Welcome back to the Pop Cycle! In last week’s post, I explained how qualia and social pressure constantly battle it out to determine our music preferences. In my spare time, I’m fascinated by studying Christian mysticism – how the experience of God transcends normal reality on an internal level. What makes a person become a saint or a reclusive monk? How do people “see beyond” the waking world into the heavens? This got me thinking as well – how can music be a mystical experience? We already discussed how our preferences can be shaped and how society is moved by trends. But on a deeper, inner level, how can music be an avenue towards something beyond ourselves?
Art and religion have a long history, particularly in the Catholic tradition. Stained glass, cathedrals, and frescoes are sometimes mistaken for artifacts of high-church vanity. Indeed, there are certainly those in the history of Christendom who have been corrupted by wealth. But for the aspiring artist, divine inspiration is often cited as the driving force behind works of creative majesty.
Neurotheology is a new scientific field that studies how the brain reacts to religious experiences, and it has been well-documented that visual imagery and music can stimulate a person’s mind to a sort of euphoric state, particularly when that person is in a physically and mentally fragile state and is thus distracted from normal reality. In some sense, it is as though the desire to commune with the divine is tied irrevocably to that same sense of reverent awe that comes from a particularly beautiful painting or emotionally-driving song. C.S. Lewis called it Joy. The German philosophers knew it as sehnsucht. Longinus wrote of the sublime. All these writers were touching on the same thing: a fierce spiritual longing for that which is above and beyond the self, usually interpreted as God.
Of course, most musicians today aren’t composing Handel’s Messiah in new forms. Gregorian chants have long been silent, and the rise of secular thought has led many musicians to explore other ideas in their work. But for the listener, the path of the mystical is not sealed off. Whether we return to the symphonies and concertos of old, explore the creative expanses of post-rock and ambient music, or are inspired to seek out higher thoughts for ourselves, there has never been a time like now. As I often like to point out, the Internet and streaming services like Spotify are at our disposal constantly. The question remains: who will take the time to undertake their own transcendent journey? Who will write the next soul songs?