Spirituality and Music

Fr Frank O’Dea SSS

Music Shows Joy

Beethoven (1770-1827) composed nine symphonies, all masterpieces. In his Ninth Symphony he used vocalists, the first time singers were used in a symphony. In the final movement the singers join the orchestra in the glorious setting of Ode to Joy which expresses the wonderful human emotion of joy. The choral symphony is one of the most sublime of all human achievements. And Beethoven composed this when he was stone deaf!

Searching for the Divine

Within the human psyche there is a desire, a yearning for the divine which can be expressed in beautiful music, painting or sculpture. This applies to every person, believer or not.

I believe that composers, whether they know it or not, are looking for God. Their compositions show a search for ultimate beauty. Their works can move us to tears as we are transported into another world, a higher sphere of consciousness.

We cannot define the ultimate reality which we call God, Allah or any other name, so we use some form of art to express what we mean.

Plato (427-347 BCE) said, ‘Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, flight to the imagination and charm and deity to life and everything.’

Beauty Truth Goodness

Beauty, Truth and Goodness are tightly interwoven like the strands of a garment. Humans have always tried to express their deepest feelings in painting, sculpture, dance and music.

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) said that composing music was like ‘wrestling with God.’

Music has always been a very rich way of celebrating sacred events. Every culture has developed its own characteristic style of music to express its feelings about the mysteries that are beyond our ability to put into words.

The human voice was the first form of music. Drums of all kinds, wind and string instruments were developed.

The Australian aborigines use voice, clapping sticks and the unique didgeridoo. In Buddhism the monks chant Om to keep the mind focussed on the ultimate reality.  In Hinduism music ‘is considered to have mythological roots and is associated with the heavenly singers, the Gandharvas. It is considered a means of redemption rather than mere entertainment.’ (Wikipedia)

Judaism uses music. After the victorious crossing of the Red Sea, ‘Miriam the prophetess … took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines, dancing. (Ex. 15:20) The ram’s horn, harp, lyre and trumpets were also used by the Jews.

The ‘king of instruments’ is the pipe organ. It may have several manuals; it has stops to control the selection of pipes so that there is a huge variety of effects such as clarion, oboe, trumpet, clarinet, flute… The biggest organs have up to seven manuals and 20,000 pipes. They also have keys for the feet to play; these give a really deep rich sound.

A very popular organ piece is the Organ Symphony Number 3 by Camille Saint Saens (1835-1921). It explores the full range of organ sounds and evokes extraordinary power.

Forms of Music

Christianity has developed many different forms of music. Perhaps the most sublime is Gregorian chant, waves of sound unaccompanied by instruments. Gregorian chant is like the waves of the ocean giving a sense of mystery hidden in the depths. The composers of these beautiful melodies are mainly unknown; traditionally, all the glory went to God not to the composer.

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) composed beautiful sacred music similar to Gregorian.

Polyphonic singing for choirs is also very beautiful. People like Palestrina (1525-1594) were masters of this form. Some wrote not just for the usual four voices but up to forty parts! Imagine trying to knit a jumper with forty strands instead of two!

Classical Composers

Handel (1685-1759) composed wonderful spiritual music; perhaps the most renowned piece is his Messiah which includes the famous Hallelujah Chorus.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) was a prolific composer of sacred music with his many cantatas. Who could not be moved by the wonder of Jesus Joy of Man’s Desiring or Sheep May Safely Graze? These are masterpieces of sacred music. Bach had the ability to make the music correspond to the words by using major or minor keys to express suffering or exultation as in the St Matthew Passion.

Wolgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) was extraordinarily creative. It is said he composed very quickly without drafts. The melodies just came instantly without effort. He composed spiritual songs such as Ave Verum Corpus and many masses along with a prolific output of operas, symphonies and concertos.

I think he was driven to find the ultimate reality in his brilliant compositions.

Karl Barth said, ‘When the angels sing for God, they sing Bach; but I am sure that when they sing for themselves, they sing Mozart – and God eavesdrops’ (The Tablet, 21/28 December 2013).

The remark has been made that Bach was the Old Testament genius of music while Beethoven was the New Testament genius.

Thousands of masses have been composed by musicians. These masterpieces help us to lift our souls heavenward to God as we go through the various parts of the mass: the Kyrie, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei.

