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The Baha’i teachings say that music can act as a ladder for the soul, “a means whereby they may be lifted up unto the realm on high …” – Baha’u’llah, The Most Holy Book, p. 38.
This means that ideally, we will listen to and play music which elevates our souls. But that raises a question: what is spiritual, soul-elevating music?
That is a very difficult question to answer, especially since there are so many different genres of music, and more as genres collide and fuse. Conventionally, “spiritual music” is often defined as the music associated with religious practice, such as church hymns or Tibetan chanting.
But today, many will say that all music can be spiritual.
Spirituality, in general, is not confined to religion, and the same is true when it comes to music. But can every single type of music serve as a means to elevate the soul?
I think in the end, people have to agree to disagree about what constitutes spiritual music, because as with all things internal—and it is internally that music does its magic—music is highly subjective.
So forgive me if it seems self-centered, but I wanted to share some of the musical pieces that elevate my soul and explain why.
The key thing for me—the one thing that seems to define music as spiritual—is whether it sends shivers down my spine. If a piece of music can do that, then it is probably spiritual (for me), unless of course, I happen to have my back in front of an air conditioner on full blast, and those shivers are only physical.
Here are a few such pieces of music. Please have a listen to see if they tingle your spine, too:
So, I’ve asked myself, why is it that these pieces of music have this effect on my spirit? I think it comes to down something that Baha’u’llah said to a poet:
Every word of thy poetry is indeed like unto a mirror in which the evidences of the devotion and love thou cherishest for God and His chosen ones are reflected … Its perusal hath truly proved highly impressive, for it was indicative of both the light of reunion and the fire of separation. – Tablets of Baha’u’llah, pp. 175-176.
Although these words are about the power of the written word, to me, they are equally relevant to music, and indeed any other art form that aims towards inner transformation. Because we are imperfect beings hovering between perfection and imperfection and aiming for the former, art forms that express this struggle give us sustenance. Music that expresses the radiance of the higher realms helps us develop a yearning, a thirst for elevation. But music that expresses the pain and suffering of living in attachment to the world helps us share this struggle with each other. From this lowly realm, with the aid of elevated melodies and tones, we can see our separation from our Source, and that is perhaps that strange mix of sadness and joy that we feel as our spines tingle.
Of course, this may just be my individual slant on things. To acknowledge my own bias: I grew up listening to heavy metal and grunge music until I consciously began to walk a spiritual path. Then I began to listen to and purchase music that I considered spiritual, which was World Music. But at many times in my life since I discarded my melancholic music, I have indulged in bouts of the dark and heavy sounds of my past. That perhaps is an inclination of my soul to seek solidarity in its remoteness from its Source. But I haven’t let myself pursue that interest for long—I know first-hand what effect it had on me as a depressed adolescent, taking me further and further down the dark tunnel I was already in. Of course, that’s the same for everyone. Each of us has a different reaction to various forms of art—we’re all individuals, and that’s why art speaks to us differently.
But conversely, I have a hard time listening to music that is too happy sounding and innocent—chirpy music that denies the suffering in life. It seems too superficial to me, too much of a covering of reality.
Maybe that’s why Baha’u’llah’s words about “the light of reunion and the fire of separation” strike such a chord with me. They really help me recognize the music that truly feeds my soul. As a musician myself, who puts the Bahai writings to music, for a time I tried to deny this darkness completely. I tried to make Bahai music that was light and fluffy, but it wasn’t me. My soul wanted a mirror in which to see its misery, as well as a lamp to guide the way out.
That is what I like about some World Music—it earnestly expresses both the joy and pain of the human condition. To me, the traditional melodies of the world’s cultures have a purity about them. Like stones polished over eons of weathering, these sounds have been refined over thousands of years, which makes them so closely tied to the human condition and our deepest yearnings. Contemporary music, on the other hand, can be very creative but is largely bound to current conventions, which will inevitably pass away.
To my ears, the timeless sentiments of the soul are best expressed by the traditional elements of music. That’s not to say we need to be completely bound by convention. In the Bahai writings we are urged to “turn away from imitation, which is following the traces of their forefathers.” – Baha’u’llah, The Seven Valleys, p. 5. So perhaps taking the soul-stirring elements of traditional music and reforming them through creativity is a good approach.
But of course there are other forms of music that feed my soul too. Has anyone done a better rendition of Hallelujah than Jeff Buckley?
In the end, it must be said that the melodies I find uplifting may be different from those that uplift you; the tones that tingle my spine may not tingle yours; the rhythms that resonate with my inner being may ricochet off yours. We all need to look within and earnestly seek out, listen to and create music that elevates our own souls—and share it will others so they can be transformed, too.
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