Searching for Transcendence: Research into Music and Religion

by YPU Admin on September 29, 2016. Tags: Humanities, music, Religion, Research, and UoM


My name is Hannah Burton and I’m currently studying for a PhD in theology and music. As an undergraduate I studied Music at the University of Liverpool, and then moved back to Manchester where I completed a Masters in Religions and Theology. I enjoy the diversity of this subject – especially in a city such as Manchester where a people from a wide variety of religious backgrounds live, work, and have an impact upon the city’s culture. I’m particularly interested in the ways in which people feel they experience religion, or God, in their lives, and my research tries to understand how music can enable this experience for individuals.

In Depth

Music plays a prominent and important role in many religions as part of prayer and worship, and so it seems reasonable to explore how it might create an experience of and a direct connection with something transcendent, or God. To do this, it is useful to have a case study of attitudes toward both religion and music, and examine the similarities and differences therein. Therefore, my research analyses the writings of several early nineteenth-century scholars from the fields of theology, philosophy, and music criticism. Most prominent are FDE Schleiermacher and ETA Hoffmann.

Schleiermacher was a theologian writing at the turn of the nineteenth century. His ideas about religion were radically new at that time – he encouraged his readers to concentrate less on religion’s rituals and doctrine (the in-depth beliefs and ‘rules’ of religion) and to focus instead on having a religious intuition and feeling. He rejected the idea that having a great knowledge of religion was key, and argued, on the other hand, that the essence of religion is being able to perceive, recognise, and feel and presence of the transcendent (or God) in the world around us. However, because the transcendent is not of our world, we can never fully reach or understand it. Nevertheless, Schleiermacher maintains that we must continue to strive to intuit and feel transcendence by engaging closely with everyday objects and experience in our lives.

ETA Hoffmann was a theatre director, composer, and music critic writing at around the same time as Schleiermacher. Some of his best-known writing about music includes interesting ideas about how music reveals an ‘unknown realm’ of ‘spirits’ that is outside of our world. Though music creates a glimpse of this realm, Hoffmann claims that it does not reveal it completely, and so music’s listeners often feel a sense of ‘yearning’ for what Hoffmann notably calls ‘transcendence.’

So there are certainly parallels between these two theories of religion and music! I hope to be able to show, through my research and by looking at some musical examples, that there are particular features in music that enable us to experience, intuit, feel, and yearn from, transcendence. I also hope that this case study might shed some light on how music might continue to evoke an experience of God and transcendence today, particularly across different genres and contexts.

Going Further

Some faith communities and organisations blog about their perspective on the place of music within religion and theology, such as these examples:

To find out more about how music affects us, have a look at this blog post written by a neuroscientist:

If you want to know more about studying Religions and Theology at the University of Manchester, have a look at our department’s webpage:

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