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Report: Discovering Spirituality Through Music


According to a recent Australian study, music can provide a spiritual outlet for older adults. Moreover, spiritual experiences do not have to be linked with traditional religious devotion. And they can also apply to people who identify as nonreligious.

Authors Terrence Hays and Victor Minichiello of the University of New England (Armidale, New South Wales, Australia) interviewed 38 older adults in their homes (19 female and 19 male). Twenty participants lived in cities and 18 lived in rural communities. They ranged in age from 60 to 97.

Participants came from various backgrounds and included people who had no musical training, those who had some training and those who had been professional musicians. Each participant was asked to explain the importance of music in his or her daily life. Results revealed no major differences between groups.

The authors built on the findings of earlier studies by Bruce Rumbold of La Trobe University, which suggest older people become aware of spiritual needs when they have to cope with physical and emotional changes. These changes force them to rethink and redefine their personal identities. According to Rumbold, spirituality may be described as the web of relationships that provide coherence and meaning in people’s lives.

The study was reported in the Journal of Religion, Spirituality & Aging, Vol. 18 (1) 2005.

Ways of experiencing spirituality

According to the researchers, each study participant responded to music differently. Each told a unique story highlighting various themes. The themes included meaning, connection, self-discovery, beauty and community.

Meaning: Music helped many participants derive meaning from their experiences. For example, nearly all participants reported they were more spiritually aware when they listened to music.

As "Elizabeth" explained:

I am not religious but I’m spiritual. I’m religious too, but I mean I prefer to look at the wider concept, the spiritual part of being, rather than the "churchianity" of religion. Music is not at the centre of my spirituality, but it’s very close to it. I
suppose the spiritual part of a person is that unique part of a person that connects them with universal energy . . . and music does that for me."

Connection: Music also helped some participants to connect with a larger world.

As "Joan" put it, "Music is about connecting with people, yes, but moving into a different world and a bigger world and a world of the spirit to some extent and your emotions."

Self-discovery: Additionally, music helped many participants develop an identity and understanding of self, unrelated to religion or doctrine.

As "Margot" explained, "You can have no religion, no faith, but you do have a sense of spirituality. Well, for me, it is because music touches my inner depth. I mean it doesn’t just stay on the surface. Music therefore seeps into my definition of soul."

Beauty: Other participants reported music had infused their lives with beauty and a sense of God and the spiritual.

For example, "Jane" described listening to music as feeling in touch with God:

Music is life giving in I think just for its beauty. And also for me it’s prayer. It really is because I think it’s one of the great manifestations of God’s wonder, the wonder of music, the beauty of music. I mean you know if you talk about God is beauty, God is wonder, God is this, God is that, well so is music to me.

"Peter", a musician, linked music with the search for perfection that also carried a spiritual component for him:

I’d have to see music for me as part of striving for perfection really . . . I mean to hear Elizabeth Schwarzkopf or Gerald Souzay singing Schubert, for example, and then hear a good amateur, one comes to realize that the really gifted top professional is very close to perfection really. That in itself is a thing of perfection. Whatever the form it may take, it has a powerful spiritual importance, I think!

Community: According to the authors, many participants associated music with a communal feeling and the music heard at church when growing up.

As "John" put it, "Well, in the Episcopalian church, especially in the Eucharist, if there weren’t the music, I’d feel that there was something missing . . . music enriches the service. And I think it helps people to relate to one another."

According to the authors, the findings suggest gerontologists need to be alert to the spiritual needs of older people, even when individuals do not readily identify as being religious.