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Sacred Music

I’ve gotten in the habit of listening to a certain kind of music on Sunday morning, especially if I get up before Xy, usually with Persephone but sometimes alone. I think of it as sacred music, but I’m not sure if that’s the best way to describe it. The core of my collection in this vein was initially composed of churchy Western European art music and plainsong chant. (Is plainsong art music?) When I say churchy Western “European art music”, I’m thinking of things like Allegri’s “Miserere” for example.

But recently I’ve been making a conscious effort to branch out and find sacred music from other traditions, other cultures. So I’ve also been listening to Tibetan chant and Indian ragas and Native American drumming. I’ve also been interested in New Age-y and neopagan approaches.

All of which gets me to wondering about the whole concept of “sacred music” in the first place. What is it? What does it mean? It doesn’t seem sufficient to say it’s music dedicated to God. I have plenty of music in my collection which is explicitly Christian — gospel and (some) bluegrass, for example — but which I don’t consider sacred for some reason that I can’t quite discern. I’m definitely not listening to Stryper on Sunday mornings. So what’s the distinction?

I guess I’m listening for something that evokes a sense of otherworldliness, a sense of time set aside from the ordinary. I suppose gospel and bluegrass are just too suffused with the structures and conventions of popular music to qualify.

We usually switch over to reggae after breakfast, liberally interlarded with ska and dub.

Published inMusic & AudioTheology


  1. mf mf

    I don’t so the same thing routinely, but often listen to Hearts of Space and the medieval music that follows on WWNO Sunday evenings. Since I mentally left the Christian Church years ago I got into the habit of listening to Pharoah Sanders Love Is Everywhere most every Easter morning (from Love In Us All, which is out of print and can’t be had anywhere for love or money except perhaps Bit Torrent). Music is the one language that can universally convey spirituality without the burden of narrow dogma.

    And I remember the years I lived next to St. Anna’s Church on Esplanade, and the mornings I spent on my patio listening to the usually excellent music drifting out their open windows.

    With your large and eclectic musical taste I probably don’t need to tell you this, but you should definitely check out both Japanese and Native American flute music. It’s where I go when work is about to stress me completely to pieces. Check out some of Lee Reilly’s work.

    Funny, some of the most ethereal and spiritual music I know is played on the flute. There are some quiet Celtic songs by bands which played Celtic root music (early Altan for example) that are very powerful as well. Perhaps the flute was one of our earliest instruments, like the drum, and speaks to us in special ways.

  2. David David

    If you won’t do Stryper, how about Amy Grant?

    I always enjoyed the Cheeze Show on WTUL on Sunday mornings.

  3. I think “sacred” is going to mean different things to different people.

    I’d suggest John Coltrane’s, A Love Supreme, and you have to include some of Bach’s cantatas.

  4. anony anony

    So what’s the distinction?

    I guess I’m listening for something that evokes a sense of otherworldliness, a sense of time set aside from the ordinary.

    That seems to be the nub. It’s an access point to our spiritual side, a slack time that quiets the internal noise. Sacred music is not exclusively that which originated for an interlude in a worship service, though that music does aim specifically at calming and quieting.

  5. Bart,

    Maybe you’ve heard some of these artists, but if not – I very much enjoy:

    Arvo Part – Fratres and In Memory of Benjamin Bitten
    Henryk Gorecki – Symphony No. 3 (this may be the most beautiful work ever written)
    Gas – Pop LP
    Stars of the Lid – Refinement of the Decline
    And finally, New Orleans very own…
    Belong – October Language (these guys really know the right way to rub a guitar)

  6. Arvo Pärt, yes. J turned me on to him.

    Gorecki, I’ve only heard Totus tuus.

    And all the rest are new to me. So thanks Dan, and everyone else. I will check these out.

  7. Sean Sean

    Thanks, nice tip on the 8tracks… I built a playlist in and was a bit peeved they wanted my mullah to play it.

  8. Bill Bill

    Sacred is literally “set apart”, as in a sacred space being set apart for God. (Not that God needs a space, it’s us that do.) I guess from there one can go anywhere. What’s sacred to one person/culture/tribe may not be to another. Sacred “music” gets even trickier.

    On a practical note, outside of the traditional Western tradition, I like the groups Radio Tarrifa and Dead can Dance.

    Within the Roman Catholic church, I think that it’s too bad that one doesn’t heard more of the music that was identified with the church for much of the last 2000 years. The mainline Protestant churches are more likely to perform Palestrina motets than the “cat-lick” ones.

  9. Not that it’s particularly sacred music, but, as a silent follower of your blog, this seems like an appropriate time to make mention of my own [blog], wherein I post my own music, which, form your tastes, you might find something to like about:


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