God’s Gift to Man: The Transforming Power of Music

music angles Mary_and_Jesus lullaby angelic baby_JesusThis article is a reflection on how music has shaped my devotion to the Church. There will be links to my favorite music: liturgical, hymns and other. I’d be grateful if readers would note in comments their favorite music. I won’t say much about the psychology of music or how music affects the brain. A lot of work has been done in functional imaging, but I’m not sure we know much more now than when Pythagoras noted the beautiful mathematical relations between harmonious intervals. However, for those interested in pursuing the subject, I will give references**.

Music and the Liturgy

My first encounter with the power of music in liturgy came at a 40 Hours devotional service. (See Top Down to Jesus) . I had been preparing for entry into the Church, and although on rational grounds I had come to believe in the Resurrection and its implications, there were matters of dogma I found  difficult to understand, particularly that important one, transubstantiation, the change of the substance of the host into the body of Christ. As the monstrance was carried in during the procession of the 40 Hours service, Tantum Ergo was played, and I read in the missal

“Præstet fides supplementum, Sensuum defectui.”

Enough of my high school Latin came back, “faith will supplement the deficiency of the senses”, and I realized in my heart, that the wafer, the host, was the body of Christ, that it was mystery beyond science and philosophy, and my eyes filled with tears.

Other liturgical music has struck to my heart in ways no homily or theological text seems to do. During my first Easter Vigil Mass  The Litany of the Saints was played, and an overwhelming vision of the history of the Church and all its holy people came to me. During  Vespers at St. Vincent Archabbey (attended during retreat as a Benedictine Oblate) or Evensong services at  the St. Thomas More Anglican Usage Parish, a great peace and understanding comes over me as I listen to the strong voices chanting the psalms.

Religious Music/Hymns

Other music, not  liturgical — Bach (the B minor Mass,  Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring), Mozart’s Requiem, Ralph Vaughan William’s Dona Nobis Pacem —  will bring me to thoughts of God. Hymns that I want to be played at my funeral have made their mark: Amazing Grace, Shall We Gather by the River,  Jerusalem my Happy Home, The Lord of the Dance (old and corny pieces from evangelical churches, for the most part). And there are those I play with the instrumental group at Church, It is Well with my Soul, Panis Angelicus, Mozart’s Ave VerumThe King of Love My Shepherd IsOld 100th and so many others.  (I play the alto clarinet, not well, but enough to provide harmony–a bass voice, since I can’t sing on key.***)

Music in Context

One thing should be clear: it isn’t the music by itself that is moving, but the total situation: liturgy, congregation, and the words. I could read

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,That saved a wretch like me.I once was lost but now am found,Was blind, but now I see.T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear.And Grace, my fears relieved.How precious did that Grace appearThe hour I first believed.” Liberty Lyrics John Newton

It would be moving, but it is the combination of the words that reflect my own experience AND the music that brings me to tears of joy. I could read the verses of Tantum Ergo and Pange Lingua, but it would not be meaningful without the presence of Christ’s body, the procession, the Benediction, and the congregation sharing this experience.

Is Music Sentimental and Distracting?

Am I only being sentimental and not truly devoted to the austere beauty of liturgy in my reaction to this music–too catholic (with a lower-case c)? Some Church liturgists might think so.

“It is not surprising that Church leaders have doubted whether the feelings which music arouses are truly religious.  Music’s power to fan the flames of piety may be more apparent than real…”Anthony Storr, Music and the Mind   

The Hebrews did not worry about music being a distraction from devotion to the Lord. David danced in the procession to the altar and the psalms say “Sing to the Lord a new song, play the lute, the lyre and the harp, sound the trumpets”. St. Augustine, entranced by music, was concerned that this power might enable the senses to overcome the intellect in worship:

“So I waver between the danger that lies in gratifying the senses and the benefits which, as I know, can accrue from singing….I am inclined to approve of the custom of singing in church, in order that by indulging the ears weaker spirits may be inspired  with feelings of devotion. Yet when I find the singing itself more moving than the truth  which it conveys, I confess it is a grievous sin, and at those times I would prefer not to hear the singer. (emphasis added)St. Augustine, Confessions

The last sentence in the quote is the foundation for the expulsion of music from the Church in Calvinist sects (read “The Warden” by Anthony Trollope). I cannot subscribe to that view. I am one of St. Augustine’s weaker spirits. I believe God gave many many gifts to man in giving him intelligence: language, mathematics, music, art. Music has the power to heal the soul (as Oliver Sacks shows in Musicophilia) and to bring one closer to God. We give joy to God when we rejoice in music, not only to praise Him, but to rejoice in life (l’Chaim)

*This quote, to show what a strange gift  music is, comes from Arthur C. Clarke’s classic “Childhood’s End”, in which an alien species comes to guide mankind from childhood to maturity.   The very intelligent aliens do not understand the power of music.    They go to a concert,  listen politely and come away wondering.


Robert Jourdain, Music, the Brain and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination

Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia, Tales of Music and the Brain

Anthony Storr, Music and the Mind

***A Musical Autobiography

I am musical but untalented (unlike my younger and older brothers). At the age of 8, I didn’t pass an audition at our Temple Youth Choir because I couldn’t carry a tune. So, I took up the clarinet as a biddable instrument– if you put your fingers on the right keys, the right note comes out (given a certain amount of play in lipping the reed).

However, the biddability of the clarinet and my own talent weren’t sufficient to let me do well in junior high school band, so that clarinet was put away until after my retirement, when I took up playing again: bass clarinet, then alto clarinet and the bowed psaltery. Throughout my life from a teenager on, I have enjoyed classical music, folk music and some of the Golden Oldies–no rap, no hard rock, none of the stuff that’s played on most radio stations.

My musical tastes are catholic (lower-case c). On my Pandora web site are listed stations including Callas, Pavarotti, Fleming,  St. Martin’s in the Fields, Gilbert & Sullivan, Bach, Mozart, klezmer, Sephardic, Ashokan Farewell, bluegrass. Such music is moving in different ways–Ravel’s  Bolero, the Wedding Scene from Fiddler on the Roof, The Beatles’ “Let it Be”, the final scene from Der Rosenkavalier, American Pie… (added later, 19/8) Ode to Joy, (Beethoven’s 9th).…and so it goes.

Bob Kurland is a retired, cranky, old physicist. Convert to Catholicism in 1995. Trying to show that there is no contradiction between what science tells us about the world and our Catholic faith. Intermittent blogs at Rational Catholic and adult education classes here to achieve this end. Extraordinary Minister of Communion volunteer to federal prison and hospital; lector, EOMC. Sometime player of bass clarinet, alto clarinet, clarinet, bass, tenor bowed psaltery for parish instrumental group and local folk group. And, finally, his motivation: “It is also necessary—may God grant it!—that in providing others with books to read I myself should make progress, and that in trying to answer their questions I myself should find what I am seeking. Therefore at the command of God our Lord and with his help, I have undertaken not so much to discourse with authority on matters known to me as to know them better by discoursing devoutly of them.” St. Augustine of Hippo, The Trinity I,8.