Music and the Physics of the Spirit

by Alys Lindholm

Alys Lindholm has been ringing handbells since childhood, and enjoys noticing how ringing in different acoustical spaces affects the pieces being performed. She babbles about sound wave length to both children and adults whenever they ask to try out the low bass chimes. You can find her collection of handbell music errata at
handbells.detailwoman.net/.

When Sondra Tucker asked me to write something about music and worship for this column, I told her that I was no church music expert and not the best person for the job. She tricked me into writing this article anyway, because she’s Sondra, and somehow she can do that.

Getting people to commit to unforeseen tasks isn’t my superpower, but if I’m known for anything in my corner of the handbell community, it’s probably how I move behind the table. So rehearsing with the Concert Bells of Fort Worth later that day, I started thinking about music as a physical phenomenon, and how its physicality affects the musician and the listener.

All of us who have played handbells know that ringing is a workout! It’s an intensely physical activity. Often, moving my muscles through those ranges of motion loosens them up; sometimes the wrong movement tenses them up. Sometimes the ringing workout gives me a surge of energy, and sometimes it totally exhausts me. (Often it ends up doing both. Should I mention that I’m a bass ringer?) It’s not just handbells, of course: Playing the flute can be equally physically demanding, although in a very different way. Singing is the physical production of sound using only the human body. Making music is inherently a physical act as much as it is a mental one.

How does that physicality affect us spiritually? When I think of “spiritual practice,” I tend to first think of things like prayer and meditation—things that happen mostly within the mind, even if they still involve the physical component of breath. Probably most of us think of those things first. But humans are not just free-floating minds. We are bodied creatures, and any religious worship or study that neglects that neglects a fundamental aspect of humanity. We were created to move. We were created to eat and sleep and play, and we need to do those things. Jesus acknowledges this in many places, such as in the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. Eating together is a key rite in the Christian faith, and in most other faiths. Walking meditation is featured in some forms of Buddhism. Yoga originated as an Indian spiritual practice. The body and the spirit operate together during these times.

We were created to feel physical sensations as well as emotional ones. A spiritual practice that ignores those things doesn’t minister to the whole person, and all of our religions recognize that, even if we as individuals or organizations sometimes forget it in our haste to list all the rules for what is or isn’t okay to do with our bodies.

So when I think about what music, and ensemble music in particular, might bring to worship and spiritual practice, I can’t help but feel that a lot of it is about this physicality. By “making a joyful noise,” we integrate and engage all aspects of ourselves instead of using just one. By doing so together with others, like when we play handbells or sing hymns, we use our bodies in service of each other as well, actively reminding each other that we are both physical and spiritual beings. We are also using our bodies in a way which is non-competitive and non-violent. A way which creates rather than destroys.

The physicality of music, then, spiritually benefits those producing the music, whether a church ensemble or the whole congregation singing a hymn together. But what about the listener? What happens to the listener physically?

Just as making music is a physical act, hearing music is a physical act. Music is sound, and sound is literally physics.

After a handbell concert, one of my favorite things to do is take one of the big “buckets”—often the G2 bell—and play it for the children who come up to the tables. I’ve been known to crouch down on the floor to do this. I ring the bell, and then I invite kids to put their hands up an inch from the rim, where the air is noticeably vibrating. I ask them if they can feel the sound coming from the bell. They pretty much universally grin at this point, because let’s face it, that’s cool stuff. How often do we get a chance to feel a sound wave quite so intimately and physically? (Without blowing out our eardrums at the same time, I mean.)

That’s always true, though: we’re always feeling sound waves, if not always as dramatically as when you hold your hand up an inch from a sounding G2. Most people say listening to music makes them “feel something,” but what we may forget is that some of those feelings are always physical feelings. When we play music, the air vibrates with it. The floor vibrates with it. Our bodies vibrate with it. Sometimes we notice this consciously, and sometimes we don’t, but it is always true. It’s how a deaf person can touch a stage and know if the orchestra is still playing or if they have stopped. And so when we make music in church, there in the same physical space as the congregation, we are not merely creating a physical experience for ourselves, but also delivering a physical experience to the congregation.

This is spirituality from a different angle than asking for a moment of silence, or contemplating the meaning of a scripture. Those things are important, naturally. Silence is a way to get to stillness, and stillness is one common entry into spiritual experience. Contemplation is a mental and philosophical exercise, and we can’t have a full spiritual life without engaging in philosophy. But listening to music gives us both the mental-emotional experience that music produces in our conscious minds, and the physical experience it produces for our bodies.

And so spirituality and worship strike me as more than appropriate topics for Overtones, a publication named after a physical phenomenon.

