The Surprising Spiritual Power of Music

Imagine your favorite song and ponder – why does it affect you on such a profound level? Does it transport you to another place or time? Does it describe who you are or who you’d like to be?

Maybe you just like the sound of the song – but you’re still listening because you resonate with it. 

Isn’t it fascinating how the combination of words and melodic sounds allows emotion to be expressed to its fullest potential in music, and helps us communicate with ourselves and our soul? 

Many perceive music as simply something that they have on while they drive to work, but the Baha’i teachings speak directly about the significance of music and its importance to our spiritual development. In his Most Holy Book, Baha’u’llah wrote: “We, verily, have made music as a ladder for your souls, a means whereby they may he lifted up unto the realm on high …”

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I’ve experienced this spiritual effect personally. Last summer I attended a neurofeedback retreat called “40 Years of Zen,” which allows people to study their own brain’s reactions and increase cognitive function and emotional intelligence. Through neurofeedback, the organizers of the retreat scan your brain once at the beginning and once at the end, and throughout the whole retreat track your brain waves during thinking processes. 

After my first brain scan, the neurologist asked me if I meditate a lot. At the time I rarely ever meditated – so the answer to that question was obvious. I asked him what prompted his question, and he mentioned to me that his measurements of the alpha function of my brain – which controls one’s ability to process new information and be creative – seemed to be well-developed. 

I mentioned to him that I write music for hours on end every single day. 

He said that this was exactly it – when I write music I am in a state of creative flow, and it registers the same in my brain as meditation. Because of that discipline, he told me, my brain was able to process a significant amount of information through the language of music. 

If we think about this in terms of language and communication, we begin to understand the significance it can have on people and society as a whole. When combined with words, we know that music activates nine areas of the human brain responsible for anticipation, body language, building sentences, improved concentration, keeping eye contact, sequencing, and vocabulary expansion, the experts say. Imagine how much more receptive we are emotionally and biologically when listening to music, and imagine how effective our own messages could be if expressed in the form of music.

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This is all made possible through the coming together of poetry as lyrics and instruments along with vocals as melody. While the melody alone still has a large significance, the union of these two components creates a whole, which allows us to use music to spread a message or enhance one. That’s why most worship services utilize music. The Center for Worship and the Arts says that:

Music has a way of piercing into the deep parts of our soul, that assists in our expression and response to God and to the church. Singing helps unite us to the church. … music is a tool that allows us to do so. 

All music “says something,” even if some songs say less than others. One may argue that poetry can have the same level of significance because of its artistic form, but it is the instrumental and vocal melody of music that makes it exceed basic levels of communication and implants the message deep in our brain and spirit. The Baha’i teachings testify to that profound effect, as in this powerful story from a talk given by Abdu’l-Baha:

Music is one of the important arts. It has a great effect upon the human spirit. Musical melodies are a certain something which prove to be accidental upon etheric vibrations, for voice is nothing but the expression of vibrations, which, reaching the tympanum, affect the nerves of hearing. Musical melodies are, therefore, those peculiar effects produced by, or from, vibration. However, they have the keenest effect upon the spirit. … although music is a material affair, yet its tremendous effect is spiritual, and its greatest attachment is to the realm of the spirit. If a person desires to deliver a discourse, it will prove more effectual after musical melodies. The ancient Greeks, as well as Persian philosophers, were in the habit of delivering their discourses in the following manner — First, playing a few musical melodies, and when their audience attained a certain receptivity thereby they would leave their instruments at once and begin their discourse. Among the most renowned musicians of Persia was one named Barbod, who, whenever a great question had been pleaded for at the court of the King, and the Ministry had failed to persuade the King, they would at once refer the matter to Barbod, whereupon he would go with his instrument to the court and play the most appropriate and touching music, the end being at once attained, because the King was immediately affected by the touching musical melodies, certain feelings of generosity would swell up in his heart, and he would give way. You may try this: If you have a great desire and wish to attain your end, try to do so on a large audience after a great solo has been rendered, but it must be on an audience on which music is effective, for there are some people who are like stones, and music cannot affect stones … be in the form of anthems or communes or prayers, when they are melodiously sung, are most impressive … It was for this reason that His Holiness David sang the psalms in the Holy of Holies at Jerusalem with sweet melodies. In this Cause the art of music is of paramount importance. … In short, musical melodies form an important role in the associations, or outward and inward characteristics, or qualities of man, for it is the inspirer or motive power of both the material and spiritual susceptibilities…

Music touches the soul, and affects each one of us in potent, powerful ways.

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