Monday Music: Transcendence

This month I have been rediscovering music that I first heard when sharing a house with one of my brothers in the 70s. While we listened to all kinds of music, I’ve noticed that I’m mainly remembering the music that is peaceful and uplifting — such as Gregorian chants.

This one — Magnificat — is meant to be the song of the Virgin Mary. On her behalf, the monks sing:

‘My spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour
For He hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden:
for, behold, from henceforth
all generations shall
call me blessed.

I’m not a religious person and having been raised a protestant the cult of Mary is really beyond my understanding, but I am grateful for the glorious music that she has inspired.

Here’s another one: the chant of the Templars — Salve Regina (Hail Holy Queen). I’m not sure if strictly speaking this is a Gregorian chant, because a couple of sources have said that those are monophonic, whereas Salve Regina is antiphonal — call and response. I’m not linking to the sources because as soon as you google ‘templar’ you end up with a lot of very spooky sites and I don’t want to encourage them. I don’t think there are many humanist atheist bloggers (like myself) who have shared this music. But I love the deep voices and the background drone triggers a wave of endorphins through my entire body – almost as good as a massage.

It reminds me of the open throat chanting of Tibetan monks, which I once heard live at a folk festival. I haven’t been able to find a video that recreates the sound, I think you have to be in the room for the full effect. This next video was the best approximation I could find, although according to the comments it is not, in fact, Tibetan monks doing the chanting.

I’m also reminded that it’s not just worshippers of the Virgin Mary who’ve given the world beautiful music. Here’s one of my favourite singers, Baaba Maal, with his version of the Muslim call to prayer.

The human voice raised in prayer or worship seems to offer a fast-track to transcendence no matter where you are in the world, or what you believe in. It finds and stimulates that corner of the brain that religious people call the soul, and atheists don’t have a word for.

Such music reminds me — in spite of all the horrors committed in the name of religion — of the loving, compassionate, creative side of humans. So by transcendence I mean that this music transcends the worst of humanity, not humanity itself. It takes us away from petty hatreds and conflicts; puts our worries and obsessions into perspective. 

Well, it does for me. Judging by nasty comments I encountered underneath some of these videos on YouTube, for some people it only takes effect if they share the religious views of the song. What a pity. I’m glad that as an atheist, I can enjoy the songs of all faiths without guilt or hatred. 

I could keep exploring the music of other religions but for lack of time decided instead to try and redress the gender imbalance with these last two videos. First, the singing nuns of Avignon – Sequence Dies Irae.

I think this collection of devotional songs has been an apt tribute to my compassionate atheist brother Mark, although I don’t think he listened to much religious music in recent decades. But he always loved anything with soul, so the last word on this week’s post comes to you from one of his favourite groups: Sweet Honey in the Rock ….


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