I don’t know the name of the selection or the pianist performing it. When the simple jazz improvisation came over my radio one afternoon, almost instinctively I activated my cassette recorder. Since that day I’ve played the piece often. The notes are clear and sparkling, the chords rich and evocative, the melody delightfully elusive and a bit bewitching, the overall texture sublimely smooth. It resonates with a deeper tone of my being and seems to play out the times and seasons of my entire lifespan. At once calming and quickening, meditative and provocative, it unfailingly induces a spiritual experience in the finest sense of this term.

You need not trouble your mind or heart over the identity of this “magical” piece or the record album it comes from. Nor should you come to Sunrise Ranch in Loveland, Colorado, where I live and ask me to play it for you. The experience is subjective. To put it crudely, what it does for me it may not and most likely will not do for you. On the other hand, there may be a composition or a particular vocal or instrumental rendering of a composition that engenders a similar experience in you and which may very well leave me cold. Music is a very personal commodity.

But music does indeed have a certain magic to it. Lift words from a page and put them into a song and note the increase of pathos and power. Music was the focus and force of the revolutionary currents moving in the late sixties when life opened up for so many in a singular way. It can spread new values through a culture, perhaps more quickly and effectively than any other art form or medium of communication. It has played a key role in the great religions of the world down through the ages, indeed in the life of man throughout his history.

Why? Because music provides a direct channel into the heart. It penetrates to those levels beneath the surface mind, from which our deepest motivations and impulses spring. Just as certain colours can generate definite physical and psychological changes in a person, so can tones and combinations of tones. Depending on the nature and quality of these tones and how they correlate with the substance present in a given individual, the influence brought into the subconscious mind may be purifying or contaminating, creative or destructive. Hence the need for a certain amount of care as to what sounds we allow into our ears.

Of course there are times when there’s little or no choice. Those who live in large cities, particularly in the vicinity of airports, factories or expressways, are subjected to a good deal of noise pollution. An article in Psychology Today considers this growing problem and cites a number of studies that suggest that not only does excessive and prolonged noise adversely affect hearing and physical health but that emotional and psychological health may be impaired as well. Quoting from the article:

Industrial surveys show that exposure to noise increases self-reported anxiety and emotional stress. Workers habitually exposed to very high-intensity noise show increased incidence of nervous complaints, nausea, headaches, instability, argumentativeness, sexual impotence, mood changes and anxiety.

Obviously sound has a powerful influence on the emotional realm. And if destructive sound can cause or aggravate psychological injury, does it not follow that creative sound can be of value in restoring and maintaining psychological well-being?

At a human unity conference in Vancouver that I attended several years ago a workshop was offered entitled “Your Inner Tone of Sound: The Natural Healing of Sound and Music.” The workshop leader emphasized that all music consists of tension and release. On the tension side of the continuum we might find progressive jazz, heavy metal and orchestral pieces by some modern composers. At the tension extreme would be sound scarcely distinguishable from noise. The release side of the continuum might include music that serves as a background for guided meditations and of course what is called “Muzak,” with its soft, sweet, soothing sounds.

The ideal, according to the workshop leader, is somewhere in between. Too much release, even if the objective is relaxation or meditation, is fatiguing. Our minds instinctively desire to bring order out of chaos. If there’s no novelty, if the sound we’re listening to is little more than a monotone, then there’s no opportunity for the mind to exercise its ordering function. In the absence of creative challenge a rather uncomfortable malaise eventually sets in.

In the workshop seven elements of music were presented: rhythm, melody, harmony, colour, texture, duration and volume. Tension or release may be achieved in relation to each of these elements, as suggested by the following table.

Elements of Sound/MusicTensionRelease
Perfect Interval

Knowing how tension and release may be varied in relation to these factors helps us produce and select music in line with a specific purpose, whether that purpose be relaxation, stimulation, meditation or healing.

And so a certain artistry in handling music and sound of all kinds may be developed, not for the purpose of manipulating moods and human behaviour but as a natural complement to the increasing artistry with which we handle everything that appears in our worlds. As our creative capacities enlarge in this way, music in which the factors of tension and release are properly balanced is called forth from the world and transformative experiences such as that described in the opening paragraph of this article become increasingly common. So is the “lost chord” of the Moody Blues found and the music of the spheres is released to work its magic once again on Earth.

Jerry Kvasnicka, a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, has had a varied career as a youth minister, a radio news reporter, a writer and editor for several magazines and journals and a custodian with the Loveland, Colorado school district. Jerry currently edits and writes for the spirituality section of the online magazine The Mindful Word. He has lived at the Sunrise Ranch spiritual community in Loveland for twenty-five years. He can be reached at jerry@themindfulword.org.

image: Adriano Agulló via Compfight cc