Posted by on July 20, 2012

Presented by Marlyn Bumpus at International Gathering, May 5, 2012

Music has often been called the Universal Language.  Human cultures
the world over, from the very start, have used music of one kind or
another as a way of expressing spirituality and mankind’s relationship
to the world around him.  No other medium can evoke and communicate
not only ideas, but emotions; audibly and in a manner that isn’t
necessarily dependent upon a mutually understandable verbal language.
With music, the listener can be lifted from tears to laughter, from
pathos to the sublime, from the most deeply serious to humorous whimsy
– or in the other direction from joy to despair, from laughter to
tears, from whimsy to solemn – and all with just a few tones or
chords.  Music surrounds us and permeates us in ways that we only
barely recognize from virtually the moment we’re born to practically
our last breath.

As children, we first hear lullabies designed to soothe and calm a
child only beginning to understand the spoken word, soft songs sung to
communicate love and safety and companionship with the caregiver.  Not
long thereafter – once language acquisition is well underway – we
begin to hear children’s rhymes set to simple tunes that begin the
process of enculturation and education.  As we grow and mature, the
subject matter of the music we hear deepens and grows more
sophisticated.  Music lyrics deal with themes important to adolescents
and adults, themes like love and attraction and the joy of union and
the despair of the unrequited.

Even within spiritual communities, especially here in the West, there
is often a progression of music that starts with melodies and lyrics
easily understood and reproducible by the very young that teach the
basics of the spiritual path in question.  From there, both the music
and the concepts it is designed to communicate and/or teach grow more

Some spiritual paths even use music as an important element in their
mythology, up to and including portraying the act of Creation itself
as the singing of a song.  Some teach that the most fundamental and
profound sound in the universe is a single syllable pronounced in a
manner most would describe as chanting or singing: in other words, as
music.  In fact, some cultures see Life itself as a song in progress
either literally or metaphorically.

Since music is such an integral part of sentient human life, it stands
to reason that many of the most important elements that comprise
musical terminology have come to be considered important elements of
Life as a whole.  The concepts of harmony, discord, timing, being
in-tune or out-of-tune – all of these things can be seen through the
lens of musicology alone, as principles or states of being in far more
esoteric spheres, or even as behaviors to either be aspired to or
avoided in practice while moving through the situations that comprise
a lifetime.

I have been a musician for almost all of my life; so when I think of
harmony, the first example that pops into my head is naturally the
musical definition.  Strictly speaking, in this case, harmony is
defined as a certain combination or progression of audible vibrational
tones according to the traditional rules of progression and modulation
and within an established traditional musical scale which, when
sounded together or in rapid succession, makes a sound considered
‘pleasing’ or ‘acceptable’ to the ear.

The last thing I intend to do is proceed with a dry discussion of the
rules of progression and modulation within a strictly musical
framework.  I think I can accomplish the same thing by setting forth a
few examples of the functions of harmony in a practical sense.

Within the traditional Western musical scale, the adjustment of only a
single note – in particular, the adjustment of the interval between
the second and third notes in the modern seven-note scale from a whole
tone to a half-tone – can change the emotional content of a
composition from joy or celebration to grief or despair, the same
happening in reverse.  The adjustment of yet another set of notes
within a musical scale – specifically a lowered sixth tone combined
with a raised seventh tone, each by one half-tone, within a minor
scale – can lend a feeling of the exotic to the composition, evoking
peoples and places far removed from us.

This is not even considering the fact that the “scale” most of us
accept as a musical scale – the familiar Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti – is a
specifically Western one.  If one spends any time listening to the
classical music written during the ancient times of places like China,
we would begin hearing musical intervals that our ear would consider
“out of tune”.  Oriental music traditionally utilizes quarter-tones,
where Western music only utilizes half- and whole-tones.

Listen to any symphony or song, and you will hear notes that
technically don’t belong to the chord being played, but which make
sense in a melodic manner.  Often they are used to modulate from one
chord to the next, change the “key” of the piece, or even modulate
from a minor to a major mode.  These notes are called “moving tones.”
They act within the musical context to move from one musical statement
to the next or change the feeling-tones being communicated.

What is more, there are types of music that I think some of us would
rather characterize as more noise than music.  As much as I look to
Tibet as my personal spiritual home, the instrumental music that comes
out of the monasteries of Llasa and Dharamsala is not one that is
easily penetrable to my Western musical sensibilities.  Cymbals large
and small, massive horns blaring at what appear to be random moments,
smaller horns trilling with no discernable melody that I can hear: all
of these comprise my idea of cacophony – a not unpleasant cacophony,
to be assured, but nonetheless, a cacophony.  Definitely not harmony.
Yet, to the Tibetans, it is music – and considering this music has a
history that is thousands of years old, who am I to disagree?

As a more practical example of that, how many of us who have silver in
our hair have listened to what the younger crowd calls “music”
nowadays only to shake our heads and wonder whatever happened to these
people that they find such racket pleasant – “racket” being the most
diplomatic way of referring to their music.  I must admit that, in
English, there are some decidedly undiplomatic sayings floating around
in regards the “c in rap being silent” which is most definitely a
negative value judgment.  I even confess to reciting that one myself
on occasion, being both a fallible human being and a product of my
generation and upbringing.

It doesn’t take much to realize, from the examples I’ve given, then,
that harmony in a musical framework is a changeable phenomenon
dependent entirely upon the perspective of the listener.  There is no
one single mode of music – no one kind of scale, minor or major,
augmented or diminished, Oriental or Occidental – that is preferable
by all people in all situations over all the others.  Each permutation
evokes emotions and communicates likes and dislikes that are entirely
dependent upon the life experiences and dispositions of the listener
and the performer.

