Music and Spirituality How sound can help us connect with the world even in difficult times

Read more Last updated: December 2020
In collection Life
Reading duration: 9 minutes

2020 was and remains a challenging year: The corona pandemic has people worldwide worry about their health and triggers fear for their existence. In such situations, we need our fellow human beings; we want to be hugged, we want to laugh together – precisely the opposite of social distancing. Many will not be able to spend the winter holidays and the turn of the year with their loved ones. That’s sad. However, it can be helpful to discover spirituality for oneself. By accepting what is and connecting with something beyond our limits, we realize that we are not alone. But how can one find access to spirituality? Something quite familiar can pave the way for us: music!

The history of music

A few years ago, researchers made an important discovery in the Geißenklösterle, a half-cave in the Swabian Jura. They found flutes made of bird bones and mammoth ivory. Carbon dating showed that the flutes must be between 42,000 and 43,000 years old. Thus, they date to the period in which Homo sapiens colonized Europe. Since many musical practices do largely without instrumentation, including those of today’s Sioux and Blackfoot, it can be assumed that humans made music even before the invention of instruments. In any case, one can say: Music is as old as humanity itself.

Music in different cultures

Each community has specific musical practices, but common features can be found across all cultures. Music is an elementary component of the creation of myths and ritual practice and serves to build or strengthen social relationships – all core elements of every cultural community. Sound has been believed to be the origin of the world since ancient times, for example, in Plato’s spherical harmony. Hinduism also advocates a kind of acoustic theology, assuming that sound is of divine origin. Indigenous peoples of America and Africa locate sound and music in a sort of dream world. Whoever has access to this world, and thus to music, has special powers; they are considered healers.

Spirituality and music

Therefore, music and spirituality are inextricably linked. Not only do spiritual experiences serve as inspiration for compositions and spontaneous musical expression. Music is also used specifically to create the right setting for church services, meditation, or rituals. But since music and spirituality are so closely interwoven, it is difficult to define their respective boundaries. Marcel Cobussen, author and professor for auditory culture at the University of Leiden, deals with the relationship between the two in his book “Thresholds: Rethinking Spirituality Through Music”. According to him, the spiritual is a kind of open space between the human and the divine world. He argues that music is supposed to keep this space permeable and even claims that music creates this space, to begin with.

How our brain reacts to music

“The effect of music is so very much more powerful and penetrating than is that of the other arts, for these others speak only of the shadow, but music of the essence,” says Arthur Schopenhauer. The German philosopher’s assumption seems to be confirmed if one takes a look into the human brain. Apparently, nothing affects our brain on an anatomical and chemical level as positively as music. For one, it allows the gray matter of the brain, in which the synapses are located, to grow. On the other hand, the corpus callosum, i.e., the bar that connects the brain’s two halves, becomes thicker. Besides, MRI scans and EEG recordings show something genuinely remarkable: When making and listening to music, almost all brain regions are active - even the oldest part of our brain, the brain stem. While it does not even respond to language, it does so to music.

Music has a positive effect on health

What is true of the brain also applies to the body and mind. Music has positive effects on physical and mental health and is used in therapeutic settings to alleviate specific ailments. It not only reduces stress and promotes relaxation, but it can also even provide relief from depression. Professor Christian Gold from the Norwegian University of Bergen has shown in various studies that music therapy can, for example, help people overcome learning disabilities. Patients with schizophrenia and dementia also benefit from music therapy. A study by Professor Sandi Curtis from 2011, on the other hand, looked at the effects of music therapy on palliative patients: The music therapy treatment of 101 people relieved pain, ensured relaxation, and lifted the mood. For many patients, it also represented an increase in the quality of life. They even asked for music to be played in their final moments.

The appropriate music for every mood

A study published in PLoS shows how strongly music influences our mood and our visual perception. While the participants listened to music, they were shown pictures of a laughing and a sad smiley face. While listening to happy music, they would see a laughing smiley more often; listening to sad music made them see more of the sad face – regardless of which smiley was actually shown to them!

