people’s recollections of Covid worship experiences remain intact, with funding from Templeton Religion Trust, Corbett and Moerman are leading an 18- month pilot project focused on two questions:
The project includes a large-scale quantitative and qualitative survey plus one-to-one interviews with a cross-section of people in Christian congregations throughout Scotland. In addition, secondary data is being pulled from content analyses of blogs, popular online articles, and social media. The data is being analyzed using standard quantitative measures in cognitive music psychology and computer-assisted qualitative data analysis.
Notably, the team is launching its quantitative survey online to the world, as well. The data collected can be filtered across a range of parameters to meet researchers’ needs.
In addition, the research team is hosting a three-day international workshop as part of the European Academy of Religion. This workshop brings together – for the first time – leading scholars in theology, musicology, psychology, and neuroscience to discuss the project findings and also reflect together on using empirical methods to explore the relationship between music and human spirituality – both the possibilities and the limitations.
“All these scholars are coming together around just one question: How would you, from your own experience and with your own methodology, seek to demonstrate the relationship between music and spiritual realities?” Corbett explains. “We’re exploring something which we think is the border of what can be tested and empirically seen. So, in a sense, we’re looking also for gaps where the science doesn’t explain everything and where we think there’s an opening to the spiritual.”
From that wealth of inputs, the goal is to build a toolkit for measuring the spiritual dimensions of music, creating an invaluable resource that other researchers can use for their own studies.
“We’re at an exciting time to be looking at music and spiritual realities,” reports Corbett. “There have been changes in musicology towards focusing not just on the intrinsic properties of the music itself but also more on the experience and practice of music. There are also new, sophisticated tools in psychology and neuroscience able to quantify and dissect the different kinds of experiences that people have of music. And there’s been an ongoing discussion in theology about the relationship. By bringing these different disciplines together, this is the potentially groundbreaking next stage in understanding that our project seeks to explore.”
He anticipates that the project can yield a new, contemporary understanding of the ancient tradition of music as an integral part of religion and spirituality.
“Whenever human beings are thinking about their place in their world and their relationship to the divine, there is always music. In all religions, you find people turning to music to express their relationship to a creator. So, it’s deeply anthropological. It’s part of what we are as human beings. Now we want to take the other side of that arc and show how music is responding to that human need and how it is affecting the human person today,” he says.
“Around the world, people are listening to sacred music on their phones, on their iPads. It seems to be chiming into some hunger in the secular world for the depth of reality that music can open up. A great challenge for us is showing that something is occurring that is not just an emotional experience by a different name. We hope to demonstrate that music is vitally important for spiritual understanding, insight, and growth.”