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Music as the "6th Proof" for the Existence of God

August 19, 2011

There is an old African American Spiritual that says,

Over my head, I hear music in the air!
There must be a God somewhere.

Yes, God has to exist. How else could we explain music?

Now, please understand, I speak here, not a theologian, but as a poet;  not as a philosopher, but as lover of music. And in the mode of poet and lover,  I want to say that, for me, music is the 6th proof for the existence of God. St. Thomas designated five proofs for the existence of God (motion, efficient cause, contingency, perfection and design). I am not in his league, I am just hitchhiking a ride on his idea in a poetic, not a theological way.

Yes, I know God exists for, among other reasons: I hear music in the air. There must be a God somewhere!

It was through music (and beauty) that God called me (for I joined the Church choir to meet the pretty girls who sang there). And God put a song in my heart and called me through the majesty and exquisite beauty of Church music: The metrical march of the hymn and the joy of playing its counterpoint with my feet at the organ; the sighing of Gregorian chant, almost as if singing in tongues;  the mystical harmony of Renaissance polyphony; the joy and fun of singing Mozart, the dignity of Bach; the soaring majesty of a Viennese Classical Mass, the haunting beauty of the African American Spirituals in their pentatonic scale; the exuberance of Gospel music so centered on the greatness of God. Yes, these have been God’s gift to me whereby he has spoken to the depths of my soul.

There is an old saying:

Bach gave us God’s Word, Mozart gave us God’s laughter, Beethoven gave us God’s fire. God gave us music that we might pray without words. — quote from outside a German opera house

Scripture says the Lord puts music in our hearts and that many, by it will be summoned to faith: The Lord  set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the LORD. (Psalm 40:3-4) I can only say, Amen. This is exactly what happened for me.

And music seems to be a unique gift of God to the human person. Animals do not sing. Oh perhaps some say the birds do “sing” but it sounds more like a Morse code type of communication than true song. Only the human person, by the charism of God’s grace,  has produced the majesty of music, and surely it emerges from the deep mysterious places of our soul. So singing is a special trait of human beings and part of our dignity.

And to some extent only humans grasp it. I have often marveled at how unaffected by a great song my pets have been. I can be tapping my toe, be moved to tears, filled with zeal  by a song and the dogs and cats I have had just lie there bored. Proof again that music is distinctly human and requires an immortal, God breathed soul to grasp it.

Yes, music can stir, it can call forth tears, it makes us swell with healthy pride and exuberance, it can instill joy, provoke our deepest thoughts, and it make us want to dance. Music unites, it also divides, some love what others hate, it can make you mad, it can make you sad, it can make you glad but seldom are we merely neutral as to it’s quality or influence.

The genius and variety of music is astonishingly remarkable: from country to classical, modern to medieval, blues to ballads, solos to symphonies,  jazz to jewsharp, renaissance to rap, and polyphony to parade music.

Music is the soul’s way to exhale, to express itself beyond words. It bespeaks the soul’s longing, its sighing, its joy and its sorrow, words are optional.  Appreciate anew this miracle of human existence, this unique gift to the human person, this flash of beauty and dignity in the soul of every human person.

Of course God exists. One way I know he exists is that he put a song in my heart and gave me ears to hear his glory:

Over my head I hear music in the air!
There must be a God somewhere.

Photo Credit: Screen shot from The Sound of Music

Here’s a little video I put together based on the spiritual: Over My Head

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Comments (25)

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  1. Jj says:

    Thank you.

  2. Nick Childers says:

    Sacred Music is indirectly listed as a book that helps Christians mediate. CCC 2705 says (emphasis is mine) “Meditation is above all a quest. The mind seeks to understand the why and how of the Christian life, in order to adhere and respond to what the Lord is asking. The required attentiveness is difficult to sustain. We are usually helped by books, and Christians do not want for them: the Sacred Scriptures, particularly the Gospels, holy icons, liturgical texts of the day or season, writings of the spiritual fathers, works of spirituality, the great book of creation, and that of history the page on which the “today” of God is written.”

  3. Shane says:

    Consider:

    Music is incapable of existing in a single moment. This is obvious, for at best a single moment can hold the sound of a single note.

    Does, then, music exist in the union of 2 or more moments? No, I would argue. If we consider two moments, then we have two notes (or harmonies), each distinct from the other, but those two moments don’t themselves create the experience of music to a person. At each moment, an individual can be experiencing only that moment, and not any that came before or after it because as human beings, we can actively experience only the present. First I experience an A#, and then a G, but I cannot experience them simultaneously.

