This article was originally the introduction and Part 1 of a six-part workshop, “A More Profound Alleluia,” about appreciating spirituality through sacred music. When possible I will add audio of music examples to this page. The remaining chapters will be posted soon.

God Speaks in Many Voices

appreciating the spirituality of polyphony

by Martha Ainsworth


Open Ears, Open Heart

Polyphony, by its nature, gives sacred expression to relationship.

A few years ago I visited the island of Iona, the mystical home of Saint Columba. As a highlight of my pilgrimage, I hiked to the top of a mountain to Columba’s prayer cell, and sat down to commune with God. In this small stone circle under the open sky, Columba saw visions, and I’d come halfway across the world hoping for the same. I announced, “Okay, God, speak to me now.” Well, you guessed it... I sat there for four hours and God didn’t say one word as far as I could hear. Of course, the concept that I could dictate the time, place and method in which God speaks to me is laughable.

Where do we hear the voice of God? Many people find a connection to God through music. But they sometimes disagree about the best kind of music on which to receive God’s broadcasts. What kind of music is spiritually most appropriate?

We benefit when we allow God to speak to us in many ways, not just a few. I know little about the visual arts. Some artworks I know I enjoy; for instance, I like Monet. But I would never presume to say that only Monet’s paintings should be used in church, or that they are the only visual means God can use to speak to me. I know for a fact that God can make himself heard even when I’m not expecting it.

One of the more moving spiritual experiences I’ve had came totally out of the blue, and was, in fact, not even Christian, but involved Sufi dervish dancers in Afghanistan. I had another such experience on a concert stage during a choral performance. The service for the investiture of our Presiding Bishop encompassed a wide variety of musical cultures: traditional Anglican, gospel, Native American, electronic, South African, jazz, and others. I found I got at least some benefit from each offering and I felt richer for the experience. Other musical cultures often have much to teach us. Isn’t it better to let God speak to you in many ways, rather than insisting he speak with one voice only?

Familiarity is a key to forming our opinions. We like what we know; we tend to fear and mistrust what we don’t know. Sometimes we characterize our mistrust of the unfamiliar by saying that we don’t “like” something. Great debates ensue about which music is “better,” but in many cases a person likes a certain type of music because that’s what they know; other music may seem strange to them, and it is the unfamiliarity they don’t like.

With deepening quiet may come an inner awakening to the presence of God within, and the tuning of your spirit’s ear to hear God's many voices.

A person who mainly likes pop music, therefore, may be unable to relate to the classics. They may say, “I don’t like this” or “the old music doesn’t speak to me.” A person in love with the classics on the other hand may find it difficult to relate to contemporary music, instantly labeling everything in a certain genre as “trash.” If you have particular favorites, that’s wonderful. But to say that God can’t speak through any kind of music but the music you know and love is just as ludicrous as my demanding that he speak to me precisely when and where I dictated. If you restrict yourself only to what you already know and like, you are trying to limit God, just as I did on Iona. God has a habit of ignoring limits we try to set for him.

I encourage people to be as open as possible to different musical cultures, and not to condemn unfamiliar music immediately. Musical cultures develop because the music resonates with someone. If you are open to learning more about it, it might come to resonate with you too.

What is the function of sacred music?

Before we begin our exploration, I will ask you to consider the question: What is the function of sacred music? If you believe that sacred music is a vehicle to enhance the spoken word, you may hold that it is a form of preaching. Others say that “music expresses the inexpressible,” and consider it a way to express ourselves; for others, it is a way to express God, through the “beauty of holiness.” Sacred music functions on many levels of awareness: the intellectual, the emotional, and in ways for which there are no words, to parts of our soul beyond the reach of our conscious mind.

Sacred music, furthermore, sounds different from popular music, and even from classical concert music, because it has an entirely different function. It’s not primarily intended as entertainment; sacred music is a form of prayer, and just as the language of prayer is different from the language of entertainment, polyphony is different from pop music, or even concert music. In every religion, it is known that sacred music opens a door, enabling us to touch the central depth of our humanness, and to know the presence of the Holy.


The Sacred Expression of Relationship

Polyphony is an archetype of our common life in Christ.

