Godtalk: The Mysticism of Music


Hands on a piano in the dark - used with permission from unsplash.com

Music is the most mysterious of all the arts because the symbols it uses are remote from our immediate experience. In literature we are using words that have a meaning fixed in advance.  In painting we are using forms from the external world with which we are fairly familiar.  But in music we are using tones that seem to have a life of their own, apart from the external world;  and the rhythms seem strangely independent of natural rhythms, though there are analogies here.

And yet, as all great musicians have insisted, music has some kind of meaning.  It says something about the nature of the universe.  Every great composer has this intense feeling that what they are saying is not just a mere pattern of sound.  These complicated rhythms tell us something about the equally complicated rhythms of our inner life.

These are probably quite inexpressible in words but then a great many things can't be put into words - love, for example is shown in what we do rather than what we say.  Certainly words are unsatisfactory for saying what music is about. 

The nearest we can get perhaps, is to suggest analogies to express, music in terms of colour, shape or substance;  for example, a river flowing to the sea, or a black diamond.

What music is about is the very subtle and obscure kinds of movement within the mind-body and the spirit.  And maybe at the same time music is about the universe at large.  It seems to express a kind of non-physical dynamism in the external world.  It can express the feelings that stir the soul at privileged moments, which are forces as real as those that interest the physicist:  we don't create them any more than we create light and heat.  Great spiritual currents flow through the atmosphere in which we live.

This is a mystical view of what music is about, and indeed what all the arts stand for.  They speak of our relationship to the immediate experience, but at the same time all the arts tell us something about the nature of the world, about the mysterious forces which we feel to be around us.  Of all the arts, music perhaps can best attune us to the spiritual reality of the universe.  In the words of Claudel, 'Music is the voice of God within us.'.

Peter Knott SJ