Friday, November 5, 2010

Music and Religion

By Olivia Nowland


It would not be controversial to make the statement that music and religion permeate almost every aspect of the human experience. People are engaged with music both passively (e.g. playing in the background of advertisements or in shopping centres) and actively (e.g. going to a concert or listening to the radio) on an almost daily basis (Lynch 2006). Religion can be more subtle, visible in the attitudes and values portrayed by the mass media (Lynch 2005). In observing this, it is important to investigate what impact these two factors have on each other. The following essay will examine the link between music and religion using the criterion of Watson’s (1998) theory of theology and music. As well as this, it will compare religions impact on music and music’s impact on religion using Kaplan’s (1990) eightfold outline (summarised by Misenhelter and Kaiser (2008)) of the sociological functions of music. Finally, this essay will address the issue of whether music in itself can be considered a religion.

Theology and Music (Watson 1998)

Interestingly, Watson (1998) argues that while music and theology definitely interact with each other there is no theology of music. He argues that while music is used in the theological setting that it is not composed with the purpose to be a religious text, or religious itself. He offers two highly comprehensive and appropriate criteria to examine the relationship between religion and music and music as religion: music and the aesthetic life, and music and consolation.

Music and the Aesthetic Life

Watson (1998) found that some researchers believed that exclusion of music by some denominations of the Christian faith led to a complete separation of Christianity from religion, and furthermore, lead to a perception of music as a “life orientation”. He also found that some researchers believed that those of faith were somehow excluded from access to music. While, as aforementioned, Watson argues that there is no direct link between music and religion, he acknowledges that an individual can participate in both religious and musical rituals without compromising their opinions or beliefs about either. He goes further to argue that music is not the direct expression of religion, as believed by some members of faith. Although he acknowledges the purpose of religious musical pieces, he is unable to justify the claim that music is a direct result of the divine.

Music and Consolation

Secondly, Watson(1998) examines the power music has to console people, and its function in a celebratory environment. By using examples from a Christian Bible, he distinguishes between the uses of consolatory music and celebratory music, arguing that when used in the wrong context, the music could be perceived as mocking. However, he goes on to say that music is not the sole source of consolation in the religious stories, and as such should not be perceived to have the same comfort the Christian faith provides to its followers.

Eight Sociological Functions of Music

Although Kaplan (1990) did not do any work on music and religion his eight functions of music provide a useful outline to examine how and which each of these functions religion fulfils. Contrary to Watson’s argument, these For the purposes of this essay, five of these functions will be used as outlined in Misenhelter and Kaiser (2008). They are as follows: (1) Music is an expression of ideas and emotions, (2) Music is enjoyable, (3) Music can encourage conformity, (4) music is a communication tool and (5) music can distinguish a culture.

Ideas and Emotions

It is not controversial to say that both music and religion encourage ideas and emotions. For instance is has been found that people are often moved emotionally by music in a religious service, even those who do not perceive themselves as religious (e.g.(Ellis 1984; Hendrickson 2001; Pugmire 2006). Those who attend secular concerts are often moved in a similar way, pop-music providing them with a similar emotional fulfilment as religion (Riesman 1950). Many religions use music (and musicians use religion) to distribute an idea or a message. The advent of Christian metal is a primary example of this. Christian Metal artists began the movement to provide an alternative method of evangelisation and to express a different view of the Christian identity (Moberg 2007). Many pop-artists find inspiration for their songs in religion, an explicit example is REM’s “losing my religion” and some artists choose to be more subtle using religion as a metaphor (e.g. Coldplay’s “Violet Hill”).


A third characteristic shared by religious and musical experiences is the level of enjoyment in the event. This concept will not be explored in detail as both musical and religious events have the potential to be enjoyable independent of each other, however, they do share some common features that contribute to the level of enjoyment experiences by participants/adherents. For instance, both pop-music fans and those belonging to religion are likely to experience some form of community. In regards to Catholic masses Hendrickson (2001) found that for 28% of Catholics, coming together as a community was the favourite aspect of the ritual. Furthermore, the many online fan sites create a similar sense of trust in the others (Cellary 2008).

Conformity to Social Norms

The fourth sociological function of music described by Misenhelter and Kaise (2008) is music’s role in the promotion of conformity to social norms. This can be seen in organised religions by the use of music in ritual, in ritual people are expected to act in certain depending on the nature and the part of the ritual they are observing or participating in (Jackson 1968). Similarly pop-music encouraged conformity to social norms, although not as ritualistic they show their audience how they are supposed to dress and act (Riesman 1950). Finally, it may be said that some religions have conformed to some of the rituals of popular music and vice versa. For example, the Hillsong concerts mimic the format of pop-concerts, while creating a similar atmosphere and hype. On the other hand, pop-music has also imitated the ideas of religion, with artists being portrayed as religious deities, or else being the target of religious like reverence from their fans. Furthermore, music can be used as a teaching tool to help the community learn the values, beliefs and attitudes that are expected of them. For example, in children’s masses children often learn parables in song form. However, music can also be used to rebel against the social norm. A prime example of this is the underground heavy metal concerts being held by young Muslims as an act of revolution (LeVine 2008).

Communication of Shared Experiences

Music in the religious context can provide those participating with a sense of community and harmony. A recent survey found that 14% of mass goers favourite part of the mass was the music (Hendrickson 2001). The survey also found that mass goers enjoyed the opportunity to participate in the songs of the mass, stating that singing as a group made the mass feel more like a community come to worship, as opposed to original mass structure where the priest would sing with his back to the congregation. In a “non-religious” context, many researchers have also found that musical experiences can fulfil the need for a sense of community in a similar way to religion (Eurich 2003). For example, at pop-concerts, while having a performer-audience dynamic, the audience is encouraged to sing along with the band and often and can become a community themselves, even if only for a brief time (Eurich 2003). An example of this is musicians tailoring music for their audience, for example, the British band Coldplay sang the John Farnham song “You’re the Voice” at their Australian concerts. Furthermore, religious story can be communicated by the use of music. A prime example of this is the Australian Aboriginal cultures, which often employ musicians dance to communicate stories of the dreamtime (Ellis 1984).

Music as a distinguishing factor

In Misenhelter and Kaiser (2008), music is used as a distinguishing factor between cultures. The same is true for religions; the sound of a traditional Christian chorus is very different from a Buddhist chant. Even within particular religions different music is used for different occasions, for instance, it would be highly inappropriate to use a funeral march as a bride was walking down the aisle.

Can Music be considered a Religion?

Although the opinion of Watson (1998) does differ greatly from some other researchers, his claim that music in itself cannot serve the full function of religions has merit. While music does have the power to change the emotions of a person, this is often not permanent. Watson finds that music is tool regularly used by religion but is not a religion itself. In accordance with this view, although many researchers (e.g. (Lynch 2006; Eurich 2003)) claim that music acts as a religion, as Watson suggests, music acts as a central point but is not the aspect that appears to make the followers “religious”. Rather it is the aspects surrounding the use of music, for example; a sense of community; social support; the practice of ritual, that create the religious experience.


In conclusion, it has been found that music and religions both have substantial impacts on each other; however, there are also many aspects where they work independently. It has also been found that music can serve similar functions of religion, however, this parallel would not be possible to make without the atmosphere that music creates. Overall both music and religion influence society, both independent and reliant on each other.


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