Music Music and Mysticism
Enrico Fubini, Laurence Wuidar
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 May 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 May 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0309


The word “mystic” has a common meaning in philosophical traditions like neo-Platonism and religions (Hindu, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim)—namely the elevation of a human being to reach the One/God and have an intimate, immediate experience of God. In this experience of God, music plays various roles. On the one hand, for Hindus, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, music can be the language of God. From that starting point, the question of spiritual (inner) and material (physical) hearing is opened: What can we say about the hearing of celestial songs (sung by God Himself or, more commonly by angels or, in Christianity, by the choir of saints)? This question about the inner spiritual hearing and about the external physical hearing of celestial music brings an other question: What may be the content, the grammar and the semantic of God’s song? Finally, one can ask: Why and in which circumstances do God and the angels address a message to the individual through music? Looking to mystic literature, one can find various responses to these questions. This literature deals with spiritual and physical hearing, with the semantic dimension of God’s music, and with the purpose of God’s musical language within mystical experience. In the mirror of such an ensemble of questions, the question of music as the language spoken by the mystic has to be considered. If God makes music to speak to the mystic during musical vision for example, the mystic often answers to God through music. What is the specificity of music as the language of the mystic? This is a complementary question to be asked to mystical literature. On the other hand, both philosophical traditions and religions deal with the causal effect of music on the mind and body of the listener Thanks to music, may the listener reach divine union with God? Can music generate mystical ecstasy? And what kind of music can do it (angelic choir or human songs, instrumental or vocal concert, sacred or profane music)? All these questions interrogate the effects of music in mystical experience. The theological question ahead is: Can a material element (music is made by sounds) have an impact on a spiritual experience? So when we look at music and mysticism in philosophical traditions as well as in the monotheistic religions, the question is not only about spiritual and sonorous music and about celestial (whether divine or angelic) and human making of music but also listening to music—to make music to generate ecstasy, and to listen to music, whether celestial or terrestrial, as part of mystical experience, to respond to God. “Mystic” has a different meaning when we look at it from an ethnological point of view, and may include all kinds of inner experiences. This opens up an enormous field of study without a consistent theoretical frame. The following bibliography focuses on a narrow, technical definition of “mystic” as the experience of God. It thus excludes scholarship on music and natural magic, music and black magic, music and demoniac possession, music and the occult. Music and mysticism studies are particularly reliant on European and North American academic cultures; the bibliography reflects this reliance. The relevance of mysticism for music scholarship emerges in relation to musical meaning or context, whether historical, theological, or analytic. Both “music” and “mysticism” mark the bodies and the spirit, and both interrogate experiences of individuals in a precise religious context in ways that provide unequal access to cultural, physical, and psychic resources, including but not limited to semiology and philosophy of language, theology and spirituality, and, of course, history of music. The rich descriptive and analytic dimensions of scholarship into music and mysticism have proved illuminating for questions such as: What kind of music is in mystic literature? What effects of music are in mystical context and experience? How and what does celestial music signify? What is represented and what is said through musical vision? How does musical performance respond to the experience of God? Such questions assume that music is a practice but also a purely spiritual language. Each assumes a benefit from working to understand how music functions within mystical experience.

Reference Works

Most encyclopedias on Christianity (more specifically Christian mysticism) and Islam contain an entry on music. During 1995 refers to Sufi and music in the general encyclopedia of Islam. For Christianity, consult the specific dictionaries and encyclopedias about mysticism. The reader will find elements about music in entries on individual mystics for whom music was central. This is the case, for example, for Richard Rolle: Ward 2016 offers a brief look at music in his mystical experience. The reader will also find an entry on earthly music and celestial music, as, for example, in Della Croce 1998 or Di Muro 2016. Depending on the editor, various entries on “Music” or “Celestial Music” in dictionaries of mysticism or spirituality are eulogistic in tone and are thus lacking in scientific critical distance.

  • Della Croce, G. ”Musica” In Dizionario di mistica. Edited by Maria Rosaria Del Genio, Luigi Borriello, and Edmondo Caruana, 901. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1998.

    Music in Christian mysticism, starting from the music of the angelic choir.

  • Di Muro, R. “Musica celeste.” In Nuovo dizionario di mistica. Edited by Luigi Borriello, Edmond Caruana, Maria Rosa del Genio, and Raffaele di Muro, 1588–1589. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2016.

    Gives a definition of celestial music and distinguishes between the “real” hearing of celestial music in mystical experience and the pathological hearing of sounds in alienated persons. Examples are given ranging from Francis of Assisi to Padre Pio.

  • During, Jean. “Sama” In Encyclopédie de l’Islam: Nouvelle édition. Edited by C. E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W. P. Heinrichs, and G. Lecompte, 1052–1054. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1995.

    “Sama” is the internal concert that may lead to the experience of God in Sufi tradition, During offers a overview of the meanings of the term and its importance in Muslim mysticism.

  • Ward, A. “Richard Rolle.” In Nuovo dizionario di mistica. Edited by Luigi Borriello, Edmond Caruana, Maria Rosa del Genio, and Raffaele di Muro, 1882–1886. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2016.

    On the importance of “Canor” (and “Calor”) for the narration of the mystical experience in Rolle’s writing.

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