Below are assorted thoughts on the spiritual nature of music plucked from correspondence on the subject between myself and a friend. I thought it might be of general interest and would love to hear your thoughts on the subjects discussed. -PNN
I do believe that music is a uniquely spiritual entity that allows us to access and impact a spiritual root within each one of us. Just the fact that it was an integral part of the avodah in the beis hamikdash makes this quite clear. And I also believe that there is a qualitative difference between say Mozart and Eminem or Rihanna. One type of music lifts you up and taps into the Godly spirit within each of us, whereas the latter appeals to the animalistic in us and drags us in that direction. I would have to say then that not only does the type of person you are impact what kind of music you listen to, but that the type of music you listen to impacts the kind of person you are. People who are perceptive and self-aware can I think consciously sense the spiritual potential in music and gravitate towards more spiritual kinds of music…sadly, with yeridas hadoros, I think this type of person is rarer and rarer. The rest of us just listen to the music we “like” without realizing what it says about us.
As for the composers, there are some remarkable “coincidences” in history of great ideas being simultaneously discovered by two or more different, unconnected people at the same time. Calculus, which was discovered independently by Leibniz and Newton in the 1680s, the classification of autism by Asperger (of Asperger’s Syndrome) and Kanner (interestingly enough they both used the word “autism” to describe it), the discovery of Oxygen by Scheele, Priestley and Lavoisier in the early 1770s, and more recently and of contemporary relevance the development of a full relativistic model of the Higgs boson in 1964 independently and almost simultaneously by three groups of physicists are all great examples of this. This, and other examples, lead me to believe that there are certain points in history where God decides to open up the gates of wisdom on a particular subject and just as Avraham was the only one who looked and listened for (and thus saw) God, certain individuals have prepared themselves and are open to the spiritual conduits into this world and thus serve as channels for the new realm of wisdom. In the words of Farkas Bolyai, “"When the time is ripe for certain things, they appear at different places in the manner of violets coming to light in early spring." I think this is true for many of the great composers. Bach, the great Baroque composer, used to preface each of his scores with the initials S.D.G., Soli Deo Gloria, or For the Glory of God Alone. I believe that Handel also used to do the same. This isn’t to say that hishtadlus doesn’t play a role, I may be utterly receptive to God’s input but without a musical bone in my body and I will never compose like Mozart. However, someone who has prepared himself with all of the necessary prerequisites and is then open to the inspiration of a “muse” is uniquely positioned to bring it into this world. And I don’t think one needs necessarily be aware that it comes from God. This concept is, I think, true of other disciplines as well, such as poetry. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in 1797, awoke from a nap (granted, it was opium induced) and furiously penned the famous lines of Kubla Kahn which had come to him in his sleep. Anyway, this is all to say that I think many of the great musicians are tapping into a spiritual stream when they compose. As for most modern song-writers…I doubt it. I think that with them, they’ve mastered the technical skills and theories of music, whether intuitively and experientially or more methodically, and once you internalize a set of rules you’re able to utilize them subconsciously, much as a soccer player can kick a perfectly aimed goal without calculating the laws of physics because experience has taught him how they apply to every situation with which he may be faced.
As for the source of music’s spirituality, I think part of it has to do with time, on which it is utterly dependent. Time is a uniquely spiritual entity, and one that is central to Judaism. By way of just one example of the dozens that spring to mind, Gan Eden, our notion of paradise, is literally translated as the Garden of Time. The best way of understanding music’s dependence on time is recognizing that if someone had no capacity for forming memories, they would be utterly unable to appreciate music. Each second would live alone and thus all that they would hear would be, as far as they know, one tone. This isn’t true for the visual medium. Someone with no memory could still enjoy the Mona Lisa for example. This may be one reason Judaism has a preference for ears over eyes. Shema Yisrael vs. V’lo sasuru acharei…eineichem. As for “spiritual individuals”, while I do believe in the validity of the term, I’m not sure that we apply it too accurately these days. Many of the so called “spiritual individuals” that I have encountered in Israel, not just in Tzfat :), are not spiritual, they’re just nuts.
The question of whether music contains an element of the composer’s spiritual status is one that I still struggle with and haven’t reached a clear conclusion on. Wagner, for example, bothers me greatly as I find the music beautiful and the man depraved. However, I certainly wouldn’t agree that just because a composer is not-Jewish, the music is tamei. As the midrash says, chachmah bagoyim ta’amin.
I am a tremendous fan of The Piano Guys, and would agree that there are composers nowadays who create quality music, although I do believe in yeridas hadoros across all disciplines and thus wouldn’t say they’re on the same level as someone like Mozart…don’t forget that, to paraphrase Newton, we are but midgets standing on the shoulders of giants. We may see further, but we’d be fools to think we are greater. When I referred to the low quality of today’s music, I was speaking more of “Call Me Maybe.” Without the lyrics, most of modern music is rubbish. That’s why they have the lyrics. :) Instrumental and classical music, I think is in a different class.