When Sondra Tucker asked me to write something about music and worship for this column, I told her that I was no church music expert and not the best person for the job. She tricked me into writing this article anyway, because she’s Sondra, and somehow she can do that.

Getting people to commit to unforeseen tasks isn’t my superpower, but if I’m known for anything in my corner of the handbell community, it’s probably how I move behind the table. So rehearsing with the Concert Bells of Fort Worth later that day, I started thinking about music as a physical phenomenon, and how its physicality affects the musician and the listener.

All of us who have played handbells know that ringing is a workout! It’s an intensely physical activity. Often, moving my muscles through those ranges of motion loosens them up; sometimes the wrong movement tenses them up. Sometimes the ringing workout gives me a surge of energy, and sometimes it totally exhausts me. (Often it ends up doing both. Should I mention that I’m a bass ringer?) It’s not just handbells, of course: Playing the flute can be equally physically demanding, although in a very different way. Singing is the physical production of sound using only the human body. Making music is inherently a physical act as much as it is a mental one.

How does that physicality affect us spiritually? When I think of “spiritual practice,” I tend to first think of things like prayer and meditation—things that happen mostly within the mind, even if they still involve the physical component of breath. Probably most of us think of those things first. But humans are not just free-floating minds. We are bodied creatures, and any religious worship or study that neglects that neglects a fundamental aspect of humanity. We were created to move. We were created to eat and sleep and play, and we need to do those things. Jesus acknowledges this in many places, such as in the miracle of the loaves and the fishes. Eating together is a key rite in the Christian faith, and in most other faiths. Walking meditation is featured in some forms of Buddhism. Yoga originated as an Indian spiritual practice. The body and the spirit operate together during these times.

We were created to feel physical sensations as well as emotional ones. A spiritual practice that ignores those things doesn’t minister to the whole person, and all of our religions recognize that, even if we as individuals or organizations sometimes forget it in our haste to list all the rules for what is or isn’t okay to do with our bodies.

So when I think about what music, and ensemble music in particular, might bring to worship and spiritual practice, I can’t help but feel that a lot of it is about this physicality. By “making a joyful noise,” we integrate and engage all aspects of ourselves instead of using just one. By doing so together with others, like when we play handbells or sing hymns, we use our bodies in service of each other as well, actively reminding each other that we are both physical and spiritual beings. We are also using our bodies in a way which is non-competitive and non-violent. A way which creates rather than destroys.

The physicality of music, then, spiritually benefits those producing the music, whether a church ensemble or the whole congregation singing a hymn together. But what about the listener? What happens to the listener physically?

Just as making music is a physical act, hearing music is a physical act. Music is sound, and sound is literally physics.

After a handbell concert, one of my favorite things to do is take one of the big “buckets”—often the G2 bell—and play it for the children who come up to the tables. I’ve been known to crouch down on the floor to do this. I ring the bell, and then I invite kids to put their hands up an inch from the rim, where the air is noticeably vibrating. I ask them if they can feel the sound coming from the bell. They pretty much universally grin at this point, because let’s face it, that’s cool stuff. How often do we get a chance to feel a sound wave quite so intimately and physically? (Without blowing out our eardrums at the same time, I mean.)

That’s always true, though: we’re always feeling sound waves, if not always as dramatically as when you hold your hand up an inch from a sounding G2. Most people say listening to music makes them “feel something,” but what we may forget is that some of those feelings are always physical feelings. When we play music, the air vibrates with it. The floor vibrates with it. Our bodies vibrate with it. Sometimes we notice this consciously, and sometimes we don’t, but it is always true. It’s how a deaf person can touch a stage and know if the orchestra is still playing or if they have stopped. And so when we make music in church, there in the same physical space as the congregation, we are not merely creating a physical experience for ourselves, but also delivering a physical experience to the congregation.

This is spirituality from a different angle than asking for a moment of silence, or contemplating the meaning of a scripture. Those things are important, naturally. Silence is a way to get to stillness, and stillness is one common entry into spiritual experience. Contemplation is a mental and philosophical exercise, and we can’t have a full spiritual life without engaging in philosophy. But listening to music gives us both the mental-emotional experience that music produces in our conscious minds, and the physical experience it produces for our bodies.

And so spirituality and worship strike me as more than appropriate topics for Overtones, a publication named after a physical phenomenon.

Alys Lindholm has been ringing handbells since childhood, and enjoys noticing how ringing in different acoustical spaces affects the pieces being performed. She babbles about sound wave length to both children and adults whenever they ask to try out the low bass chimes. You can find her collection of handbell music errata at
handbells.detailwoman.net/.


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