Music, the sacred and the multiple forms to study them


Antti Ville Kärjä

Antti-Ville Kärjä, PhD, is Professor of Cultural Music Research at the Sibelius Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki, Chair of the Finnish Society for Ethnomusicology, and guest editor of this issue of Musiikin Suunta.

The title of the conference yielding this theme issue of Musiikin Suunta was simply “Music and the Sacred”. Admittedly, the title was my own suggestion, and many times after I have wondered if it could have been just as well “Music as Sacred” – or simply “Music is Sacred”.

Indeed, it may be that with music, whether in its plural forms or with a capital M, one is faced with the fact that “in Western culture, music is the only art or craft that is actually named after a divinity or divinities: the Greek Muses” (Beck 2006: 10). Yet, indeed because of its plural forms and occasional capitalisation, music serves as a propitious platform for diving into the depths of the sacred, understood as a “cultural structure” that hinges on “what people collectively experience as absolute, non-contingent realities which present normative claims over the meaning and conduct of social life” (Lynch 2012: 5–7, 29, also Lynch 2014: 32). Is this what happens when something is ”music to one’s ears”?

The “expanded” notion of the sacred, particularly when considered in the context of music, proves to be useful. Despite the general adoption of ethnomusicological points of departure in music scholarship, or how “we are all ethnomusicologists now” (Cook 2008), in everyday music criticism as well as in academic disciplinary debates the beliefs in and about music abound. What is undeniable is that, unlike the term “music”, the practices delineated by and associated with the term are universal. Everybody, even the faetus, are musical, or at least worthy of musical education, it has been proven. According to zoomusicologists, certain maritime mammals sing as well. To conceptualise whale vocalisation as music rests of course on human agency, which again serves as a reminder of the centrality of music for people, particularly when faced with the wonders of the non-human world.

The contents of the conference attest to such multivalent state of affairs as well. Regarding so-called world religions, only Buddhism remained in the margins in the presentations delivered, and while there was admittedly a slight prevalence of different denominations of Christianity, the expanded notion of the sacred was evident especially in treatments touching upon indigenous and shamanic belief systems as well as in discussion over New Age capitalism. Of Islamic denominations and phenomena, alongside the somewhat commonplace Sufism also Alevi musical practices were present. Also the (arguably) less institutionalised belief systems of Rastafarianism and Vodou were discussed. In addition, issues of inter-religiosity were brought to the fore, as were the religious implications and tensions inherent in the activities of the Islamic State and those associated with post-Apartheid politics in South Africa.

As the references to capitalism and politics imply, the sacred was indeed approached in the conference as something that extends beyond conventional ideas about religiosity. While the concept of the sacred itself was explicitly addressed and elaborated in one of the three keynotes and two session presentations, appurtenant food for thought was provided by relating it with the notions of spirituality, transcendence and hierophany. To be sure, these are familiar to anyone with an elementary form of knowledge about religious life, and – at least to my great pleasure – additional conceptual elaboration included juxtaposing the sacred with ethnicity, nationality and modernity. On a slightly different plane, the discussion was furthered by considerations over space and place, play, and freedom of expression, as well as more detailed deliberation concerning such notions as occulture, inculturation and chronotope.

Those inclined to follow Mircea Eliade’s (1961) theoretisation of hierophany would likely emphasise the material basis of the sacred – which is to a great deal also at the core of Lynch’s (2012; 2014) treatises concerning the extended forms of the sacred in the modern world. Music of course is by its very nature material to its core as an acoustic phenomenon: it is a matter of consuming energy in physical settings – whether by playing, singing, listening or reproducing sounds through various electronic means. The fundamental materiality of music is literally at one’s fingertips when instruments are at issue; at the conference, explicit attention was paid in this respect on handpans, guitar-playing and drum-making, as well as on the human voice, including choirs.

In addition to instruments and manufacturing them, the material dimensions of the sacred were forcibly evident in presentations which centred on rituals, ceremonies, liturgy and funerals. Also scrutinies of song lyrics, silence, soundscape and architecture were relevant here. Moreover, the (literally) mundane materiality of the sacred became foregrounded in the diverse geographical locations involved, ranging from continental and supranational entities such as Africa and the Nordic countries to national ones, that is, Armenia, China, Denmark, Haiti and Sweden, and further to subnational and even municipal ones in the form of Border Karelia, Northern Tanzania and Cape Town.

To my great personal surprise, there was only one presentation concentrating on a physical person, namely Leonard Cohen. Certainly, when musical celebrities or “stars” are at stake, one is indeed close to the sacred in the sense that the affective and affectionate properties become pronounced. All this gains further significance when the celestial entities in question cease to sparkle and twinkle; the year 2016 has been dubbed “the year music died” because of the demise of not only Cohen but David Bowie and Prince as well. Those familiar with the historiography of rock‘n’roll might be eager to juxtapose this with “the day music died” – that is, 3 February 1959, when Buddy Holly, Richie Valence and J. P. “Big Bopper” Richardson met their fate in an airplane crash.

All this serves as a useful reminder of the temporal relations at stake. Regardless of one’s conviction, at issue is the historical situatedness of the debate and conceptualisations. As a colleague remarked, Finnish atheism is Lutheran atheism. To this end, it is a pertinent question indeed whether atheism in itself is a belief system, and if such a thing as non-believing or non-religiosity is possible after all. Most of the presentations in the conference were situated in the contemporary years or decades, though some concerned with either Medieval or the nineteenth century practices. An isolated treatment in this respect was one where both the nineteenth and the twentieth century practices were under examination.

The temporal relations induce questions of genre, and to what extent religiosity for instance should be likened to function or ideology (cf. Merriam 1964; Frith 1996). There are probably very few who would question the religious essence of gospel as a genre, whereas in the case of soul or reggae the issue becomes more debatable. Historically oriented scholars might be interested in pondering, on the basis of A Whiter Shade of Pale by Procol Harum for instance, whether J. S. Bach composed popular music after all. Everybody knows he composed religious music, yet as Lydia Goehr (1992) has demonstrated, it is by far less unequivocal whether he composed musical works to begin with.

There were no further treatments on gospel or reggae at the conference. The other genres or styles dealt with included jazz and metal, and (Christian) hymns, (Islamic) anāshīd and (pagan) laments. The parentheses are deliberate, as the religious denomination or designation is open to dispute, at least to some extent. Additional related phenomena under discussion at the conference included ecstatic trance and Sufi samāʿ, or spiritual audition.

In the end, the approaches based on artistic and historical research, ethnography and media analysis, as well as on participatory workshops at the conference provided abundant evidence in favour of the existence of multiple forms of the sacred in the context of music – and vice versa. And certainly, the treatment of the interrelations at stake at the conference was not exhaustive, and thus one is bound to encounter myriad other related forms of expression as the interdisciplinary approaches on the topic become further elaborated.


Beck, Guy L. (2006) “Introduction”. Sacred Sound. Experiencing Music in World Religions. Ed. Guy L. Beck. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1–27.

Cook, Nicholas (2008) “We Are All (Ethno)musicologists Now”. The New (Ethno)musicologies. Ed. Henry Stobart. Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, 48–70.

Eliade, Mircea (1961) Sacred and the Profane. The Nature of Religion. New York: Harper Torchbooks.

Frith, Simon (1996) Performing Rites. On the Value of Popular Music. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Goehr, Lydia (1992) The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works. An Essay in the Philosophy of Music. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Lynch, Gordon (2012) The Sacred in the Modern World. A Cultural Sociolocial Approach. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

Lynch, Gordon (2014) On the Sacred. London: Routledge.

Merriam, Alan P. (1964) The Anthropology of Music. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.