Is music the key to the spiritual?
An international team of academics, led by Professor George Corbett and Dr Sarah Moerman from the School of Divinity at the University of St Andrews, is inviting members of the public to respond to a survey as part of an ambitious new study of the relationship between music and spirituality.
The world-famous composer and conductor Sir James MacMillan, who holds a professorship at St Andrews, has often referred to music as “the most spiritual of the arts”. This claim about music has challenged and united academics from leading universities from the UK all the way across the world to Australia, and in fields as diverse as theology and neuroscience.
Professor Corbett explains: “We know that people in all different cultures have turned to music to express their experiences of love, of suffering and death, and of a relationship to the divine.
“Music seems to open up dimensions of human experience beyond the material or what we might call spiritual realities, and our project is trying to see if there are ways of demonstrating empirically that commonly perceived relationship between music and spiritual realities.”
The study states its aim as helping all faith groups, and even those that do not identify with any faith, to improve their connection with their spiritual needs through the power of music.
The group of academics, who come from varied religious belief backgrounds, have already begun to agree on certain observations, for example, the past three years represented a seismic shift in human history, having seen communities and congregations forced into the weird and unique experience of participating in worship online.
Being together but not together, singing with other people but by yourself, has been described as destabilising – but has also seen unexpected benefits such as rethinking what is important, and rediscovering the importance of community in both spiritual expression and in music-making. Lockdowns, which were almost universally a trying time, have prompted many to a new willingness to share their stories.
The project is grant funded by Templeton Religion Trust, as part of the Trust’s Art Seeking Understanding programme, which looks to advance human understanding across all faiths and belief systems.
Professor Corbett concludes: “The unique impact of this project will be the way it unites religious and scientific disciplines to explore and understand the way we engage with, and indeed need, music in our lives.”
Templeton Religion Trust
Templeton Religion Trust is a global charitable trust that supports projects as well as storytelling related to projects seeking to enrich the conversation about religions of all kinds.
Issued by the University of St Andrews Communications Office.