Does music have the power to elevate the human mind and spirit? Is it integral to the religious and spiritual experience?
Musicians, musical directors and composers such as Mark Miller, who currently serves on the faculty at Drew University Theological School and the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale University, believe that it is an essential component of the spiritual experience.
“Music creates community. It has the potential to soften the hardest heart and give strength and encouragement. For me, there is no higher calling,” said Miller, who recently led a Post-Modern Hymn Sing Revival at the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Morristown, as part of a series of recitals offered to the public through the American Guild of Organists (AGO).
“Music empowers people to be in touch with God and the spirit. Through music we can express feelings and emotions that words alone cannot express,” said June Van Thoen, who has served as director of music ministries at Morristown United Methodist Church for 24 years.
Singing Together is a Powerful Experience
Van Thoen said she believes that the very act of singing provides an extraordinary experience.
“When we sing together, we breathe together,” she said. “And it’s as if we are all breathing in the Holy Spirit–considered to be the breath of God. It’s a very powerful experience.
“Hymns are our greatest resource, especially in times of great stress when we need comfort the most. Words put to music will always be remembered,” Van Thoen said.
What Makes Music Spiritual?
Is there a specific type of music that awakens that which is spiritual within us?
“The elements of sacred music consist of any music that allows us to experience that which is holy,” Miller said. “That would mean any music that helps us to transcend our present pain and fear and connects us to love, hope, peace, community and joy.”
Miller said while there are certain harmonies, melodies and progressions that send us cues that something special is happening, whether a listener responds depends on the listeners’ generation, culture and place in history.
When he was 22 years old, Miller said that he heard gospel music and woke up spiritually and musically. “I heard gospel for the first time, I really heard it and I knew that those harmonies and the way it was sung completely energized and revolutionized the way I played and experienced music,” he said. “I was a performer of western classical pipe organ, but this was a whole new universe of sound and expression that ushered in the sacred for me in a whole new way.”
Reinventing Hymns for Modern People
With the goal of assuring inclusivity and ideas that are easier to relate to for people of modern times, Ed Alstrom, music director and organist at Church of the Redeemer in Morristown, said that they have rewritten many of their hymns.
“We sometimes refer to God as she, we change references to anything that might sound like Christian imperialism such as references to Lord or King, which we always change to God,” Alstrom said.
He also said they like to steer clear of references to sin and salvation. “What we try to do in our hymns is to use language that includes everyone and provides comfort,” said Alstrom, who has been a church organist for 36 years and also plays the organ at Yankee Stadium, and jazz and pop piano and guitar at clubs and on Broadway.
“By changing the language of our hymns, we are able to provide a more satisfying liturgical experience,” he said.
Alstrom said the members of the congregation are very outspoken about what they like or dislike in their hymns. “Our congregation participates with great enthusiasm," he said. "If there are lines in the hymns that they are not comfortable with, they will definitely say something about it."
Music Provides Connection
“Music is the link to God. That’s what it has always been for me,” said Karen Chiappini, who has served as organist at the Church of the Assumption and a musician since the age of 13.
“When I heard the pipe organ, I knew I had to play it,” she said.
Chiappini, who has served as the church’s organist for three years, is passionate about her role.
“I feel that I am bringing the congregation to prayer, and that’s a very big responsibility," she said.
For those whose lives are focused on music in a spiritual setting, the sentiments of Martin Luther ring clear, “Next to the word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.”
Luther, considered to be the initiator of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, also said, “Beautiful music is the art of the prophets that can calm the agitations of the soul.”