When I was young, singing at mass was regarded as an optional extra, a gloss to the real thing. I would say now that music is an essential part of any religious ceremony. Music can express what words fail to express.

Vatican II promoted singing for the ordinary person, so popular music with guitars became common. Some thought this music was too secular. However, it got people singing, hence more in touch with the sacredness of both the transcendent and the immanent. Songs have become more scripture based, frequently using the exact words of the bible.


God is the ultimate creator of all things as we see in the extraordinary diversity of plants and animals. God is very generous in pouring out this gift of creativity to artists such as composers of great music.

A piece of music may begin with a motif of six or seven notes, repeated in different keys or inverted. Great composers can then select just two or three notes from the motif and play around with them.

I enjoy sitting in my recliner and listening to classical music on my radio marvelling at the inventiveness of the composers.

Listening in this way is like a meditation, putting me in touch with a higher dimension of reality.


One of God’s greatest gifts to us is that of emotions which range from joy and gratitude to anger and despair. The whole range of human emotions is covered in music.

I’ve already mentioned the joy in Beethoven’s Choral symphony. Beethoven was a genius in every genre of music. His music has extraordinary power and energy even when soft and gentle. His range of compositions express every kind of human emotion. Beethoven broke all the rules of musical composition, but he knew what he was doing. In breaking the rules of his time he set new rules for the future. Beethoven had an extraordinary gift of creativity.

Perhaps Chopin was the greatest composer to express emotion. His Revolutionary Etude was written to show his anger at the brutal putdown of a revolution in his native Poland; you can hear the anger sparking out from the keys. He composed almost exclusively for the piano and he drew from that instrument all the emotions of romance, tenderness and delicacy in his nocturnes and waltzes. There is power in his Military Polonaise and in his third Ballade there is a melody so delicate it’s like egg-shell porcelain.

Sorrow for Sin

Asking forgiveness for one’s failings is set to music in the Kyrie of all masses. Perhaps the most wonderful composition in this genre is the Miserere by the priest Gregorio Allegri, a member of the Vatican choir, probably written in the 1630s for two choirs and including a boy soprano who is required to sing astonishingly high notes. It’s an extremely moving piece of music touching the depths of the soul. The Vatican jealously guarded the music and forbade anyone from copying it under pain of excommunication! However, there is a story that the teenage Mozart heard it once, went home and wrote it out from memory.

Death and Resurrection

Death which comes to everyone has prompted a lot of music, helping us to cope with our grief and loss.

In German mythology, the Erlking is a malicious spirit who kills children and can only be seen and heard by children. Schubert (1797-1828) put to music a poem about a man riding home in the dark with his son on the saddle with him. The boy hears and sees the Erlking and cries out to his father ‘My father, my father . . .’ in a very poignant voice, but the father says it’s only the wind in the trees. However when they arrive home the boy is dead. A very good male voice can sing all the three parts of father, son and Erlking. The piano imitates the galloping horse. Extraordinary emotion in just four and a half minutes!

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) called his second symphony The Resurrection. It is his most popular and most successful work and expresses his lifelong view of the beauty of the afterlife and resurrection. At the funeral of a friend he heard the words ‘Rise again, yes, you shall rise again/my dust.’ These words were his inspiration for this magnificently spiritual work, featuring a large orchestra, a mixed choir, a soprano, a contralto and off-stage brass and percussion. (Wikipedia).

Anzac Day which commemorates the tragedy of Gallipoli draws thousands of people of all persuasions to the dawn service every year. When the trumpet plays the Last Post I get a lump in my throat.

Mystery Music

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) composed his most famous work Bolero as a ballet. It takes just one single theme and explores it through various harmonies and instrumentation with a snare drum playing an infectious rhythm throughout.

When the first performance finished the audience went wild with applause and a woman was heard to call out, ‘The madman! The madman!’ When Ravel was told of this, he replied, ‘That lady … she understood.’ For me, this music sings of mystery, mystery which explores the depths of the human spirit, even madness.

Contemporary Composers

The tradition of writing music which inspires the spirit continues today.

Peter Sculthorpe (1929-2014), an Australian composer, describes vividly the Australian landscape in music. Small Town is based on the fact that every town has a memorial to those who died in war. He uses the Last Post to wonderful effect.