    Moreover, the experience of each musical moment is different depending on what precedes it, or even what follows it. If there were an F instead of an A# before that G, the experience of that G would be different to the listener.

    Music, we find, as musicians are aware, exists in the intervals between notes. When we hear music, we don’t hear a series of notes: we hear a series of intervals between notes. Yet intervals don’t really exist as “tangible” entities. They exist somehow in between notes. When one note moves directly to another without any rest in between, somehow there is in between them an interval, and these intervals are what we experience as music. Yet, they are somehow “momentless.” They have no real home in “time” per se; barring musical rests, they are instantaneous.

    Nothing else compares. We experience no other thing in such a way: everything else is experienced in the present. Even words, which can be made up of a series of syllables, don’t compare, for with words we experience each syllable individually and parse them together. We *think* about words, even if we’ve become so accustomed to them that it doesn’t feel as though we do. Music, on the other hand, is just experienced, and that experience is in those intervals.

    It seems to me to be some type of “contact” with the eternal, with that which is timeless.

    • Wow, this is a wonderful reflection, and a great setting forth of the mystery. I think that young music students eventually have to make the transition you describe. At first they see and play individual notes. But eventually, as they begin to be more familiar and develop some sight reading potential, they see beyond the individual notes to the movement implied by the intervals.

  4. Nguyen Thuong Minh says:

    Epistle 233
    My some thoughts about “the homily” of Msgr. Charles Pope are here below:
    Firstly, in the homily, Msgr. Charles Pope said that music as the “6th proof” for the existence of God.
    I quite agreed with Msgr. Charles Pope on the homily.
    Secondly, now permit me to add some matters to relate to the homily hereafter:
    I have several cogent evidences for the existence of God.
    First evidence is that existence of God is in OT. Genesis 1:1 written: In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
    Second evidence is that existence of God is in NT. Gospel of John 1:1 written: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
    Third evidence is that existence of God is in Wikipedia Encyclopedia. It is written: God is the English name given to a singular being in theistic and deistic religions (and other belief systems) who is either the sole deity in monotheism or a single deity in polytheism.
    Fourth evidence is that existence of God is in Collins COBUILD Advanced Learner’s Dictionary 5th Edition, it is written: The name God is given to the spirit or being who is worshipped as the creator and ruler of the world, especially by Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
    Fifth evidence is that existence of God is in Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, it is written: The spirit or being who Christians, Jews, Muslims etc pray to, and who they believe created the universe.
    Sixth evidence is that existence of God is in this homily of Msgr. Charles Pope. Father wrote: Music as the “6th proof” for the existence of God.
    If you don’t believe in authors of Holy Bible (OT and NT), lexicographers, and Catholic Priests (including Msgr. Charles Pope), then nobody believes in you./.

  5. mike says:

    Praise God from whom ALL blessings flow!

  6. Pegofmar1 says:

    I really enjoyed the video and its collage of images. Thanks for taking the time to do it and for ALL you do for God! Peg in Denver

  7. Nathaniel says:

    I agree. I love all sorts of music. I’m moved by the authenticity of good Bluegrass Gospel as much as the works of the great composers. I have to admit though that strings, horns and the organ in a grand setting help me understand the majesty and mystery of God. Guitars have their place but dont give the same experience and certainly not in a formal worship service. The pop Christian music of today does very little for me.

    By the way you handled the issue of birds ‘singing’ very well. One way to explain the difference, though less poetic and more philosophical, is that birds ‘sing’ the song their nature compels them to sing. A certain type of bird sings the same song as those of his type. A morning dove does not sing the song of a crow. Man alone can chose what to sing. Of course some might think of a parrot but he does not choose what to sing but only mocks what he hears. The same is true for any art. Spiders only make the type of web their nature compels. So despite what some people would like to think what man does is very unique.

  8. BHG says:

    Music brings me to God too but in a different way. I ca appreciate it but I cannot create it and really, I do not understand it. My voice is like goose calls on a foggy day. I am totally dyslexic when it comes to reading music. My left and right brains do not speak to each other. If I memorize a tune I can Plink it out but never with fluidity. But one day I was driving down a road in northern New Mexico and a story came on about a mathematician who had found the (very complicated) equation that, wnen variables were properly completed was the equation describing the sounds made by any

    • There is also an interesting relationship between musical harmonies and the Pythagorean theorem. Early polyphonic composers and mathematicians actually worked together in deciphering the ideal sound intervals to use in the early medieval harmonizing and even had slide rule devices, based on the math of theory, to help the singers find the proper pitch.

