The music of science and religion

By Paul Utukuru, Science & Theology News, July 4, 2005

Music provides us something that is hard to define. Science may hold part of the answer.

Even apart from its religious relevance, music gives us not just sensuous pleasure but something much deeper that is hard to define. Our encounters with the great composers of both past and present sharpen our sensibilities and enable us to transcend our own limitations, living our lives with greater meaning.

<< Music provides humans with greater meaning.
(Photo: Catherine Silsby/Morguefile)

Devotional songs, hymns and repetitive musical chants are a common denominator in many religious practices. Whether through instrument or song, through chant or the beating of the drums, musical sounds have been used since time immemorial to facilitate the individual?s efforts to transcend his or her finite existence and achieve a sense of mystical union with the Great Spirit, the Universal or the Divine. The Bible describes Jericho?s walls falling at the sound of military horns. Moses instituted an annual musical event involving the blowing of trumpets as a prelude to the worship of his God.

The Chinese speak of their ancestral singers changing the seasons and creating fire or water through music. Hindus speak of specific ancient mantras to manipulate specific natural phenomena. In Europe, the music of numerous Western composers like Bach is known to have been largely spiritually inspired. Vedic chanting and Gregorian chanting are classic examples of the role of music in religion. The most striking repetitive chanting rituals include the Holy Mary chant, the Buddhist chants and the Hindu Mantras such as the Hare Krishna Mantra and the Gayatri Mantra.

The classical music of India is even more closely connected with religion than Western classical music. A 19th century Indian composer named Dikhsitar is said to have composed an intricate melody to petition his or her favorite deity to relieve a drought, resulting in a downpour of rain almost immediately. Likewise, Dikshitar?s contemporary Tyagaraja, whose compositions are popular in India?s Carnatic music even today, is known to have gone into spiritual ecstasy time and again through musical compositions inspired by his or her devotion to his or her favorite deity Lord Venkateswara. In the north, spiritual ecstasies are associated with the music of Tansen, Mirabai and a host of others.

Interestingly, the same music, the same literature and the same art forms do not appeal to everyone. For instance, Sigmund Freud was a great admirer of art but considered music as an unnecessary intrusion into our lives. On the other hand, modern composers like Bernstein have argued that we are all pre-programmed to respond in specific ways to specific combinations of musical notes in specific improvisations. Some claim that the interval of the major third expresses joy, while the minor third expresses grief. While this may be so for those trained in Western music, this is not necessarily so for someone with an orientation toward oriental or Middle Eastern musical styles.

The physics and the mathematics involved in all these variations and their historical evolution are themselves deep mysteries. For instance, out of the endless numbers of possible acoustical sounds, only seven primary frequencies in various combinations are employed in most forms of music. Equally mystifying is the fact that the human ear responds only to frequencies in the range of 20 to 20,000 Hz, while cats, dogs and bats can hear sounds well above 20,000 Hz in frequency, and elephants can sense frequencies as low as 5 Hz. Imagine what chamber music or a piano recital would be like if we could hear sounds well beyond the 20 to 20,000 Hz audible range at either end. Recent advances in electronic augmentation of musical sounds and computer-generated musical patterns are as mystifying as the genius of human musical innovation itself from time immemorial.

Another mysterious thing about music is that the emotional response that it arouses with or without words and movement is enormous compared to that of other art forms. There is a growing trend to use music in conjunction with a variety of modern medical therapies to enhance their effectiveness. In China, herbal nutrients are used in conjunction with musical nutrients to restore the Yin and Yang imbalances in our bodies. Even Western physicians are now playing Chinese music when they give acupuncture treatments to their patients.

Our brains have evolved to the point that we can reflect on the same universe that has brought us into being ? to understanding the rules on which it runs and become aware of our connection with it. Yet the connection is a reality. And that is our ultimate mystery. No wonder, therefore, as Albert Einstein repeatedly said, the most incomprehensible thing about life and nature is that we are able to comprehend them. The Greeks attributed our existence to the Logos, the Bible declares that in the beginning was the Word of God, and the Hindus consider the primordial sound OM to be central to all that is in the universe. Many scientists today believe that all elementary particles are strings vibrating in multiple dimensions.

One cannot escape the realization that the sensory faculties of any given species ultimately put an upper limit to all of its dynamic activities, knowledge and even creative functioning. Additionally, in the case of the human, they are also largely paradigm and culture dependent. No wonder, therefore, that the same music, the same literature, the same art forms and even the same religious beliefs do not strike the same chords in everyone.
Paul Utukuru is a medical physicist retired from Johns Hopkins University.