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Thread: What are the universal characteristics of 'sacred' music?

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    Wink What are the universal characteristics of 'sacred' music?

    Every artwork, if it is effective, has universal qualities, because as human beings we all share certain universal qualities.

    Every artwork also has specific contexts, which can only be fully understood by those familiar with that particular context, be it cultural, of social construct, or other particulars.

    I'm interested in 'sacred' music which conveys the sense of the sacred in a universal manner, not dependent on particulars such as dogma, text, or religion.

    For example, someone might respond in an emotional way to an old Baptist hymn, while another person might see it as normal, undistinguished music, with no 'sacred' effect.

    This would be an example of particular context. A Baptist is more likely to sense the sacred than would a non-religious person, or someone outside this context. Even within this context, the person might be skeptical or have a 'raised eyebrow' sarcastic reaction, seeing the hymn as 'hokey' or old-fashioned.

    But even such a skeptic might have a different reaction if the hymn were heard in the context of an Ives piece, or if accompanied by film footage of an actual church service.

    So, the 'sacred' quality of music does not lie totally within the realm of either the music (the composer's intent, and the music's content) or with the listener. Music is a 'mapping' of experience from composer (represented by the music) to listener.

    Thus, it is our task to identify or define those characteristics in the music itself, and those qualities and requirements within listeners, which are 'universal' enough to be defined as constants of sacred music.

    If one were to make such a shopping-list of 'universals,' what would those constant universals be?

    Here is my list of general characteristics. Some of these qualities might be more effective in certain cultures than others, but still contain enough 'universal' quality to be approachable by any human.

    The experience of the sacred is often tied to isolation and solitude, when the mind can be quieted and calmed, and reflective thought begins to kick in. Therefore, in this context, sacred music should ideally reinforce this quietude and reflection.

    1. It could be even and smooth, and not be overly rhythmic or driving. Sustained notes could be more effective than short notes.

    2. It would not have distracting harmonic movement. It might be more drone-like, and focus on a single tonic.

    3. Since human voices are comforting, sacred music might be vocal more often than not.

    4. As in rosary meditation and chanting, sacred music could be repetitious, as a way of focusing the mind. This repetition might take the form of rhythmic drumming, as in the Moroccan trance music of Joujouka. This repetition could be repeated pitch-figures, or repeated chanting.

    This music would not disturb house-cats. (ha ha)

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    As a quietist, you fail to make room for enthusiasm.

    Puritans used to sing psalms to hornpipes. Gaelic psalm singing has some unusual harmonic movement. Sufism although very meditative also has its active side with whirling.
    Last edited by Taggart; Apr-01-2014 at 17:45.
    Music begins where words leave off. Music expresses the inexpressible.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Taggart View Post
    As a quietist, you fail to make room for enthusiasm.

    Puritans used to sing psalms to hornpipes. Gaelic psalm singing has some unusual harmonic movement. Sufism although very meditative also has its active side with whirling.
    Let's explore that aspect, then. "Onward Christian Soldiers" anyone? Hmmm...I think I have a good point. "Enthusiasm" can often preclude thought, and before you know it, you're marching off a cliff, or blowing yourself up...

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    Senior Member Blake's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Taggart View Post
    As a quietist, you fail to make room for enthusiasm.

    Puritans used to sing psalms to hornpipes. Gaelic psalm singing has some unusual harmonic movement. Sufism although very meditative also has its active side with whirling.
    Sufism has some really interesting reasons through their music and whirling. I was reading about it not too long ago. The quote I have below is from a very widely adored Sufi - Rumi. You don't have to be religious to find this quite beautiful.



    Last edited by Blake; Apr-01-2014 at 21:48. Reason: Grammar

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    Senior Member Piwikiwi's Avatar
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    Messiaen would disagree with a lot of points and he was a very devout catholic

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    Personally I hate hypnotics, and music that sends one into a trance-like state is probably more related to shamanism than any monotheistic religion.

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    I'm quite the fan of Traditional Persian and Indian music. Much of it tends to have a very meditative foundation.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jobis View Post
    Personally I hate hypnotics, and music that sends one into a trance-like state is probably more related to shamanism than any monotheistic religion.
    It can be more than frightening for some to go into an Alpha state where all ego is left behind... loss of willful control and sense of self, I imagine, and if the fear is great enough, it might be as anathema as the thought of losing one's mind. (Giving ones self up though, and freely handing that over, is essential to about any faith group on the planet!)

    But, then, I should advise: Don't ever sign up for singing Gregorian chants :-)
    Last edited by PetrB; Apr-02-2014 at 01:03.

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    Did I miss where you said what you mean by 'sacred'?

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    For a piece of music to be effective as a ‘religious’ piece, it must have qualities all associate with a rite, a ritual. The rite or ritual certainly came from man’s desire, or need, to address forces he acknowledged outside his control or jurisdiction, the earliest, the elements of weather or propitious conditions for the hunt.

