Pagan music: background and sources

Doing : white spiral on deep purple circle

One question that comes up as soon as you start talking about music for ritual use is the question of “What is Pagan music, anyway?” This article describes my approach to it, and what it means for what music I use in ritual.

What is Pagan music?

One of the first questions when talking about Pagan music is wondering what Pagan music is.

The music part is, I hope, mostly self-explanatory. (Or at least, the scope of ‘what is music’ is beyond this website. Though if you really want a discussion of 20th century music theory and how it pushes the bounds of that definition, well, I was a music major in college, and I’m up for that.)

So what about the Pagan part? This might get a little easier if we look at a bunch of possible types of music.

By us, for our own rituals

There is music made by people who identify as Pagan (or some group comfortably within the larger Pagan umbrella/grouping of communities) who have created music for use in ritual and spiritual work within and for their community.

(This is parallel to Christian musicians writing pieces intended to be played at services, whether that’s Johann Sebastian Bach or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Or, for that matter, Hildegard von Bingen or Francesca Caccini.)

By us, for us, but not written for ritual

There is obviously also a whole genre of people who identify as Pagan, but who are not writing music specifically intended for ritual. These may include songs, longer pieces, things that don’t necessarily fit well into a ritual, but make great music.

S.J. Tucker, Damh the Bard, and many others on the list over on my examples page fit into this category.

Speaking to Pagan themes

There are musicians whose religious identification isn’t known (or isn’t Pagan) but who write music that speaks to things Pagans find spiritually moving.

Enya and Loreena McKennitt, are very commonly mentioned examples in this particular category, but a lot of British Isles trad folk and folk rock (and folk and folk rock from other places!) falls in this category, as do a numb

er of singer-songwriters. Many people will include music from movie soundtracks, video games, musicals, and rock songs in their own personal lists of ’that speaks to me’.

I sometimes refer to these as ‘Pagan-friendly’ in that they may or may not be specific to Paganism, but they won’t jar you in ritual or meditation playlists either.

Neutral

There’s a lot of music that isn’t explicitly about Pagan themes, but may still speak to us ritually, or emotionally, or be relevant to projects we’re working on magically and ritually, but that comes from artists who weren’t writing explicitly religious music, or whose own background or intentions may not be known.

Music on my personal lists includes some musicals (Hamilton, Les Miserables), Queen, a lot of folk music, a chunk of Seanan McGuire’s songs that aren’t explicitly about myth and story, and a non-trivial amount of filk.

Not Pagan at all

This is music that is explicitly something other than Pagan (for example, music from other religious or spiritual traditions.)

There’s certainly a bit of a gray area here, but it’s probably easy to agree that some ritual texts are decidedly not Pagan, and that the people who wrote it (as we know from their own statements) had no intent of the music or text being used in other ways. Sometimes this is music from other religious communities, such as music written for Christian or Jewish services. Sometimes it’s music that is specific to a particular group people, such as music from indigenous communities.

On a philosophical level, I don’t think the creator’s intent is absolute, but I do think that the deliberate choice to use something in ritual is a particular use case that needs a lot more thought and attention than simply reading or experiencing a work differently than the creator intended.  More on this (and on the next point) below, in the section on what that means for ritual.

Personally, I’ll use these pieces in playlists that I’m not using in ritual space – music to make me think or reflect or be aware of concepts, but not with a specific ritual use – but I won’t use it in circle.

Altered pieces

One last category deserves a quick mention. There’s a tradition in some communities of changing lyrics for songs (like Christmas carols or traditional songs) to reflect the community.

For example, to make a Pagan version, or the science fiction and filk communities which change songs to have different lyrics that reflect stories, ideas, and concepts important to those communities (or funny or moving, or whatever else makes us want to write a song and make it easier for people to sing along or where the tune helps make a point.)

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What does that mean for ritual?

One question anyone who is selecting music for ritual use should think about (whether it’s just you listening and singing and responding, or including other people) is what music you’re comfortable using in ritual.

Personally, I have a very strong preference for using music created by Pagans in ritual whenever possible. For me, it’s about supporting our communities, encouraging creative exploration and growth, and introducing people in rituals that involve other people to new pieces they may come to love.

I absolutely avoid music explicitly written for other religions for two reasons when I’m actually in ritual.

First, as someone who’s written religious music as both a Catholic and a religious witch at different points in my life (I wrote a mass setting while in college, pieces of which were regularly used by my community there, and I’ve written a number of Pagan chants), it feels twisted to me to do that to someone else’s music if I don’t know they’re okay with it.

But there’s another reason, especially if you’re working with other people. Some years ago, I was working with others, and we discovered, a year or more after we’d started using some songs, that they were tunes from the evangelical Christian community with new words.

We hadn’t realised because the existing people in that group didn’t come from the particular communities that used those modern songs – these weren’t traditional tunes.

It was, however, immediately and horrifically grating to a new member who’d come from that background, and she spent several months wondering if we had any idea what we were doing (and trying to get the words she’d known for those songs from echoing in her head.)

All of which was rather a distraction to her focus on our rituals, to say the least. Once we found out, we found alternates as quickly as possible.

(Note that some things like older traditional Christmas carols, the tunes actually predate the explicitly Christian lyrics. But even then, most people will have specific reactions to them that may be very hard to unhitch from the music.)

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How to find out about Pagan musicians?

I’ve got a separate article with some examples of chants, and a list of artists I personally enjoy, but there are many others out there.

This is one of those things where once. you find a few artists, it’s a lot easier to use discovery tools to find more. I’m particularly fond of the Spotify discovery tools (their ‘related artists’ is usually pretty accurate, and they give a nice large list to work from) but most of the streaming music services out there give you some options. YouTube works too.

In places where people can make playlists, check out Pagan playlists, and dip in and out and see what kinds of things you like, and then try searching to find more that’s sort of like that.

Bandcamp also has a number of independent musicians, including a fair number of Pagan-focused ones.

Pagan festivals, Pagan Pride events, conventions, and other such things often include musical guests. If you browse around event pages a bit, you may find a nice range of musicians to try out. And of course, if you actually attend a gathering, you can hear different kinds of music. Don’t limit yourself just to Pagan events: a lot of Renaissance festival music groups, science fiction conventions, or those that perform at faery festivals like FaerieCon have a lot of crossover.

I always like to recommend The Wild Hunt as a good place for Pagan community news, but Jason Pitzl-Waters in particular has a great taste for music that’s Pagan but mostly outside the more Celtic/folk side I tend to like. The tag for music has a wide range of different musical styles represented.

There are a couple of other options, of course. Terri Windling, an author and editor in the mythopoetic space, has a great habit of doing Tunes for a Monday Morning, where she links several videos with brief comments. Other artists and musicians and people do similar things. As you poke around for music you like, check to see if they make recommendations, or are recommended by others, and then see who else they recommend.

Last edited February 8, 2018

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