Philip Glass (born 1937), American, writes repetitive music suitable for meditation.

John Tavener, English, 1944-2013, composed some beautiful spiritual music such as The Protecting Veil for cello and orchestra.

Arvo Pärt (born 1935) is an Estonian composer and became a member of the Russian Orthodox Church. His music is in part inspired by Gregorian chant. He is regarded as a mystic minimalist writing beautiful sacred music such as the St John Passion, Te Deum, Magnificat and The Beatitudes.

The Frenchman Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) wrote some beautiful spiritual music drawing on his Roman Catholic faith. When a prisoner of war in 1940 he wrote Quartet for the End of Time for the only instruments available: piano, violin, cello and clarinet. It was first performed for the other prisoners and guards. A moment of heaven in conditions of hell! Other compositions include Twenty Gazes upon the Child Jesus and Three Small Liturgies of the Divine Presence. Messiaen was fascinated by birds and incorporated birdsong into some of his works, thereby combining God’s creativity with his own.

Fun Music

Humour is a very important element in the human psyche and composers used it in their works by including a scherzo in their symphonies. Scherzo may be loosely translate as a joke. It provides some light relief, being somewhat humorous in fast triple time.

My favourite scherzo is in the Concerto Symphonique by Henry Litoff (1818-1891). It’s very fast and the main theme is repeated over and over but I never get tired of it as it’s so delightful.

Mozart wrote what he called A Musical Joke. It’s played by two horns and a string quartet and is a satire poking fun at incompetent composers.

Music as Therapy

Music has been used since primitive times to help people cope with pain and to recover from all kinds of illness. In modern times it is being used to help sick people including victims of cancer and autism. It’s very valuable for both children and adults. In active therapy the patient sings or plays the music; in passive therapy the patient listens to music.

Greg Barns wrote a very good article in The Age on 5 December 2015 on how music helps people suffering from depression. He says that after listening to Mozart, Bach or Beethoven, ‘Suddenly physical energy courses through veins that had seemed dormant for too long.’ He says that when two groups were compared, one hearing music, the other not, there was a reduction in depression-related symptoms among the group that listened to classical music each week. He continues, ‘It is comforting to know that Bach, Mozart and Corelli are not just placebos. The notes, chords and passages of crafted sublime beauty you hear and feel are lifting your head off the pillow because that is how our bodies and minds react to such sounds.’

Music is being used to help elderly people with dementia. When music they knew when they were younger is played for them, patients who had been listless suddenly became lively and beat time with their feet or hands or body movements and smiled with enjoyment. Some who could barely walk began to dance.

The whole brain, not just one part, is involved in listening to music. Music is primal; music and movement are very closely linked.

Folk music

Folk music has a beauty of its own; it’s the music of ordinary people and easily appreciated. Some folk music has been handed down from generation to generation, and no one knows the composer.

As with classical music folk music can cover every situation in life: spirituality, romance, sorrow, death, joy, fun.


Some of the most spiritual folk music comes from the African American slaves of Southern United States. In their oppression they expressed their feelings in music.

Perhaps the best known example is Were You There? The song is about the crucifixion of Jesus and challenges us about sharing in Jesus’ suffering. ‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble… Were you there when they nailed him to the tree?’

Let Us Break Bread Together sings ‘When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun, oh, Lord, have mercy on me.’

Amazing Grace has the beautiful words ‘. . . how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.’


Many folk songs are laments, grief at the present conditions. An example is The Wearing of the Green, an 18th century Irish Folk Song which laments that the English have forbidden the Irish to wear green; they must wear ‘England’s cruel red’. But there’s hope: ‘I’ve heard whispers of a country that lies far beyond the sea where rich and poor stand equal in the light of freedom’s day.’

The American folk song The Cruel War is Raging laments, ‘The cruel war is raging, Johnny has to fight, I want to be with him from morning till night. Won’t you let me go with you? No, my love, no. I’ll tie back my hair, men’s clothing I’ll put on and I’ll pass as your comrade as we march along. Won’t you let me go with you? No, my love, no.’


Romance features prominently in folk music. Aupres de ma Blonde (Nearby to my Dear One) is a good example. ‘Nearby to my dear one, how I love to be nearby to my dear one.’