      More here: http://members.cox.net/mathmistakes/music.htm

  9. Regine says:

    I am a dancer and choreographer, and I have long acknowledged that music is the language of the soul, whose origin is God. Isn’t this the way the psalmist communicates his feelings to God, by saying, ” I will sing and make melody to the Lord” (Ps. 27:6), and praising him with dancing and music in Ps 150? I am with you in saying that music does prove the existence of God because it is through this language that our souls are lifted up, goes beyond, in a limited sense, our finiteness and experience to a certain degree, His existence, His Presence, or Essence. I also feel that it is through music that we profess our gratitude, our desire to love him despite our limitations, and worship him within our very own temple – in our being- where God is ever present to us. How can anyone listen to music and not be transported elsewhere? Thanks for this post, Msgr. Pope.

  10. Ron Jones says:

    Thank you for this reflection. I am the children’s choir director at my parish in Clayton, California (East of S.F.).
    My kids sang this spiritual for a liturgy this summer. It was so infectious, the entire assembly jumped right in and sang the entire song with us. Spirituals and chant have much in common. They are both simple, direct, prayerful, unobtrusive (unless the spiritual is turned into a production), and have great impact on both heart and head.
    The liturgy in which this was used also had the children singing chant and metric hymns, using handbells for the chant Gloria, Orff instruments for the Alleluia, and recorders with Over My Head. Over My head is now one of their favorite songs. As a way to enculturate our liturgical prayer, I wish more American parishes would use spirituals and Appalachian hymns (square note). They speak to our culture, our heritage, and the history of our spiritual development with great depth.
    Also… to BHG, remember the African proverb, “If you can walk, you can dance. If you can talk, you can sing.”
    It’s time to let go of all the voices that have misinformed you.

  11. Donna says:

    In what may be the least appreciated book of the Narnia series, The Magician’s Nephew (which may be the first or the sixth book depending on whether it is determined by chronological or publication order), is Lewis’ reflection on creation, and it is clear he believes that it is in music that the world was created – a most profound thought.

    • Bill says:

      Lewis’s friend Tolkien saw creation this way as well. In The Silmarillion, he depicts Creation as “the Music of the Ainur,” or angels. They sing a grand symphony for God, presaging the whole history of Middle Earth. At its completion, God responds with “Ea! Let these things Be!” While the angels give glory to God through their music, only God has the power to give that music form and being. It’s quite moving, and I can’t do it justice here. Read it, if you haven’t already. 🙂

  12. Kim says:

    Amen, amen, amen. Thanks for this!

  13. tom sperrazzo says:

    I have come to think of music as one of God’s special gifts to humanity…like a tiny glimpse of the awesome beauties that await us in Heaven….a slight parting of the curtains between us and Paradise…completely unexplanable in it satisfying beauty.

  14. Thomas Beyer says:

    There’s something beautiful and true about Tolkien’s mythological creation story–God singing the universe into existence through the voices of the choirs of angels.

    I love that it takes into account the Patristic and Medieval notion that the angels somehow reign over creation, and probably had something to do with it. Much like in Lewis’ Space Trilogy.

    Stop by my blog http://www.popsophia.blogspot.com

  15. Tom Hanson says:

    My own personal experience is that music may not be solely human in its effects: my experience being with a dog, and only one single dog of the dogs I’ve been close to during 60 odd years of mostly human life. Pokey, an English Springer spaniel loved Handel’s Halleluia chorus from Messiah, and would roll over on his back, stretch out his neck and emit a low pitched QUIET whoooo including his vocal chords and howling resonance, during the multiply-strung halleluia sections, but not, for instance, during the “for the Lord God omnipotent” section with its indiviual doubled halleluias. That chorus could be played with different performances involved, different arrangements, including a historically reconstructed performance for organ and and 20 voice choir, with the same appreciation from Pokey. Jazz Christmas album versions of it also appealed to him in the same way.
    But that was the extent of his appreciation of sacred music.
    I have concluded that he was reacting with a canine equivalent of human humming.
    He was not limited to the Halleluia chorus though and appreciated at least one other musical moment in the same way: the sexy low saxophone melody of Bernard Hermann’s score for the film TAXI DRIVER. I have never been able to decide whether he had very high musical standards or very limited musical appreciation.

  16. James A. says:

    Monsignor,
    Great column, as always !

    Some months back I posted this video on Facebook and titled it “The Sixth Proof for the Existence of God” !
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vUx4t4W4eVY

    Music, indeed !

  17. wisp says:

    This music clearly prooves God:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gs9Kr3ORUwI

    Take that, atheists!