More than 25 years ago I was praying at the Mansion of Mazra’ih, asking God for guidance on what to do next as I was leaving the Baha’i World Centre after two and a half years of service. While I was thinking of pioneering or travel-teaching, instead, I was startled to hear the word “music” pop into my head. That was so out of left field that it felt like a very clear answer to my prayer. Since then, I have been devoting more and more of my time and studies to music. Over time, I’ve been asking myself about the importance of music in the Baha’i Faith. Here is a small snippet of what I’ve learned so far.
Abdu’l-Baha writes that Baha’u’llah has “specifically proclaimed that music, sung or played, is spiritual food for soul and heart.”1
If music is analogous to food, we can easily make comparisons: in what circumstances do we partake of food? Hopefully, we are blessed enough to eat three times a day to nourish our bodies. If we don’t, we become weak and frail, and eventually, our bodies begin to wither away. Another important aspect of taking food is that we usually love to eat together as there is something special about meeting around a table to eat and share each other’s company.
In the quote above, Abdu’l-Baha says that music provides spiritual nourishment for both heart and soul. While we are already aware of many ways to nourish our soul such as praying, fasting and meditating, Abdu’l-Baha tells us that singing or playing music will nourish our hearts as well.
Interestingly, scientific research has proven that actively engaging in music–versus just listening to music–impacts the brain in a positive way. Scientists have found that training in music enhances our memory, increases the levels of dopamine and adrenaline (feelings of joy), improves our motivation, enhances our brain’s ability to focus and even helps improve our motor skills. Further, making music in groups enhances feelings of connection, improves our feelings of competence and confidence, and also helps us become more caring human beings.
In other words, what I get from combining religion and science is that it’s beneficial to 1) partake of music several times a day, 2) to engage in music with others whenever possible, and 3) to participate in making music.
I also love this quotation about music by Baha’u’llah in the Kitab-i-Aqdas:
We, verily, have made music as a ladder for your souls, a means whereby they may be lifted up unto the realm on high.2
This might be self-explanatory, yet it took on a personal meaning for me during the first Australian Baha’i Choral Festival where almost 80 singers from around Australia, New Zealand and abroad came together to sing the Word of God for four days. The Choral Festival is therefore more like a 4-day musical devotional where singers are nourishing their souls and their hearts from morning to evening. At the end of the Festival, I could witness the ladder analogy: the faces of the singers were just glowing with joy and happiness. It was as if, day by day, after spending hours and hours singing sacred songs, everyone’s soul had been climbing the spiritual ladder one rung at a time. By the time we sang in the Temple on the fourth day, it felt like we were all on a spiritual cloud, singing out to touch the hearts and souls of everyone in the audience.
Not every Baha’i has studied music, and not everyone has studied singing, but I think that in the future, we will be much more musical. Abdu’l-Baha has counselled us:
It is incumbent upon each child to know something of music, for without knowledge of this art the melodies of instrument and voice cannot be rightly enjoyed.3
Incumbent means obligatory, mandatory, binding, compulsory, unavoidable, inescapable. In other words, I think we really have to provide a musical education to our children.
Because learning music is incumbent for all children, I suggest approaching it the same way we teach a child how to read and count: we are very confident they will read and count one day and we wouldn’t entertain the idea that learning how to read is optional or unimportant. Music, reading and mathematics could therefore all be at the same level of importance in everyone’s education. And while we learn many subjects at school–and some will come easier to us than others–I think it is important to make an effort to do our very best in all subjects. Abdu’l-Baha tells each one of us: “you should put forward your most earnest efforts toward the acquisition of science and arts.”4
Furthermore, we wouldn’t stop our children from learning how to read because we think they might not win the next Nobel Prize in literature. The level reached is irrelevant. We teach children how to read and count, irrespective of future achievements. We can also teach children music, without attaching high expectations for each one of them. In other words, possessing a lot of musical talent is a not necessary in order to reap the many benefits of a musical education (see my article on talent here).
I believe this is why music is integral to the current children’s class materials created by the Ruhi Institute, which doesn’t emphasize musical achievement but the participation of everyone—including the teachers—to sing together.
I’d like to further encourage parents and educators of children to include music in as many situations as possible and as early as possible. Then, the transition into singing in children’s classes, family and community life will be very smooth. It naturally ensues that if all children learn an instrument, all adults will be musical. Yet it can be challenging to help their children learn to play an instrument, particularly if the parents aren’t musical themselves. Luckily, the field of music is vast: children can choose to take singing lessons, learn to play the piano, guitar or violin. Those are the obvious choices, but there are literally thousands of instruments. A quick search on the internet will give anybody a better idea of the wide range of options. In fact, if parents expose their children to a variety of instruments, children will naturally be drawn to one over the others. And playing instruments doesn’t have to be a solitary endeavour: musicians also love to play in bands, orchestras, or sing in a choir.
I hope this article encourages you to help the children in your life receive some form of musical training and that it motivates adults to take on learning an instrument as well. It’s never too late to start!