Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Music as a Spiritual Aid: Modes and the Psyche

     I once took a philosophy class that touched on certain ideas about music's influential power, but it was not until I was working on my Masters Degree in Printmaking that I learned first-hand the truth of it.  I was learning the art of copper engraving, which constitutes using a very sharp shank of steel called a burin to carve lines in a copper plate. It requires an intense amount of concentration; to the point of losing touch with the external world when you are "in the zone," so to speak.  I found that certain kinds of music aided in my concentration.  Engraving my lines was as natural as breathing when I would listen to something like Goreki's "Symphony of Sorrowful Songs." But when our resident Skinhead art student would come into the studio and start blasting his German death metal, I couldn't keep the point of my burin in the copper.  It kept slipping out and marring the surface.  I was amazed at the physical effect music was having on me.  (Evidently I was not the only one:  Whenever the other students saw this kid enter the building, they would run to put something, anything, on the stereo).
     This experience let me to contemplate the power of music to alter moods in other settings.  That power has been recognized for eons as a way to induce or evoke spirituality.  From Christian hymns and chants, to African drumming, to the Mayan processions led by the tun and chirimi, music has been used to transport listeners to a heightened state of awareness.  Different types of music work in different ways for the different needs of different religions, however, there are basically two types of music; Apollonian and Dionysian.
     Many philosophers have commented on the difference between Apollonian and Dionysian modes of music.  Dionysian music is considered dark and chthonic; suitable for unrestrained bacchanals, full of chaos, passion, and destruction.  The Apollonian is full of order, structure, clarity, and rationality.  Both can lead to a heightened emotional response, and both have their place.
     A further division of music can be made by looking at the different musical modes.  The ancient Greeks believed that there were specific uses for each of the modes.  A section of Aristotle's "Politics" deals with this:  "But melodies themselves do contain imitations of character.  This is perfectly clear, for the harmoniai have quite distinct natures from one another, so that those who hear them are differently affected and do not respond in the same way to each.  To some, such as the one called Mixolydian, they respond with mores grief and anxiety, to others, such as the relaxed harmoniai, with more mellowness of mind, and to one another with a special degree of moderation and firmness, Dorian being apparently the only one of the harmoniai to have this effect, while Phrygian creates ecstatic excitement.  These points have been well expressed by those who have thought deeply about this kind of education; for they cull the evidence for what they say from the facts themselves. . . . From all this it is clear that music is capable of creating a particular quality of character in the soul, and if it can do that, it is plain that it should be made use of, and that the young should be educated in it."
     Determining the feeling of a piece of music is vital to determining its most appropriate usage in ceremony and ritual.  We have all felt moved at one time or another by a piece of music, as well as feeling jarred at the inappropriateness of a piece; sometimes by the same piece of music, just in different settings!  With a little care and planning, using music can greatly enrich our ritual:  A well chosen piece can make all the difference in whether participants become engrossed, or slip out, marring the surface of their ceremonial experience.


  1. Be it noted that the mode names now are attached to different modes than the ones Aristotle meant.

  2. True, Nathan, but I was thinking of saving that for when I write a book. . . .


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