“We need music. I really think it’s one of the most versatile, powerful art forms, because it’s how people figure out why they’re existing, and helps people to believe in something.”
-Victoria Legrand of the band Beach House, 2015
Beach House were the answer to my prayers. This past summer I was feeling distressed that I had no new music to fill my soul. Amid hardships all year, I had no music to escape into, to surprise and uplift me. It had been a very long time since I had found that magic connection. I needed it. I prayed about it.
The band has been around since 2006, so I am very late to the party. I’ve heard their name over the years but after seeing them on a talk show last month I finally decided to give them a chance. I’m so glad I did. I got lucky, because not only did I discover a new band that I like, I discovered a band whose music has an especially powerful spiritual center, at a time when I really needed something like that.
There is nothing overtly spiritual or religious about Beach House at all. I have no idea, nor do I care, what their personal beliefs or practices are. It’s beside the point in regards to the craft, content and effect of their music, which, if it pleases you, slowly reveals layers of depth and power. Like all great art, it feels blissful.
Victoria’s quote alludes to the spiritual commune of music. Beach House’s music has a spiritual quality, but so has been said of John Coltrane’s late-’60s jazz, or Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds album, or a hymn like “Amazing Grace” or J.S. Bach’s Passions. All of those works are vastly different in style and structure; so what is the underlying connection?
(It is a question I consider whenever I am selecting music for Greenpoint Reformed services, since our music runs the gamut of eras and styles in sacred and secular music.)
Since recorded history, music has always been connected with religion all over the world. Music is an art of tonal vibrations and time—very mysterious, intangible tools that work mostly between our ears and brains. But why do we associate a major chord with positive feelings, and a minor with negative; why is a dissonant chord or an unsteady rhythm associated with unease? Why does some music have widespread appeal and others languish in obscurity?
Music, as a means of communication, is a channel for thoughts and feelings that cannot be conveyed in words. (This also fits a definition for meditation or prayer.) In music of a powerful spiritual nature, I find that lyrics are supplemental and sometimes extraneous. How many times have you read the actual lyrics to a song and not recognized the meaning you perceived when just listening to it?
Essentially, spiritual music allows us to momentarily exist outside of ourselves and perceive a broader existence than our own, and to know that, if nothing else, music is real and we can believe in it if nothing else.
Usually when someone describes having a “religious experience” while listening to music, it involves a dissolution of the self, an abandonment of conscious thought, and an elevation of feeling into euphoria in which one’s state of existence achieves a momentary state of ineffable being. At that moment, the music seems to mirror one’s true soul and then goes beyond that, revealing that this moment, like every moment, can be as wide as the universe, as endless as all time, or as minute and contained as a three-minute song.
(I always find it odd to see the actual length of time of my favorite songs on Itunes. It doesn’t seem to correlate with time in the actual experience of being “in” the song.)
I love the concept of musica universalis, “the music of the spheres,” because it is a concept of vibration and time that connects every atom in the universe from the force that spins planet Jupiter to a molecule spinning in your morning coffee. All music is essentially channeling this connection, and so it is mathematics on a purely intuitive level.
Spiritual music’s appeal is based on a very personal interpretation for each listener—that is, the lyrics’ meaning is obscure and the music connects via subjective feeling. What we feel as a spiritual experience is personal. There is no way of defining or measuring this quality of feeling spiritual in our lives, despite what any critic or religion or political leader says.
So any and all music is or can convey spirituality if you connect with it on that level. However, some music is better inclined to convey a spiritual experience simply because of the process and intent of the writer/performer—as in the examples I cited above: Coltrane, Pet Sounds, etc. Often, their creative process involves a reliance on intuition. The goal of their work was not to generate money or fame or any other false material aims. By intuition, the musician must rely on all their senses and a sense of being outside themselves. The goal of the work is to sustain that other state of being.
Beach House describes their process of songwriting as one of intuition, and that’s how it translates as a listening experience. Put on one of their six albums (they are all excellent) and you will hear songs drift in and out, floating on structures seemingly as random and inevitable as cracks in ice. Each song is colored with vocals as diluted in reverb as watercolor paint on wet paper, leaving one with an impression of the lyrics and song meaning which is purely an individual interpretation. That connects with me very well.
Whatever your own musical preference, I encourage you to seek out music that elevates and transports you. Everyone has their own way of connecting. Find yours, and don’t give it up if it doesn’t happen right away. Take time to just sit and listen to an album, undisturbed. Take a chance, perhaps, on music that you have never really listened to. Our lives evolve and need different kinds of music at different times. It’s an important part of our lives for exactly the reasons Victoria stated. Spirituality, in one form or another, is an inseparable part of being human.
Jason Benjamin is the Music Minister of Greenpoint Reformed Church in Brooklyn, NY. His Milton Street Revival Band performs there in the services every Sunday,11AM