Music for Easter – spiritual doesn’t necessarily mean religious

Whatever your religious beliefs, or lack of, it is clear that the underlying appeal of many types of music is spiritual in nature.  That doesn’t just mean music that is specifically written for celebratory and religious purposes, whether a Bach Magnificat, an old Methodist hymn, a slavery spiritual, a Muslim chant, a Jewish cantor’s prayer or indeed something from a modern Christian rock band.  Many other songs and musical works have some inherent quality that triggers an emotional reaction in the listener, akin to a ‘religious’ experience, I would argue.

That’s pretty well independent of the lyrics, and for me ranges from the obvious (U2 and “Still haven’t found what I’m looking for” is a brilliant and moving song) to songs that have no obviously lyrical spirituality yet are certainly moving in an indefinable manner (Much of Bon Iver’s album "For Emma, Forever Ago”, for instance ).

What do we mean by spiritual though?  There are several different sub-genres, as we might define them.  There’s the celebratory, as we said above, and much overtly religious music falls into that category. Give thanks to our creator, our God(s), our saviour. Now I’d argue that is an emotion that anyone can share – you don’t have to believe in a divine creator to celebrate the fact that you’re alive in an amazing world full of possibilities. I find much gospel music enjoyable and uplifting without necessarily believing every word of the Bible. Here’s the brilliant Edwin Hawkins Singers and Oh Happy Day.

There’s also music that is effectively a prayer – asking for spiritual support, forgiveness or even direct intervention. Here is an early Staple Singers track, asking Help Me Jesus  – interesting to note that the musical backing style really cuts across both soul and country.

But I’m probably more taken by the type of  music that is spiritually reflective – the contemplation of the meaning of existence, something that makes you question life and purpose. The most ironically famous song of this type is probably Losing my Religion by REM – a song that has probably made more people at least think briefly about the nature of belief than anything else for the last 30 years.

So, as well as Bon Iver, what else do I find engaging in this sense?  Acapella folk music moves me, from Steeleye Span and the Boar’s Head Carol to the Unthanks harmonies – listen to this, Guard yer man weel, in the dialect, and there’s a real resemblance to a choral psalm (question to musos – is it the use of open fifths in the harmony that gives it that feel?)

Midlake’s The Trials of Van Occupanther is a favourite album of mine, and another spiritual album, in a similar way to Bon Iver’s. Here they are with the track Van Occupanther.

And of course Van Morrison at his peak could sing the telephone directory and move a listener to deep contemplation. Crazy Love is in my all time top ten songs, a love song with a human intent, but nonetheless with some much deeper resonance, for me anyway. And as a final treat, here is Van with the incomparable Ray Charles.

Happy Easter!

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Voices (2)

  1. Alan:

    Great selection. I’m not sure that my addition of anything by Shaking Stevens will improve it.

  2. The Guitar Man:

    You list some fine examples of songs that can move one in a spiritual way. I love all of those you have listed but many people are ‘moved’ by the memories those songs rekindle in their past. Example: “I can still remember where I was and who I was with the first time I heard…..” I love the Staple Singers and this is another great example : However, very little moves me more than the great Marvin and Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma.

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