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Ethics and Religion Talk: What Makes Music a Universal Language?

A student of one of our panelists, Fred Stella, asks: I’m curious as to why music seems to be universal in religious worship. To the best of my knowledge, there is no religion that does not utilize it in some fashion. I realize this might be speculation, but I’d welcome any thoughts on the subject.

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Linda Knieriemen, Senior Pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Holland, responds:

“The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther wrote ‘Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. The gift of language combined with the gift of song was given to man that he should proclaim the Word of God through music.’

“Simply put, music encourages emotional participation in worship. Without emotion, whether from words, music, action or art a service of worship would be dry, encouraging even more napping! Listening to or making music stimulates the non-dominant side of the brain, augmenting a worshippers ability to bring their whole heart, mind and spirit into the moment. While “Praise Music” dominates in most Christian worship today, use of classical pieces like the Dies Irae and Requiem mass communicate feelings of sadness, pain, loss and even dread. Since humans experience pastors and church musicians should include music in worship which encourages greater expression of those more difficult to express emotions. Our most recent Presbyterian hymnal includes songs of lament as well as songs of joy.”

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

“Like most of humanity, Unitarian Universalists deeply value music in our lives and in our worship. Over these past two years with Covid restrictions and zoom limitations we have learned how much we value and appreciate music during worship. There is something quite lovely about hearing a congregation singing a hymn in unison. Music can inspire us, it can help create a mood, and it can lift our spirits, and it can transcend us to a better place.”

The Rev. Sandra Nikkel, head pastor of Conklin Reformed Church, responds:

“There are areas of our soul that can only be touched through music. Music can help us express feelings that are buried deep within us. Music brings joy to both: the one who sings it/plays it and to the one who hears it. For years Christians have used music to worship God. Through it we express our love, submission, and faithfulness to God. The Bible tells us that God inhabits the praises of His people. But, we also believe that God releases his power when we worship Him: ‘About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose.’ (Acts 16:25-26)”

Father Kevin Niehoff, O.P., a Dominican priest who serves as Judicial Vicar, Diocese of Grand Rapids, responds:

“I cannot speak for other religious traditions. For Roman Catholics, we begin by examining Ephesians 5:19. ‘As you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts.’ Saint Augustine, inspired by scripture, wrote, ‘He who sings prays twice’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 299). The Roman Catholic Church teaches song and music fulfill their function and signs when connected to the liturgical action (ibid.).”

“Music contributes to the heavenly quality of any communal prayer celebration. The purpose is to glorify God and sanctify the faithful (ibid.).

“Recently I had the privilege of attending the funeral of Bishop Robert Rose, ninth Bishop of Grand Rapids. The prayerful celebration included singing the beautiful hymns Bishop Rose chose about eighteen years ago. Everyone left that celebration of Bishop Rose’s life filled with faith, hope, and love. Is that not the purpose of joyful liturgical music?”

The Rev. Steven W. Manskar, a retired United Methodist pastor, responds:

“Music is a universal language. It is God’s gift and a means of grace that expresses all of human emotions. St. Augustine believed ‘to sing is to pray twice.’ This is why music has always been part of Christian worship. In my Wesleyan, Methodist, tradition singing has always been central to faith and life. The early Methodist people learned and internalized their faith as they sang and prayed the hymns of Charles Wesley. People are much more likely to remember and internalize hymns than sermons. Music is how the Spirit gets faith and holiness from the head to the heart.”

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

“Music is as old as the human race, if not creation itself (Genesis 4:21). We live in a universe that was designed to praise and glorify its Maker (Psalm 19:1-4a). Singing praise to God appears to be a practice of the angels which was taught to humankind by example (Job 38:7; Isaiah 6:2, ​3). Though occasionally part of the worship of God’s people after they went out of Egypt, the stated use of worship song awaited the advent of King David, who was a poet, prophet, and musician of the highest order. By his command as the Lord’s Anointed, ‘the singing of Psalms with grace in the heart’ (Westminster Confession, Ch. XXI, Sec. V) was made a stated part of public worship (I Chronicles 16:4-6). 

“When ‘a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith’ (Acts 6:7), they brought David’s treasury of worship song into the Christian church, as a book of praise ready to hand. Though the Psalms were always a part of pre-Reformation worship and devotion, John Calvin and his fellow laborers restored them to their rightful place as the sum and substance of the praise offered to God in the worship of His church. Reformed and Presbyterian Christians who know their history and value their heritage love to unite in singing these God-given songs to the Rock of our salvation (Psalm 95:1).”

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

“If I may, I’d like to address this question beyond my own tradition for a moment, as I have good experience with this subject. About a dozen years ago Interfaith Dialogue Association (of which I am president) sponsored a conference that we titled ‘Sacred Sound.’ We intentionally did not use the word ‘music.’ The reason is that not every faith tradition uses what we think of as music, but it is clear that virtually all traditions use sound in some way. For instance, orthodox Muslims ‘recite’ the Quran. To some it may sound like singing or chanting, but the preferred term is recitation. They use no instruments. However, the Sufi tradition of Islam does use singing and instrumental backing in worship. There are some conservative Protestant sects that allow only a cappella hymn singing. 

“The Hindu answer to this is that our doctrine states that creation manifested from nonbeing to being through the OM vibration. This is part of God. So, throughout our lives we are attracted by certain sounds, as they are all part of the OM. ‘Om is indeed Brahman (God). This syllable is the highest. whosoever knows this syllable obtains all that is desired.’ – Katha Upanishad

To be clear, ‘all that is desired’ is a reference to God, not large bank accounts or yachts.”


This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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