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Music in Heaven
The Honest Broker rushes in where others fear to tread
As a music writer, I thought I’d covered all the angles. But then I was asked about music in heaven.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, I recently wrote about “Music in Hell”—so perhaps I am an expert on these kinds of things. On the other hand, my familiarity with the “Devil’s music” might make me the last person to talk about songs in the Good Place.
In any event, my musings on this mysterious matter can be found below. This article will also appear as part of the catalog for the art exhibition Here After, which opened a few weeks ago at Bridge Projects in Los Angeles.
Later today, I will be participating in a panel discussion devoted to this same subject.
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MUSIC IN HEAVEN
By Ted Gioia
What is music like in heaven?
If someone had asked me when I was a teenager, I’d have known exactly how to answer. Heaven would grant me immediate access to every song—any time and anywhere.
But my iPhone now does that for a streaming subscription price of just $9.99 per month. So clearly I need to aim higher. But what songs could I possibly find behind those pearly gates that surpass all the sweet and soulful music available on planet Earth?
Throughout history, people have asked this same question. Instead of immediate access to terrestrial music—my beguiling teenage dream—they have typically speculated on a superior kind of celestial song, better than anything on the radio or a streaming playlist. They disagree on the particulars, but they concur on one matter: music in the afterlife will be something special.
The ancient Greeks even told the story of Orpheus, whose song in the Underworld was so persuasive it convinced Hades to let him bring his dead wife Eurydice back to life. Orpheus was always depicted playing the lyre, and even today we associate string instruments—especially harps—with music in the world to come. A lost work attributed to Orpheus, entitled the Lyra, even went so far as to claim that “souls cannot ascend without a lyre.”
But not everybody agrees on harps or lyres as the soundtrack of the world to come. If we judge by funerary inscriptions, those same ancient Greeks who admired Orpheus believed that choral dancing was the preferred entertainment in the afterlife. We encounter something similar in Zoroastrian texts, where blessed souls are guided across Chinvat Bridge to the House of Song—a term which some have taken as a metaphor for heaven itself.
What’s that I hear? Are you laughing at me? Do you think that debates over the musical instruments of heaven are some kind of joke? . . . You can tell a lot about any society merely by considering its vision of how music is played in the hereafter.
In these belief systems, singers hold the upper hand. And, despite all those familiar images of harp-playing angels in heaven, even the Judeo-Christian tradition has typically given precedence to vocal music or chanting. The example of the Psalms of David is often cited as a sign that singing is especially pleasing to God. And it’s true that the Psalms are sung prayers. Yet even David makes frequent mention of musical instruments.
In just four verses of Psalm 150, we encounter a biblical endorsement of eight different categories of instruments. Here’s the King James version:
“Praise him with the sound of the trumpet: praise him with the psaltery and harp.
Praise him with the timbrel and dance: praise him with stringed instruments and organs.
Praise him upon the loud cymbals: praise him upon the high sounding cymbals.
Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord. Praise ye the Lord.”
That’s a whole orchestra, not just a singer or a harp. And the rest of the Bible is filled with similar references. Consider the fact that music is mentioned in 1,150 different Bible verses. So there are probably almost as many genres in the Good Book as on your Spotify playlists.
How did the harp get top billing in all this abundance of song and dance? Many would point to the Book of Revelation (14:2), where John describes the sounds heard by the blessed:
“And I heard a voice from heaven, as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of a great thunder: and I heard the voice of harpers harping with their harps.”
But let’s not give too much credit to John the Revelator. The Egyptians were painting images of harpers on tomb walls more than two thousand years before the time of Christ. We even have surviving texts of so-called Harper’s Songs. They aren’t very inspiring, however. In fact, Egyptologists tend to view them as rational and secularist, with very little spiritual content. You might even describe their vision of the afterlife as cynical.
“Follow your heart and your happiness,
Do your things on earth as your heart commands!
. . . Wailing saves no man from the pit!
Make holiday, Do not weary of it!
Lo, none is allowed to take his goods with him,
Lo, none who departs comes back again!”
These distinctly secular texts, illustrated with images of blind harpers, tell us to enjoy music now, and not wait for better songs after we die.
Let me be cynical in turn, and suggest that the harpers were simply trying to drum up demand for their services in the here-and-now. Or perhaps they were aware of the dangerous tradition of killing musicians after a great leader died, and burying them alongside the deceased ruler. That might make any musician think twice about the advantages of heavenly music.
For example, the tomb of Queen Puabi in Ur, dating back more than forty-five hundred years, included the skeleton of a harpist, buried in a seated posture, apparently ready to take song requests in the next life. If I faced that kind of risk as a harpist, I’d also turn into a passionate advocate of live music, in every sense of the term.
There’s another tradition of heavenly music, less familiar than harp songs, that I’d like to celebrate. In this alternative view, the songs of the afterlife are played by percussionists. I find this scenario quite pleasing, especially because medical science and ritualistic traditions both tell us that the rhythmic element in music possesses a genuine power to create transcendent and ecstatic experiences.
So I wouldn’t be surprised to find a drum circle in heaven, or perhaps some other percussion-driven ensemble. And many of the leading visual artists in the Western tradition have clearly had the same notion. Angels playing tambourines, perhaps the most ancient type of frame drum, can be seen in paintings by Signorelli, Titian, Fra Angelico, and others. And according to Ezekiel 28:13, the tambourine was even played in the Garden of Eden.
What’s that I hear? Are you laughing at me? Do you think that debates over the musical instruments of heaven are some kind of joke? In truth, these distinctions are more revealing than you probably realize.
Two different visions of music have battled with each other since the beginning of human culture. Some societies focus on rhythm and drumming. That’s because they want to nurture the power of ecstasy and trance. Other societies celebrate the well-tuned music of string instruments, which reach for a kind of Pythagorean perfection. The latter communities have different social priorities, seeking harmony and order in all spheres of public and private life.
This is hardly a speculative or metaphysical matter. Sure there’s plenty of theology at stake here, but the more immediate fact is that you can tell a lot about any society merely by considering its vision of how music is played in the hereafter.
So take your pick. You can embrace songs of intense, mind-altering drums beating out the beat and putting you into a kind of hypnotic state, or the serene tones of harps and lyres lulling you into a peaceful, orderly reverie. Either of those might be on our playlist in the next life.
But we hardly need to wait. We can make those same choices in the music we consume right now.