Have been exploring this question deeply since decades. It cannot be culture, as spiritual music exists in all cultures that you may feel, even if you may not understand the language or the culture. Even more true if it is instrumental music that is spiritual.
So if it is beyond language, then what they sing about definitely may not necessarily make it ‘spiritual’. In fact, it may just be religious music. I draw a distinction between ‘spiritualism’ and ‘religion’. That’s for another post some day. How often have I heard priests from different religions mindlessly chanting prayers, often with such discordance and lack of sensitivity to sound and scale that they inadvertently create more disturbance than peace.
Would it then be the genre of music? Not that either. Contemporaries thought the singing of Saint Meera was rather ribald for her times. I have frequently been startled by how moving the spiritual quotient is in music from original sound tracks Take Hans Zimmer for example.
Here is Angélia Grace, singing a cover version of the music by Hans Zimmer for the film ‘Inception’. This gives me goosebumps every time I listen to this. And my eyes close in deep contemplation. What is this music?
Is it music filled with acute, strained emotions and complex or complicated arrangements? That’s just technical artistry for me.
Is it close to the genre of romantic music? Sufi ishq music for instance is majorly expressed through metaphors and allegories of romance and love. It could be, but the spiritual payload is implied. I find myself wading through emotional storms stirred by passion and romance to break into the clear skies of spiritualism above, and I fail often more than I succeed, so slippery is this path.
Has it to do with a slow tempo, long, sustaining notes, and a soft, dulcet voice? I’ve been conducting meditation sessions with extraordinarily wild tribal dance music. A techno-trance album composed by a musician who I later discovered is a fellow-meditator, quite literally sent me into a trance when I first heard it 23 years ago. It still remains one of my favourite albums for spiritual music.
I feel the answer may just be alluded to in our ‘Rasa’ theory of art and music from classical India, which is on the discipline of aesthetics. ‘Santam rasa’, which means ‘the aesthetics of peace’ (Shanti), was added after great debate over centuries to the eight existing rasas. And also ‘bhaavas’. More intriguingly, it is described not as one with equal measure and footing with the other rasas. More like an invisible thread that strings the exotic pearls of all the other rasas and bhaavas. How beautiful is that?
Speaking of pearls. As an example of music that I find deeply spiritual, last week I shared Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan singing ‘Sason Kee Mala Pe Simroo Pee Ka Naam’. From hist rich heart-traditions of Middle-Eastern-influenced cultures, let’s move to the rarefied and invigorating cold air of the majestic Himalayan mountains.
Ani Choying Drolma singing a Buddhist hymn in her Nepali language. I understand not a word, but her music and voice touches me spiritually, stirs something that feels forgotten deep within me
From the heart of the innocent child within you, untainted by religion, cultures, knowledge, and prejudice, what is spiritual music?