A professor of mine, Dr. Guy Beck, addresses the topic of sacred vs. profane in the context of religion. If you’ve never really thought about it, you should. I’ll probably talk about it again. The distinction is crucial when talking about ethnomusicology. There’s never really a gray area.
It’s crucial because music, whether sacred or profane, gives [part of our] identity to culture. Aside from it, people can share similar or identical religious beliefs while at the same time associating with different cultures and performing music. So we should give some definition to each one:
Sacred means timeless, ineffable, vertical, spiritual, perhaps extraordinary. It harbors depth. It is hard for Western minds (not that I’m Eastern) to grasp the idea of sacred without immediately thinking of the Christian God. It is important to note that the concept of sacred I mean here is not limited to the Christian God, nor any other. It’s definition stays attached to the listed words above.
On the other hand, the concept of profanity has, in contemporary culture, earned a negative stigma. Yet, the term is temporal, prosaic, ordinary, pedestrian, horizontal. Examples of profanity in our context here could include such mundane things such as doing laundry or paying bills.
The term comes from ‘profanis’, which translates to “outside the gates of the tabernacle”. This references the tabernacle (a place of worship as directed by God in Numbers & Leviticus) containing the Ark of the Covenant. However, no musical instruments or singing were connected with the tabernacle services. Outside of the buildings, the Levites held the position of playing the shofar (ram’s horn) for ceremonious sacrifices).Therefore, profane simply means the opposite of sacred.
It’s important to distinguish between the two when speaking of music in a cultural context. Music is just that – either sacred or profane. Either it is written for the purpose of sanctity or is simply ordinary. Bach certainly knew the difference. This, culturally speaking, is the first distinction we’ll make of cultures and their ‘musicking‘ (a term coined by MENC member and music educator Christopher Small that I use ALL the time so get used to it!)
Classical musicians can relate to these two ideas by thinking of absolute vs. program music, whereas absolute music refers to music that is not explicitly about anything per se, and program music is a form of art music intended to provoke ‘extra-musical’ ideas – religious ones perhaps, or a story being told (think Opera). These terms however, are generally strictly applied to European classical music. Hopefully the correlation makes sacred vs. profane a bit more accessable.
Now some examples:
Bach’s Organ Works (Lutheran)
Can you think of any music that is ‘ordinary’?
There are those that would argue that rock and roll is sacred, along with the hip-hop genre and even street music. American pop music for sure (no, not all of it), Sousa marches, aleatoric music…etc etc etc
(For more reading on sacred vs. profane, pick up a copy of “the Sacred and the Profane” by Mercia Eliade [1907-1986], a Romanian scholar.