Some years ago I had the privilege of chairing a faculty search for a new professor of sacred music. We were fortunate to find an accomplished musician with a sound record of research, and a love of the church.
One of the questions that I asked each of the candidates was this: "Can you explain what role that music plays in worship and in the spiritual lives of those who attend church?" The candidates were all from sacred music programs of one kind or another, so - at first blush - I thought that everyone would have some kind of considered answer. To my surprise, most of the candidates struggled to answer the question (though not the candidate that we finally invited).
I've thought about my own answer to that question off and on ever since - not as a trained musician, of course, but as a lover of music and as one who believes that music contributes to the spiritual life:
One: Music has the capacity to circumvent our resistance to the movement of God in our lives.
The lyrics of one piece of popular music puts it this way: "the head makes cloudy what the heart makes clear." When we are spiritually challenged - challenged to repent, to live in deeper connection with God, to live a life marked by love and forgiveness - it is easy to come up with reasons for not responding. Music creates a space in which the act of singing and, or listening makes such mental evasions far more difficult.
Two: Music does this in part by carving out a moment in which our attention is fixed on the experience of the music itself.
Three: And it does it in part by crowding out our capacity resistance.
Four: I am also convinced that music draws us closer to God, because music so often comes from another time and place.
As a priest, I believe in the power of preaching and it has its own particular gift to give. But I also know (from experience!) that if someone doesn't want to grow spiritually, they will find fault with the preacher, the sermon, the performance of the sermon, word choice, or the exegesis behind the sermon.
We can do the same with music of course (and there is some truly terrible theology in the church's music), but it is harder to do, in part because the music comes from another time and another place. At a minimum, it keeps those who are resistant to the message from claiming, "She/he was preaching at me!"
Five: While all of this may be true about the power of music, I think the other reason that it comforts, challenges, and moves us is rooted in something far deeper. It participates in the beauty and truth that is, in the final analysis, to be found in God.
Far too often we think of the Christian faith as a belief in a God who endorses the values we hold most dearly. In fact, the Christian faith holds that the values that are central to our well being and flourishing are to be found in God. That includes the virtues we hear about so often in church: love, peace, and justice, for example. But it also includes qualities we don't discuss often enough, like beauty.
In other words, music can participate in the beauty and truth that is finally found in God. In the moment we sing or enter into the music offered in worship, then, we potentially find ourselves in close communion with the divine and with the creative nature of God.
It is also this truth about the nature of music's contribution to our spiritual lives that underlines the problem with music that fails to contribute to worship and an encounter with God: When performance and spectacle take center stage in the church's music, the musician's indebtedness to the creative work of God evaporates and what surfaces more forcibly is, at best, a love of music itself and, at worst, the musician's ego. When that happens the opportunity for worship and spiritual growth is lost.
Citing the work of St. Augustine, I've often heard people say, "The one who sings, prays twice." While that may well be true, it is not, in fact, what Augustine said. As John Zuhlsdorf notes, what Augustine really says is that when praise is of God, "then something happens to the song of the praiser." God, who is the object of the music, also becomes the subject and "the song itself becomes Love in its manifestation of love of the one who truly is Love itself."
If there is a key to the role that music plays in our spiritual life, it no doubt lies here. Musicians should bear that in mind. When a love of God is replaced by a love of music or a love of one's performance, then the gift is lost.