In Aura Lee, the lover sings, ‘Aura Lee, Aura Lee, maid with golden hair, sunshine came along with thee, and swallows in the air.’

The Polish song, Krakowiak sings, ‘Darling maiden, hark, I ask thee I would like to make a bargain. I’ll sing you some love songs if you will kiss me sweetly and gently . . .’


Many folk songs of romance are tinged with sadness.

Danny Boy sings of a woman’s love for Danny. In the second verse she mourns her own death but still longs for Danny, ‘Ye’ll come and find the place where I am lying and kneel and say an Ave there for me and I shall hear tho’ soft your tread above me and all my dreams will warm and sweeter be. If you will not fail to tell me that you love me then I shall sleep in peace until you come to me.’

One of the present day composers, I think it’s Benjamin Britten, said Danny Boy is the most beautiful music ever composed, or words to that effect. It’s one of the most frequently broadcast items and has been arranged for every combination of voice and instrument.

The Scottish folk song Loch Lomond sings of lovers enjoying the banks of the loch, but one must take the high road, the other the low road, ‘But me and my true love will never meet again on the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.’ At the words, ‘never meet again’ the music has beautiful descending chords to fit the mood of the words.

The old Welsh air, The Ash Grove, sings, ‘Amid the dark shades of the lonely ash grove, ‘twas there while the blackbird was cheerfully singing I first met that dear one, the joy of my heart . . . Ye echoes, oh, tell me where is the sweet maiden? She sleeps ’neath the green turf down by the ash grove.’


Death is a frequent theme. Will the Circle be Unbroken has the lines:

I was standing by my window on one cold and cloudy day when I saw the hearse come rolling by to take my mother away. I told the undertaker, “Undertaker, please drive slow. For this body you are hauling, Lord, I hate to see her go.” The chorus sings, ‘Will the circle be unbroken by and by, Lord, by and by. There’s a better home awaiting in the sky.

The traditional song, Blood on the Saddle, mourns the death of a cowboy. ‘There was blood on the saddle and blood all around. And a great big puddle of blood on the ground. A cowboy lay in it all covered with gore. And he never will ride that bronco no more. Oh, pity the cowboy all bloody and red. Oh, the bronco fell on him and mashed in his head.’

Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie is a sad song. ‘Oh, bury me not on the lone prairie; these words came from the pallid lips of a youth who lay on his dying bed at the close of day. Oh, bury me not on the lone prairie where the coyotes howl and the wind blows free in a narrow grave just six by three . . . and his voice failed there but we took no heed of his dying prayer. In a narrow grave just six by three we buried him there . . . where  the owl hoots mournfully and the blizzard  beats and the wind blows free o’er his lonely grave on the lone prairie.’


Joy is a frequent theme. The lovely waltz, Carnival of Venice, sings, ‘O come to me when daylight sets, my sweet, then come to me when smoothly glides our gondolets over the moonlight sea. When mirths awake and love begins beneath that shining ray with sounds of guitars and mandolins to steal young hearts away­ . . .’

‘If You’re Happy and You Know it’ is a clapping song. ‘If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands (clap, clap). If you’re happy and you know it then your face will surely show it.’ The song continues with toe (tap, tap), head (nod, nod).


Our spiritual life is not complete without some fun. Mrs Murphy’s Chowder is a wonderful example:

It had ice cream, cold cream, benzene, gasoline, soup beans, string beans, floating all around; sponge cake, beef steak, mistake, stomach ache, cream puffs, ear muffs, many to be found, silk hats, door mats, bed slats, Democrats, coco bells, door bells, beckon you to dine, meat balls, fish balls, moth balls, canon balls, come on in, the chowder’s fine.

Pop Goes the Weasel is also fun music. ‘All around the cobbler’s bench the monkey chased the weasel. The monkey thought ‘twas all in fun. Pop! Goes the weasel.’

For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow is a popular fun song for birthdays. ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow, for he’s a jolly good fellow which nobody can deny, which nobody can deny.’

Importance of Music

Both classical and folk music are very important ingredients in my spiritual life.

God Sings

God’s first language is silence. In meditation I listen to the voice of God singing silently to me. I don’t need hearing aids! In between meditations, The Melody Lingers On.