Spiritual music covers a wide range of possible definitions and examples. Early religious texts contain songs and hymns that exalt their author's conceptions of deity. Spiritual music takes people out of their normal state and delivers them into a profound experience of connectedness and love. At other times, spiritual music expresses a desire for escape from difficult circumstances into something better and more free. Music can be a powerful form of religious expression and a soothing salve to the human spirit in the midst of suffering.
One of the earliest references to spiritual music comes from the Bible in Ephesians 5:19, "Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord..." The definition of soul helps to elaborate further what is meant by 'spiritual music." Soul is defined as "emotional or intellectual energy or intensity, especially as revealed in a work of art or an artistic performance." Soul music exemplifies this definition. Nick Pell eloquently defines soul as music that "speaks to the soul, that part of our consciousness that makes us human beings." For this article, I have defined "spiritual music" as music with intellectual and emotional intensity that moves listeners to feel something more.
Many of the psalms of the Bible are accompanied by sometimes untranslatable notes for performers and singers. The Song of Solomon explores the blending of material and spiritual that takes place in the sexual relationship between two lovers. Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Shinto practitioners have created spiritual music to express their deepest yearnings and profound gratitude for their various conceptions of deity. African American slaves sang spirituals to the rhythm of forced labor work both to synchronize their movements with one another and to keep their minds focused on something higher than their physical bondage.
For the African American slaves, spiritual music served served as a way to express the pains of life and the yearning for something more. Some of the spirituals such as "Swing Low Sweet Chariot," and "Wade in the Water" expressed both the hope for and the methods of breaking free of slavery via the underground railroad. Spiritual music expresses boundless gratitude and intense joy that comes from religious and spiritual experiences such as becoming one with Christ, getting possessed by a Vodou lwa, seeing through illusion in Zen meditation, or even taking psychedelic mushrooms.
The spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff considered himself a teacher of sacred dances. He composed piano music to accompany the movements of the dancers he trained. He suggested in "Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson" that his music was designed with very specific patterns that interact with patterns in the physiology of listeners. E.J. Gold, author of the "American Book of the Dead," uses almost every instrument and musical genre available to express his teachings about the afterlife and beyond.
Native American drumming is an excellent example of the expression of spirituality through music. The drummers synchronize with one another and express the origin stories of their tribe and their particular relationships to the Great Spirit. Krishna followers often hold kirtans, which are spiritual songs in which a performer sings a call and the audience responds. Contemporary Christian musicians express their love for Jesus in nearly every genre of music available.
Attempting to classify music into "spiritual" and "non-spiritual" categories would accomplish nothing in terms of personal spiritual experiences. Explore your own music collection to start outlining your own idea of what constitutes spiritual music. Explore music that moves you. Pay close attention to how the music affects your inner state. If you feel deep compassion, joy, yearning, or inspiration, the music has a spiritual content for you.