Let’s consider a specific style of choral music known as polyphony. The word polyphony means “many voices,” and this interweaving of many voices, equal, independent and yet in relationship, is its most notable characteristic. Polyphony was composed for the church in the 14th to 17th centuries, a time of great change in the church and therefore a time of great creativity in sacred arts.

Appreciating polyphony requires that we suspend our 21st century preconceptions about church music. In the time from which polyphony arises, there were no amateur church choirs as we know them today; ordinary people in the pew did not sing; and church music was not “performed” for the benefit of an audience. Sacred music was typically sung by a community of clergy and lay professionals, whose primary duty was to carry on daily worship. The choir was a worshiping community whose reason for being was prayer, and the collegial style of polyphony reflects the participation of all its members. Polyphony gave shape to the prayer of this community.

The collegial nature of polyphony requires us to “clean” our 21st century ears when we listen. Most people have been conditioned to hear music as having one distinct melody in the foreground, as other voices accompany in the background. But in polyphony, all voices are equal; no one voice is more important than any other. There are no soloists.

Polyphony is in this sense an archetype of our common life in Christ. The liturgical renewal of the past 30 years has sought to rediscover a more collegial approach to worship, with renewed emphasis on the priesthood of all believers, the ministry of all the baptized. We are shaking off the influence of the last four centuries in which worship often became a “show” put on by one clergyman for the benefit of a passive audience... not unlike a solo melody with accompaniment. We now understand worship as an action in which all members of the community have roles, different but equal in importance. In the same way, polyphony does not highlight one leader; all voices are equal.

Polyphony is about relationships. So is Christianity. Relationships are such an essential feature of Christianity that we believe God himself is a relationship, as expressed in the Trinity. Polyphony, by its nature, gives sacred expression to relationship.

These characteristics are most immediately apparent to musicians who sing polyphony, but with a bit of practice, you can participate actively by listening with open ears and an open soul. To “pray” polyphony, “tune in” to the different vocal melodies and notice how they interweave. Two voices might pair off briefly in an intimate musical dance. Or one voice might make a musical statement, which the other voices then pass around as if in agreement. And from time to time, all the voices will unite as one.

Even if it were wordless, this musical expression would have deep meaning. But because polyphony reached its peak during the Protestant Reformation, much of it highlights the Word as well. When you listen to polyphony, keep your ears open for “word painting”: when a composer illustrates a word musically. On the word “ascend” for instance, the voices might sing a rising tune. A special feature of late English polyphony is the “cross relation,” a striking dissonance you might hear on a word such as “pain” or “death.” You may find that certain words or phrases, thus highlighted by the music, speak to you with a certain unusual clarity.

God can speak to us through our conscious awareness of these analytical details. But as you listen attentively to the music, also simply let the beauty of the sound wash over you, whether it is intimately sensual or, in another moment, serene, or buoyant. Opening your ears and your soul in this way, you may find that suddenly you have a sense that a cosmic highlighter pen seems to have illuminated a certain moment for you. My musically enhanced prayers have been thus focused in many polyphonic works: passages of intimate beauty from Byrd’s “Ave verum” or “Civitas sanctis”... the phrase “thy Name shall be there” from Tallis’ “Hear the voice and prayer”... or any number of moments from Victoria’s motets for Holy Week, just to name a few. In these moments it was, for me, as though God reached down and touched my heart.

When you have grown accustomed to hearing and actively listening to polyphony, it won’t be long before you will notice and delight in the personalities of different composers: the exuberance of Philips; the serene purity of Palestrina; the elegant genius of Byrd; the sensuality of Victoria; the raw emotion of Weelkes; the graceful warmth of Tallis... all these will provide a space wherein you can encounter God through music.

As you listen and pray, continually offer to God not only an intellectual corner of your mind, but the wholeness of your being: your mind, and your spirit, and your heart. Open yourself to God, and with deepening quiet may come an inner awakening to the presence of God within, and the tuning of your spirit’s ear to hear his many voices.

This article was originally the introduction and Part 1 of a six-part workshop, “A More Profound Alleluia,” about appreciating spirituality through sacred music. When possible I will add audio of music examples to this page. The remaining chapters will be posted soon.

© 2000 Martha Ainsworth. All rights reserved.

More on Music and Contemplative Spirituality:
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  • What is contemplative spirituality?
  • Contemplative spirituality: a guide (articles, books, websites)
  • What is your spiritual type?