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The Baha'i teachings say that God “made music as a ladder for your souls.” To me, this means that music has a special place in a spiritual life--just like prayer, meditation and good works, it can help us elevate our spiritual station.
Baha’u’llah wrote that our souls, through music, “may be lifted up onto the realm on high.” But does this apply to all types of music? Many types of music exist, but Abdul-Baha explains that essentially:
There are two kinds of music, divine and earthly music. Divine music exhilarates the spirit, while earthly music has an effect upon the body. Divine music belongs to the Kingdom of God, earthly music is of the mundane world. I hope you will be confirmed to study both kinds of music so that you may be able to sing the anthems of heaven and the songs of this world. - Star of the West, Volume 8, p. 177.
In other places in the Baha'i writings, Abdul-Baha urges us to “Try, if thou canst, to use spiritual melodies, songs and tunes, and to bring the earthly music into harmony with the celestial melody. (from a tablet to an individual believer, translated from the Persian.) He also says, “set to music the verses and the divine words so that they may be sung with soul-stirring melody.” – Baha'i World Faith, p. 378.
So when we take on the noble task of putting the words of God to music, we should try to harmonize the earthly with the celestial. Similarly, we should take the same approach to the music we choose to listen to. This essential harmony and unity has the power to bring the two worlds closer together, and to exalt and enliven our souls.
While music can act as a ladder for the soul and a bridge between the spiritual and material, it can also function as a passage to our egos, our lower selves. Baha’u’llah cautions us to “make it not... as wings to self and passion.” But how do we know which music raises us up and which doesn’t?
Obviously, if music leads us to do destructive things, then it can’t act as a ladder for our souls. If, on the other hand, music inspires positive action, it can lift us up powerfully and spiritually. On a more subtle level, I think we can feel within ourselves whether or not a particular type of music helps us get in touch with a deeper part of our souls and connects us to God. But can all types of music do this?
Music is not a generic thing: it varies greatly across and within cultures. This includes what we consider “religious” or “spiritual” music. In one culture, a piece or style of music may be considered spiritual, but in another it may actually be regarded as irreverent. Music is also very personal—which means no objective standard exists of what can be considered spiritual music. That means only the conscience and spiritual sense of each individual can decide what music will aid them in their spiritual development and which will impede this growth.
So what does this look like in practice? Can I turn on my keyboard, choose a beat, create a catchy melody, and then put some sacred words to it and consider it spiritual music? Maybe not. Those of us who try to live a spiritual life often fail to become conscious of the less-than-spiritual aspects of our own lives: the way we dress, the way we eat, the way we spend our leisure time, and the type of music we listen to. So when it comes to making or listening to music, we should consider how it contributes to our spirituality.
In the Baha’i perspective, music is seen as a ladder for the soul, a means to spiritual advancement. That being said, not all music can act as a ladder that carries us into the presence of the Divine. Pure, inspiring music must embody the life of the spirit, and invite our souls to climb that melodious ladder.