Music can put us in very different moods, and there is the right music for every mood. In summer, for example, we prefer fast-paced, happy music. When we listen to pop music, our brain releases dopamine, and we feel joyful. We can make use of this effect: Before an exam or a lecture, for example, enjoyable music puts us in a positive, cheerful mood, and we master the challenge with confidence!

Soft tones encourage quiet contemplation

While we ponder life during wintertime and feel the need for relaxation, more moderate tones are recommended. However, it does not have to be explicitly spiritual music, such as Gregorian chants or singing bowls’ vibrations. Classical music is also an excellent choice, or modern, minimalist compositions that do without singing and instead integrate natural sounds.

Even silence can be music to our ears, especially if we want to satisfy our need for spirituality. Several studies show the positive effects of silence on our health and well-being. It has even been proven that just two minutes in peace can help us relax deeply, and to an even greater extent than music.

Singing Christmas Carlos
© Getty Images

Spirituality and mindfulness – one and the same?

To answer the question straight away: Mindfulness and spirituality are not the same. The first term is used to describe the attentive perception of what is happening at a particular moment. Spirituality, however, is not limited to our perception and not to a moment. It constitutes the inner, spiritual life within us and beyond our individual limits.

The problem with mindfulness is the westernization of the millennia-old Eastern practice to capitalize on it. Former Buddhist monk and active Dharma teacher Santikaro speaks of McMindfulness: Just as the fast-food chain from the US, the neo-liberal version of mindfulness is readily available, convenient, and satisfies an immediate need. According to Santikaro, managers and companies often use it to get even more out of their employees or sell related products and services.

In its original form, however, mindfulness holds the potential for inner freedom. If we practice it correctly and sincerely, it can help us escape our ego. That way, it can pave the way for us to live our spirituality.



Read more about mindfulness and spirituality in our dedicated collection filled with articles about living in the here and now, decreasing stress and seizing every moment.

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Meditations at the end of the year

2020 was not an easy year. Many people find it almost impossible to find new hope; after all, we are still in the middle of a pandemic whose end is not in sight. However, in times of persistent uncertainty, it is even more critical to connect with our thoughts and emotions. We achieve this by reflecting on the past year as well as the next.

Questions to reflect on 2020

  • What important lesson did I learn?
  • What did I learn about myself?
  • What challenges did I master?
  • What’s the best thing that happened to me?
  • Who or what influenced me the most?
  • Which of my resources has proven to be particularly useful?
  • What gave me the most energy?
  • What did I not do?
  • Have I been taking good care of myself?
  • What am I grateful for?

Questions to prepare for 2021

  • What do I plan for this year?
  • How will I take care of myself?
  • How will I help others?
  • How can I change my environment for the better?
  • Which personal characteristics do I want to strengthen?
  • How will I learn from mistakes?
  • What do I want to change this year?
  • What do I want to stay as it is?
  • Which relationships do I want to strengthen?
  • What can I do to make this year meaningful?

The soundtrack for the turn of the year

Despite all preoccupation with the turn of the year, we shouldn’t forget to look forward to it. After all, spirituality should not be limited just to quiet meditation. It may be experienced lively and happily – with music! Every culture, every family, and every person has a very individual taste in music, but there are always a few songs that everybody agrees with.

There are tons of songs to listen to or sing with your family, friends, and roommates. If you have to spend the holidays at a distance, find other ways: connect, for example, via video! “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “The First Noel” and other traditional Christmas carols are not to your taste? Get inspired by this list of the 50 best Christmas songs. Here you can find pop, rock, and soul versions of popular Christmas classics.

The most thoughtful gift: listen to your loved ones!

Lived spirituality is a connection with oneself, one’s fellow human beings, and the world. Celebrate the turn of the year with your loved ones by listening to music together. Most of all, take the time to listen to each other. It is essential to be mindful of one another and give one another full attention.

During these times, as in general, good hearing is paramount: If you notice that your hearing or the hearing of a loved one is impaired, please do not treat it lightly. Take a hearing test online and find out if a hearing solution is necessary. MED-EL offers you many possibilities to counteract hearing loss and ensure that you and your family may fully participate in life – and the new year!

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