The affinity between music and spiritual dimension has ancient roots and although in different forms, it occurred in most human cultures. Music often plays a major role in the universe of origin myths, in which in some Eastern mythologies the singing of the OM syllable gives rise to the world, the voice and the shapes of the reality in the Nordic myths, whereas the laugh of Thot coincided with the creation of the universe for the ancient Egyptians, while for certain native Americans, singing of deities, repeated three times, gave rise to all things.
The study of the presence of music in the myths, rites and religious liturgies was mainly conducted by ethnomusicologists and has produced countless contributions that shed light on just as many peoples and cultures of the world and varieties that is impossible to summarize here. Then we illustrate the outline of the subject, taking Western culture as the main reference, but without giving up references and trips to other cultural perspectives.
Music is a constant presence in the mythologies of the world. Only in Greek mythology there are dozens of people linked to the music, from Apollo to the Muses, the inventors of the tools to the eponymous flute of Pan, the aulo of Athena, the lira of Hermes to sound charmers, like Orpheus and the Sirens. Similar figures are found in other cultures. The legendary Chinese Emperor Ku is considered the creator of many musical instruments, and the list could easily continue.
Music consists of a series of melodic wailing in the form of songs that used to be used in past rituals. It is said that this type of cultural expression dates back several tens of thousands of years. People already played certain musical notes 15,000 years ago. The music was closely linked to the dance as both were means of magical-religious communication, aspired to dialogue with invisible forces to facilitate the achievement of their magical purposes.
In the Caribbean, aboriginal dances, regardless of their modality have been called areítos, at least so began to call the chroniclers and then the historians. Thus we find people to sing and dance for military victory or warlike dances, during funeral, to ask for the happiness of the dead, the nuptial, for gratitude for good harvests and of requests for rain, good hunting, abundance of fruits of harvest or other benefits of nature, among which are the ceremony of cassava and corn.
The areítos are dances danced to the rhythm of a music. Their participants paint and adorned their bodies for the occasion, that took place in the squares or bateyes, which are one of the most significant architectural elements. These ceremonies were carried out before idols or cemeteries, and finally they served as oral literature for people who should not have known the script, while they put into practice theatrical scenes, in their incipient form.
The Cuban Aborigines were at least the most advanced in the Neolithic, who had instruments too. On the basis of archaeological data and the old chroniclers we can say that our natives used the musical instruments like drums made of wood and leather, trumpets made with snails, bone flutes and whistles.
You can identify some of the basic types of music celebrations in the myths. Music becomes a weapon in the ritual confrontation between men and gods. The iconic myth of Apollo and Marsyas has so much religious value by censoring the hubris of the satyr who wants to be equal to a god as music, stressing the superiority of a divine origin of stringed instruments on popular wind instruments.
The myth recounts and celebrates the power captivating musical experience, with an ambivalent religious message. If figures like the Sirens reaffirm the limits are not exceeded in the pursuit of knowledge, myths like that of Orpheus show how music can uplift the human spirit and reveal a higher order beyond what is visible. The character of the bard-prophet is also among the most widespread in the mythologies and religions around the world.
The figure summarizes the different types of connection between music and myth is that of bard, the real character who is also transfigured mythologically (think of the legendary Homer, the creator of epic poems). Aedi, rhapsodists and singers are historical figures present in many cultures and their social function of guardians of memory and religious values of which the myth is steeped further emphasizes the extent to which musical experience and mythical tale prove inextricably linked. The songs had more power and is more sacred because it transforms and ennobles the common language.
Music have roots in verbal language and they represent an imperfect version. The myth is based on the sense but not the sound and what matters is the story, not the words with which it is expressed. Conversely, music is based on the sound but not the meaning. Both try to compensate for its lack of it as the music try to organize the sounds depending on a sense to recover the sound dimension.
This is true even for the myth and music. In the case of the first the story takes place over time, but it refers to universal truths, whereas in the case of the second, the sound unfolds in temporality, but in abstract rational order that there have needs of time if not for inflicting a denial.
The music, in this light, is thus not only a complement to the mythical story, but it shares the genetic code and the paradoxical nature, representing the point of conjunction between the finiteness of human time and the eternity of the divine. A theory that, despite having been the subject of some criticism, illuminates not just the luck of the myth as inspiring element of musical creativity especially in opera and art and religion of the Romantics but also the persistent tendency of religions and cultic practices to use music as a ritual instrument of communication between men and gods.
It is rare to find ceremonies and religious rites in which music does not play a decisive role. There are three levels of interaction between music and ritual, with an increasing degree of collaboration between the two phenomena. At a first stage, the music is merely a complement that accompanies and punctuates the ceremony, and is a widely characteristic trait of rites.
On a second level, the music can become key to the transcendent dimension and that is characteristic of many religious experiences, from Sufism to Hinduism, Islam to Buddhism. Music and rituals finally come to a point of almost total identification in trance, possession and shamanism, in which the invocation and evocation of the deity follow precise music and dance formulas and imposes the figure of the priest-musician.
In Western culture, in which prevail the first two levels, the intervention of music in ritual is connected to the special relationship between sound and word. In the greek world of poetry units, music and dance which is particularly clear in the dramatic structure of the tragedy originates in the cult practices and developed to amplify the eloquence of the mythical story.
The link between the sacred word and music is a fundamental fact. Songs and later the instruments enter the ceremonial responding to the need to boost and convey the word of God to the faithful in increasingly large and crowded environments, but first the music enhances and increases the effective communication and the emotional impact of the sacred text.
The word-music relationship in the West develops in a two-way. The music takes to emerge suggestions and meanings hidden in the religious text, while the desire to bring out the sacred word pushes the music to a growing degree of complexity. It is indeed within the cultural practices that develop the first forms of polyphony and the consequent need to stop writing increasingly complex forms of sound, decisive for the birth of musical notation.
The relationship between music and religion changed radically since the second half of the seventeenth century. In the West, in fact unlike in other cultures, where as we mentioned musical and spiritual experience have more points had prevailed there since the idea that music and other arts were a mere complement, some but not significant essential to the practice of worship.
The aesthetics of Romanticism worked a decisive reversal, secularized religion and sacralizing music. This does not mean that the nineteenth century did not write more religious music or solely based on sacred texts but also works that have nothing to do with this, and that are placed in a new ritual framework, that of the concert.
The contemporary scene, characterized by extreme heterogeneity of languages, is particularly rich in phenomena related to the mythical-religious sphere. The religious music now seems a predominantly external phenomenon to the ritual function and yet very vital response to a widespread spiritual need that in part is hard to recognize certain institutions by history and tradition.
Therefore, the expansion of these rhythms have transcended over the years, and not only do they appeal to the population, but through these mixtures with modern instruments they manage to stay in force through time and, therefore, to perpetuate their culture through the years.