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Music - from the sacred to the profane

Updated on December 5, 2016
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Historically, music created by our forbears from various cultures around the world was primarily an expression of their spirituality rather than a source of entertainment as it is today.

From Australia to Africa; Siberia to N. America and the Amazonian rainforest, ancient peoples experienced the divine through the synergistic use of entheogens (plant teachers) and music to produce trance states and profound visions.

Many of these traditions persisit in remote areas of the planet and I will briefly highlight a few as we travel through the centuries to modern times.


Peruvian shamans who preside over Ayahuascan ceremonies sing Icaros (medicine songs). Many different kinds of Icaros are used, usually highly personal to the individual shamans. Their purpose is to produce effects which allow the Medicine to produce visions in the minds of those partaking of it.

Some Icaros call on 'doctors' or plant spirits to facillitate healing, whilst others are more like a prayer to Mother Nature, or Gaia as she is known elsewhere. The words often tell stories - eg being washed by a clean, pure river and thus made whole.

'Don't leave me, Mother Nature
For if you will leave me
I would die of the pain of my
My tears of desperation'.

Icaros are exceptionally beautiful and moving, though relatively simple in their musical form and are usually sung 'a capella', or unaccompanied.


Australian Aborigines

The didgeridoo (yidaki) is an instrument from North Eastern Australia. It is usually made from a hollowed out log taken from the Eucalyptus tree.

Some Aborigine people believed that yidakis have spirits inside them, which wakes up when someone who ‘lives on the land and breathes the air’ breathes into it.

Yidakis have been played for at least 2000 years, possibly for very much longer than that - some scholars believe possibly as long as 30,000 years, though there is no archaeological proof.

The yidaki is one of several instruments including drums and clapsticks (sticks which are struck together) to induce 'Dreamtime'. This word is less often used these days, the term 'Creation Time' being more popular as the word'dream' can often imply that it has been made up or simply imagined.

The didgeridoo certainly is a musical instrument like no other, its sound being quite distinct from all other wind instruments, using the technique of 'cyclical breathing' to produce the weird drone like effects. It can be heard over a distance of many miles.

The didgeridoo was my first exposure to music outside of my traditional European music box, and I can vouch for the strange effects it can have not only on one's mind but also the body. I remember once listening to a recording on headphones of an orignal piece of didgeridoo music. I felt as though I was falling through the bowels of the earth and experienced unusual visions. It was absolutely incredible and left an indelible mark on my psyche. I have not looked on music in quite the same way since. Somehow European classical music doesn't quite 'hit the spot'!

North American Indians

North American Indian music uses largely percussion and vocalization.

This ranges from choral to solo singing and chanting with responses as well as multipart singing.

The use of percussion - drums and rattles - is often used as an accompaniment to keep the rhythm steady for the singers.

Native American music plays an important role in keeping the history of the tribe alive. Ceremonial music is traditionally said to originate from deities or spirits, or from particularly respected individuals who once lived.

Sun dances are accompanied by chanting which becomes more and more frenetic as the sun rises or sets. Listening to them you could almost be led to believe it if it weren't for the chants of the people the sun would forever be fixed in the sky and never set, or at dawn, never rise, such is the power of the music!

Traditional music generally starts slowly with steady beats that grow faster and more accented. Drums, rattles, shouts and accented patterns add variety. They also act as signals for change in performance.

Native American songs include secret songs, which are used only for sacred and ceremonial purposes.

Moving through the centuries

Having touched on three cultures with profoundly spiritual music I will now move on to European music and discuss why the change towards music as mass entertainment occurred.

It is stating the obvious when I say that musical traditions of ancient cultures and European sacred music pre-empt capitalism and its impact on society at large.

Whatever capitalism has in its grasp can only be corrupted, since as the very nature of capitalism is to make profit regardless of the effect it has on the human soul.

For primitive man music was an expression of his oneness with god or nature. European medieval music also, for example the Christian Mystic Hildegard von Bingen who wrote hauntingly beautiful music in praise of her God.

Up until as late as the nineteenth century common folk enjoyed music as an expression of their communities and their dependence on the changing seasons and good weather to grow their crops. Surviving traditional folk songs often reflect this.

Modern Music

Modern music generally depends on the 'markets' for its survival. This trend probably began at the same time as the onset of what we call 'Classical Music', ie sometime during the 16th Century, when musicians were paid to produce music to be sung at Court or in Church.

With the onset of the Industrial Revolution people gradually became more wealthy and as wealth has increased so has the corruption of the arts - music included - as works of art and music were churned out for mass consumption. For anything that is consumed is ultimately destroyed.

Much of modern music is simply a distraction - to lure the masses away from real issues that command our attention - poverty, debt, pollution and degradation of our environment, war. These all require our attention, not listening to trashy pop music or watching American Idol or Britain's Got Talent.

Our minds have become fuddled as we focus on trivial matters and turn away from important issues. The arts, music included, play a part in this sorry state of affairs.

But all is not lost. Some modern music makers use their medium to try to get across a spiritual or political message.

Many manage to carefully balance sprituality with making a living from music. John Tavener is one composer who springs to mind.

Here is his choral work Song to Athene. The words are below.

Alleluia. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Alleluia. Remember me, o Lord, when you come into your kingdom.

Alleluia. Give rest, o Lord, to your handmaid who has fallen asleep.

Alleluia. The Choir of Saints have found the well-spring of life and door of paradise.

Alleluia. Life : a shadow and a dream.

Alleluia. Weeping at the grave creates the song : Alleluia.

Alleluia. Come, enjoy the rewards and crowns I have prepared for you.

Does Music have to be Religious to be Spiritual?

Of course this begs the question 'what is religious'?

Anything which flows from, or touches in a profound way the human spirit can be thought to be 'spiritual'.

I can think of no music more beautiful and uplifting than the song of the Sky Lark who simply sings from the sheer joy of being alive!

A modern song (though over 50 years old now) which I always find very uplifting and encouraging is, believe it or not, 'The Hills Are Alive' from the Sound of Music.

This song demonstrates that even musicals and Hollywood movies can carry a spiritual message if you have ears to hear it.

'The Hills Are Alive' could be said to be the ultimate spiritual song.


The hills are alive with the sound of music
With songs they have sung for a thousand years
The hills fill my heart with the sound of music
My heart wants to sing every song it hears

My heart wants to beat like the wings of the birds
that rise from the lake to the trees
My heart wants to sigh like a chime that flies
from a church on a breeze
To laugh like a brook when it trips and falls over
stones on its way
To sing through the night like a lark who is learning to pray

I go to the hills when my heart is lonely
I know I will hear what I've heard before

My heart will be blessed with the sound of music
And I'll sing once more.


These words surely express the joy of being part of nature and the privilege we have as humans to be part of this wonderful world, which unfortunately we are setting out to destroy by over consumption and greed.



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