There is a very famous cliché that states “Beauty is in the eye of the
beholder.”  When it comes to the world of publishing, the cliché
morphs into “One man’s trash is another’s treasure.”  In this
particular case, then, we could say that what qualifies as harmony in
one man’s ear may be heard as dissonance or even cacophony in

How, then, can we look to Harmony as an ideal outside a musical
framework if there are so many different and apparently contradictory
ways to see or perceive something as harmonious within that framework?
Is Harmony then something like Love – a word that has been tossed
around so many times and in so many different ways that it has lost
all context and meaning?

Not at all.  Remember the very first definition I set forth for
harmony:  a certain combination or progression of audible vibrational
tones within an established traditional musical scale which, when
sounded together or in rapid succession, makes a sound considered
“pleasing” or “acceptable” to the ear.  The most important part of
that definition are the words “when sounded together or in rapid

There is another concept that is often linked to that of harmony,
especially when moving outside of a strictly musical point of
reference: cooperation.  If two people work together toward a common
goal, the task is accomplished more efficiently and effectively and,
optimally, in a more pleasant environment.  This cooperation turns a
work situation into a harmonious event.  And, once again, what is
considered “pleasant” can certainly change from person to person, as
“pleasant” is just as much a value judgment as “harmony” is.  But the
key is that there is an element of cooperation between the individuals

Therefore, Harmony can indeed be held forth as an ideal to aspire to
when it comes to personal and societal relationships, and even
literature has been created to put forth such a template.  Most of us
are familiar with “Utopia” – or “Shangri-La”.  A more modern take on
such a template was put forth as the underlying culture of the TV
series Star Trek, where such divisive ideas such as money have been
done away with, where each person – to a greater or lesser extent –
follows his or her own destiny and works in complete cooperation with
society and as a benefit the whole.  “Infinite Diversity in Infinite
Combination”, when accomplished in a properly harmonious manner,
becomes “Diversity equals Strength.”

Lovely ideas, I agree – to the point that “utopian” is now a synonym
for “perfect” – but just how practical are they?

I honestly believe that Harmony is not only a musical definition and a
societal ideal, but a spiritual practice.  And like all spiritual
practice, it tends to sound so simple and lovely when one talks about
it, but the application and practice is far from easy.

Living life harmoniously means to live in cooperation with everything
and everyone that surrounds us. See?  There’s cooperation coming into
play again.  It means looking at the mechanics of life and seeing
where one can accomplish tasks and dreams in a manner that make life
“better” for as many as possible, including oneself – up to and
including forgetting one’s own needs for a while in order to focus on
the needs of others.  The Dalai Lama has a phrase for such a way of
thinking: Enlightened Self-Interest, which I believe is the wisest
English translation for the Buddhist concept “bodhiccita”.

Life isn’t always sunny; sad things happen, things happen that make us
angry, uncomfortable, discontent or frustrated.  The practice of
Harmony, then, is also working with the circumstances of our lives as
they unfold so as not to cause the music of our thoughts, words and
deeds to become chaotic or dissonant, a cacophony that would be
perceived as “unpleasant” by those around us.  The practice of Harmony
involves accepting what is and working with it, even while aspiring to
make it better.  Harmony is neither clinging too tightly, nor holding
something so loosely that it easily falls away from us.  Bringing the
example back to musical terms as metaphor – it means keeping the
string on a guitar or violin neither so tight that it snaps at a mere
touch or so loose that it makes no sound at all.

Practicing Harmony is the practice of peace of mind.  What’s more, one
person practicing Harmony and realizing the benefits of it becomes a
model for the next person without any need for preaching or
proselytization, and then that person becomes an example for the next,
and then the next – and soon a spirit of cooperation and harmony has
arisen in an interconnecting web of intent that is of benefit to all.

Halcyon as a practical community and as a spiritual community
functions best when there is Harmony present in all our dealings,
whether they be with each other as neighbors with habits and
tendencies that others may not know or appreciate, or as individual
spiritual entities with perspectives and beliefs that may or may not
be shared with everyone.  With Harmony, there is no expectation that
all be exactly the same.  Again, going back to music for a moment, a
chord is a combination or succession of completely different, indeed
unique, tones that together – cooperatively – make for a pleasing
sound; so why should a community practicing Harmony be comprised of
people who do not similarly evoke completely unique feeling-tones,
only using those tones cooperatively together?

Boiled down to its most basic terms, Spiritual Harmony is two or more
people setting aside the importance of those things that would cause
dissonance and cacophony between them and reaching for or even
creating anew those things that make us all mutually feel comfortable
in our place in the Universe.  Whether in joy or sadness, we can each
work to define Harmony for ourselves, and then make it into a tool by
which we make life better, for ourselves and for those around us, and
ultimately for the world as a whole.  A smile, kindness, acceptance,
forgiveness, compassion, cooperation – all of these are the individual
notes that together or in progression comprise the essential and
imminently practical definition of Spiritual Harmony, with each of us
who practices it an individual note in the greater harmonious chorus
of humanity.  But the internal harmony has to come first.

After all, we cannot hope to dispel the chaos and cacophony that is
the squabbling of nations or serve as beacons to bring the forth a
spirit of peace among all men and nations if we cannot find a ways to
find and practice Harmony within ourselves.