‘The song of the flute, O sister, is madness’

The sound of the flute, O sister, is madness.

I thought that nothing that was not God could hold me,

But hearing that sound, I lose mind and body,

My heart wholly caught in the net.

O flute, what were your vows, what is your practice?

What power sits by your side?

Even Mira’s Lord is trapped in Your seven notes.

                                                                                          – Mirabai

Mirabai. From Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Music is the closest thing we have to magic. That’s what my music theory professor told my freshman class when we first met.

Since then, I have loved reading about and pondering the mystical aspects of music. It’s part of religions around the world from Hinduism to Christianity. And it’s part of the draw for me — that the flute and so many combinations of instruments can reach inexplicably into my heart.

So, wow, did I fall in love with this poem when I first discovered it in an anthology called Women in Praise of the Sacred. This poem dates back to 16th century India and comes from a well-known poet, Mirabai. In it she’s singing the praises of her god Krishna and the praises of a flute.

I must learn more about the flute that touched her, but that will happen on another day. First of all, I couldn’t keep this poem to myself any longer. And secondly, I’m focusing more generally on the power of sacred music in this post.

John Sloboda in Exploring the Musical Mind offers a psychologist’s perspective on why music and worship work so well together. Here are a few of his explanations:

  1. Music often evokes past experiences and related feelings. “This can lead us to celebration, joyful remembrance, or the revisiting of pain and suffering,” Sloboda writes.
  2. A lot of music is familiar to a listener (a scale, or pattern), but not necessarily recognized or easy to explain. The sense that music is too wonderful to describe, can be similar to other parts of worship, Sloboda says. “At the heart of much worship is the sense of being in the presence of that which is beyond capture by human concepts.”
  3. There are literally patterns in music known to make people feel, even cry or choke up. (For the more musically inclined: repeated suspension or appoggiatura can cause a few tears. See the quick and dirty explanation of those terms here.)
  4. Like worship, music can help bring people together or create a sense of community.

I admit, this is a little clinical, but I love how Sloboda looks at music and worship as both “ineffable” — too awesome to describe with words. And I definitely think that’s what Mirabai is getting at in her poem, that and the feels she’s gotten from the flute. “Hearing that sound, I lose mind and body,” she says.

She’s not the only one who’s written about that je ne sais quoi which comes with a merging of music and religion.

Saint Augustine of Hippo. From Sandro Botticelli [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Saint Augustine wrote in his Confessions, “I realize that when they are sung, these sacred words stir my mind to great religious fervor and kindle in me a more ardent flame of piety than they would if they were not sung.”

He goes on: “I also know that there are particular modes in song and in the voice, corresponding to my various emotions and able to stimulate them because of some mysterious relationship between the two.”

Augustine remarked on this musical mystery in 400 A.D. and across the world, and more than a millennium later, Mirabai also struggled to explain the ineffable.

“What power sits by your side?,” she asks the flute. “Even Mira’s Lord is trapped in Your seven notes.”

And if not God, perhaps it’s magic you’re hearing.

The books I referenced for the January 31, 2016 post.

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