For starters, let me address what makes music musical. Though we can commonly relate to the qualities of rhythm, melody and timbre, our cultural traditions have imposed various formats on their organization: scales and key signatures, songs with verses and choruses, fugues, ragas, rondos, tone rows and a zillion others. As the twentieth century developed, explorations of musical expression exceeded the traditional boundaries and led composer Edgard Varèse to expansively but simply define music as organized sound. That left room for more exotic pitch combinations and rhythms and for chance elements to become part of the fabric of music. More than once we’ve all heard (and maybe even spoken) the derisive question, “You call that music?” Well, yeah, I do. Even if it’s something I’d rather not listen to.
If music is difficult to pin down, spirituality is more so. For our purposes here, I’ll settle on the common thread that my own studies of religious outlooks around the world suggests: connection to a larger whole. The animism of Africa and the Americas, the monotheism of Judeo-Christendom, the dance of Shiva, the turning of the karmic wheel – all share the value of a unifying principle of existence.
Now, in what seems like a digression, let me review a bit of late nineteenth and early twentieth century physics. Wait, what? No need for white knuckles; this will be a gentler journey than you expect. In the late 1800’s, light (a kind of radiant energy) was recognized as a sort of vibration, a trembling of an electromagnetic field. Not long after, radio waves and microwaves and x-rays became understood as siblings to light, similar in nature but different in how fast the field jiggles. The speed of jiggling we call “frequency” and in the case of FM radio, it gives rise to the numbers we use to tune in a particular station. But, in a paper that won him the Nobel Prize in Physics, Einstein posited that light, at the smallest scales, also has properties that we associate with particles. And in his Special Theory of Relativity, Einstein recognized that matter, which we also associate with particles (atoms, electrons and such), is really a frozen kind of energy. His colleague, Max Planck, worked out that different amounts of energy are associated with different frequencies. Distilling out the key points here, we have energy described in terms of vibration and matter described as energy.
Two further ideas from this realm: 1) Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity showed that time, space, energy and gravity are all tied to each other and 2) Based on astronomical observation and measurement, everything in the universe traces back to a highly compressed and unified state about fourteen billion years ago. The bottom line here is that in the twentieth century, our conception of physical reality evolved to suggest that everything is connected and that material and energy are, at their heart, vibrations. This overarching unity of all existence is a physical fact and requires no supposition of supernatural forces to link things up. So, no matter what form your spiritual beliefs take, the interconnectedness of everything is there for you on a purely physical basis. The notion that science has arrived at a cosmic view that harmonizes with much of the ancient wisdom of our spiritual traditions is both ironic and satisfying.
OK, so let’s tie this package up. Sound is a kind of vibration that travels through lots of different materials. Unlike light, it requires a solid, liquid or gas to carry its vibrational energy. But, like light, it is a vibration. And we’ve seen that the universe itself is made of matter and energy that are also vibrations. Given that correspondence, I have come to see music as a celebratory form of organized vibrations that resonate with all the other vibrations that make up our reality. So, for me, music IS a kind of spirituality. Its rhythms and pitches represent a celebration that all of existence is vibration and so it was no accident that in opening this essay I described music as a “vibrant” form of expression and a vehicle. Its ability to influence our mental states brings home the basic fact that we ourselves are little collections of vibrating bits of the universe that have the ability to contemplate the whole of existence, and to sing about it, blow our horns, and bang our drums.
A native of Buffalo, New York Ken Licata received his Ph.D. in Science Education. He went on to be a science teacher and science education professor for over 30 years. An accomplished musician, Licata used his passion for music and science to touch the lives of thousands of students. Since retiring from teaching this rather humorous, spiritual character, can be seen performing with his band or on stage as a solo artist all over the Western New York area.