    In an animist perception, powers and things associated with those conditions were the animals, weather, some sense of seasonal time (the moon as calendar), seasonal phenomena, both flora and fauna, sun or moon depending upon which time of day was best to hunt a particular animal.

    Certainly, too, vocal chanting and then singing, directed as a plea to those forces for their favor, and dancing (likely taking on the spirit of the animal and imitating its actions, and tribe members taking on roles of the animal and the hunters) all were incorporated.

    As those forces perceived to be prudent to address were given other identities, turned into personified spirits of both flora, fauna, planetary bodies, they became gods and goddesses. If things went well, i.e. pleas supposedly listened to and granted, rites of gratitude and praise to those forces were born. Rites of passage for individuals within the tribe were also taken up, birth, puberty, mating rituals, death, etc.

    This early history, built upon these foundations and continually morphed over millennia, is a constant unbroken semiotic thread which just about any person on the planet from any culture will readily recognize and to which they will intuitively respond. Such a response has little or nothing to do with what any of us currently associate with our contemporary meanings of community or society, while it has everything to do with being touched at that primal level, simply feeling we are ‘part of the tribal family.’

    Eventually, with the advent of farming and people no longer being nomadic, other animist assignments, other gods and goddesses, some more local 'permanent' residents of the place, came into being, while the atavistic instinct of the rites and rituals carried on in that unbroken line through to the present.

    No matter what the latter newly dressed trappings of ‘civilization’ may be, any and all rituals share this universal commonality.

    Musics toward that purpose must, somehow, evoke our responses which are rooted in that atavistic area of rite(s), which is /are still a semiotic recognized and strongly present in us.

    The artist creating a religious work has to then meet those criteria of rite / ritual, none of which depend – at all – on the artist having a firm belief in the religion, the text, while the artist must be directly in touch with those elements which will be perceived as rite to successfully deliver a genuine sense of rite / ritual. [[Love and and abiding passion for music, or the religion, is not enough: what is required is apart from that; it is dependent upon a type of awareness and intelligence, the level of the composer's skill set, and it must be said, that je ne sais quoi we call "genius."]] If the criteria for a rite is met, the listener, without their being in any way dependent upon adhering to a particular faith or being a part of the culture, and not at all affected because they are deist, agnostic, or atheist, will have a very full ‘religious’ experience.
    Last edited by PetrB; Apr-02-2014 at 10:24.

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    I'm not requiring that sacred music induce a trance-like state, but it should induce quietude. Of course, this is just one way of looking at it. The reason I am discussing the quieter aspects is in keeping with the Western tradition of monks and cloisters, and meditation and prayer, and chant. It all fits a Western paradigm, without anyone having to be 'spooked' by trance states. You don't have to lose your ego, either, just tone it down a bit.

    As far as 'enthusiastic' activity goes, I think this speaks more to the social aspects of spirituality and religion. I think any religion, regardless, should encourage introspection, and act as a mirror, in which to improve our own selves.

    We can discuss more extroverted aspects, like snake-handling, if you'd like...there's nothing like a rattlesnake to keep one humble and focused.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Jobis View Post
    Personally I hate hypnotics, and music that sends one into a trance-like state is probably more related to shamanism than any monotheistic religion.
    Wow, I was really talking more about Gregorian chant, and never mentioned 'trance.' I suppose Philip Glass is getting thrown out with the bathwater, too.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Piwikiwi View Post
    Messiaen would disagree with a lot of points and he was a very devout catholic
    I doubt that, knowing what I know about Messiaen's music. He was a Catholic mystic, by the way.

    Messiaen's music has no functional harmony or chord progressions, so he is to be listened to 'in the moment,' which is similar to a timeless state of being or meditation;

    Messiaen was more interested in texture, timbre, and tone-color than he was in Western harmonic progression. He used rhythmic ideas from India, and Javanese gamelon sounds. So, even though he was a 'devout Catholic,' he had a lot of interest in non-Western musical cultures.

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    In trying to stimulate an open-ended discussion, it seems that the defense of traditional Western religion seems to be an emerging agenda.

    Apparently, the basic premise, which is that 'sacred' music, and the sense of the sacred that it can induce universally in all Men, is being questioned.

    It was not the initial purpose of the thread to debate dogma or religion, but rather to engage a more open and inclusive discussion about sacred music.

    It was not the initial purpose of this thread to define or debate what is meant by 'sacred.'

    If it is thought that the West has an exclusive claim on 'sacred music,' then that premise is not productive to this thread, which is intended to discuss its 'universal' qualities.

    One has to at least agree with the basic premise of the thread for productive discussion, as debate on this point distracts from its basic premise.
    Last edited by millionrainbows; Apr-02-2014 at 17:40.

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    You are either starting with a definition of what sacred music is, or you are working towards one by trying to get people to agree to your 'universals'. Without that, the default definition will attract ideas connected with religion, which is what you're trying to avoid.

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