Why is Music a Religious Experience?
By Michael Graziano, Professor of Neuroscience and Novelist, Princeton University.
As a neuroscientist, I have often wondered — what is the source of my relationship to music? A great deal is known about how sounds are processed in the brain, and at least a little is known about how the syntax of music is perceived. But what about reverence for music? Many people, myself included, experience a religious-type awe when listening to certain pieces of music. What exactly is the relationship between music and religion and where in the brain does that commonality emerge?
As I’ve written before in books and blogs, I am an atheist and yet I have an empathy for religion. Intellectually, I do not think there is a literal God. Emotionally, I am not anti-religious. One of the reasons why I feel an emotional empathy for religion is that it reminds me of my attitude toward music.
Many of the moral generalizations that have been applied to religion apply just as well to music. Music is a cultural phenomenon. It intensifies emotions. It helps cement communities. It can range from the terroristic to the sublime. The Nazis after all had nationalistic Nazi music to fire up their citizens, and in more recent decades we’ve seen cop killer music. On the other end of the spectrum, the rousing music of the civil rights movement advocated for equality, and Beethoven’s Ninth was a politically and socially radical statement about the joy of human solidarity.