Music and Loneliness

Steven R. Guthrie
Saturday, May 1st 2021
May/Jun 2021
A Song for the Lonely

Alberto Anguzza is a musician, not a medical professional. Nevertheless, many identified him as a sort of hero in the early days of the global COVID-19 pandemic. While Italy was on strict lockdown, Anguzza, a trumpeter, went out onto the balcony of his apartment in Trapano, Sicily, and offered a plaintive version of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Neighbors congregated on adjacent balconies, and people stopped in the street below. Anguzza’s impromptu solo became one of the early memorable images of the pandemic and was viewed millions of times on YouTube. (Less commendably, it also inspired a truly horrific multicelebrity performance of the same song, organized by “Wonder Woman” Gal Gadot and recorded over Zoom.) Over the months of isolation and uncertainty, thousands of musicians around the world offered similar sorts of spontaneous performances. Apparently, a number of people sense—like Anguzza, like Gal Gadot and her friends—that music might be a good way of easing the isolation and loneliness so many are experiencing.

If so, that would be a very good thing to know. According to a number of medical professionals, the coronavirus arrived in the midst of another health crisis—what former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy called “a loneliness epidemic.”[1] How many lonely people constitute “an epidemic”? Estimates of our collective loneliness vary, but even those at the lower end of the scale are worrying. A more conservative number comes from a 2010 survey by AARP, indicating that 35 percent of Americans aged forty-five and older are lonely.[2] That’s significantly higher than, for instance, the percentage of Americans with diabetes (which is 10.5 percent of all Americans according to the CDC).[3] At the higher end of the scale, a widely cited 2019 survey of more than 10,000 workers found that “three in five adults (61%) . . . are lonely.” Moreover, this represented “a seven percentage-point increase from 2018.”[4] (Interestingly, while the AARP study surveyed those forty-five and older, this second study found the highest rates of loneliness among young adults.) Other nations have also identified loneliness as a significant problem; and in 2018, the British government appointed its first Minister for Loneliness.[5]

And so we might ask about the intuition that gave rise to that Italian trumpet solo—it’s one that probably resonates with many of us as well. Is Anguzza right? Is music a meaningful way of easing loneliness and isolation? If so, then why should music (of all things) be a help? It’s possible to dismiss Anguzza and his ilk as providing nothing more than a trivial distraction. We might say that in the face of a serious crisis, they are merely (and quite literally) whistling in the dark. But then, why should we whistle in the dark? Several recent studies have given a psychological account of music and loneliness.[6] Is it possible to give a theological account of this connection as well? In other words, does the Christian revelation concerning God and the world God has made help us make sense of the sort of comfort music might offer to the lonely?

A Pneumatology of Sound
The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. (Gen. 1:2)

This is a good place to begin—not quite at the very beginning, but at the second verse of the Bible, with the Spirit of God hovering over the waters. Some translations, like the NRSV, read, “while a wind from God swept over the deep.” There is a good reason for this. The Hebrew word ruach can mean spirit, or wind, or breath (the same is true of the Greek pneuma and the Latin spiritus). This multiplicity of meanings is not a dilemma for the Old Testament writers but a source of insight. This is the Spirit of God—God’s wind, God’s breath. “Any effort to subdivide rûah into breath, wind, spirit, or Spirit is doomed to abject failure,” writes Old Testament scholar Jack Levison.[7] The Holy Spirit is God moving out over creation, stirring and disrupting, carrying along or drying up, giving life and vitality to all that lives. This multiplicity of meanings is also why this is a good place to begin thinking about music. Before considering all the bewildering diversity of Gregorian chant, Wagnerian fanfares, Zeppelin-esque guitar solos, African drum ensembles, and maternal lullabies, we might think about sound more broadly—that phenomenon of which all of these are species. When we are thinking about sound, of course, we are most fundamentally thinking about vibration, the movement of air. In particular, when we think about sound, we can’t help thinking about that movement of air to which we are most intimately related: breath. The moving of wind and the stirring of breath create sound.

Certainly, this is true of God’s Spirit-Breath. “In the beginning was the Word,” says John’s Gospel. But it is equally true that in the beginning was God’s Breath. We are used to associating Creation particularly with the next verse—“then God said . . . ” (v. 3)—but speech is always borne by breath. Word and Spirit cannot be separated. The psalm writer acknowledges both in describing what unfolds at the beginning of Genesis: “By the word of God were the heavens made, and the starry host by the breath [ruach] of his mouth” (Ps. 33:6). God creates by his Word (“and God said . . . and God said . . . and God said”); and God creates by his Breath (“then the Lord God . . . breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Gen. 2:7). Throughout the Scriptures, the Spirit carries the word of God. This is the case in Genesis 1 and 2. It is the case in the prophets, who spoke “as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21). Above all, it is true in Jesus, the Word of God, who (in the words of the Nicene Creed) “was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary.” Here too, the Word is borne by Breath. This intimate connection of Spirit and Word makes sense, not only in terms of Trinitarian theology (“the external works of the Trinity are undivided”), but also (we could say) acoustically. Breath sounds, as does the wind. Jesus makes just this point in discussing the pneuma with Nicodemus: “You hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from” (John 3:8).

Quite a few things follow on from this, actually. We’ll consider four points. First, the birth of Jesus (the Word of God, borne by the Breath of God) reminds us that breath as breath is the bearer of incarnate words. The scriptural image of breath, that is, does not point us in the first instance toward words as ideas or concepts but to sounding words, words spoken or sung. Of course, for most of human history this would hardly be a point worth making. The modern West is almost certainly unique in this regard, that when we think of a “word,” we think first of all of text rather than a voice, a sound, a breath. But a spoken word indicates not only information but also presence. Walter Ong writes that “sound signals the present use of power, since sound must be in active production in order to exist at all. . . . [Sound] tells us that something is going on.”[8] Breath, as the ongoing action of a living being, says more than, “Here is the thing I have to say.” It also says, “I am with you.” Certainly, this is true of the Divine Breath. The Holy Spirit is, in Gordon Fee’s apt phrase, “God’s empowering presence.”[9] Jesus promises the Spirit so the disciples will not be “left as orphans” (John 14:18). Rather, the Spirit “will come to you and will be in you” (John 14:17). Breath is the means by which another journeys out to meet us and, more than that, comes to dwell in us. The Spirit brings what is in God to live in us—life itself, wisdom, understanding, peace, and so on. All these come to us, not as gifts external to the Spirit but as the Spirit’s own presence. Didymus the Blind writes, “The Holy Spirit is the fullness of the gifts of God, and . . . the goods bestowed by God are nothing other than the subsistent Holy Spirit.”[10]

Here is a second thing to note: God’s Breath gives rise to more than just God’s word. Once we inhale, the very biomechanics of respiration dictate that we also must exhale. As we do—whether in the form of a sigh, a shout, or a death rattle—we make our own contribution to the sounding world. God’s breath not only sounds, but it also causes us to sound. Remarkably, God has chosen to give us life in a way that also, necessarily, gives us a voice. It might not have been this way. God could have created a world in which only God speaks, in which the Divine Breath produces only a Divine Sounding. Instead, God has created the world in such a way, by such a means, that it will be populated by creaturely sounds. And so we, like the God in whose image we are made, proceed by our breath. By our breath, we move out beyond ourselves and make ourselves known to one another as living presences. Every new parent knows this. In those first months after my son was born, I regularly woke up with a jolt of panic: Is he breathing? I would tiptoe to the crib, bend over in the darkness, and listen for the reassuring sound of soft, whispering breath. He is breathing; he is here; he is alive. Breath and its sounding testify to a living presence.

Again, as with God’s Spirit, my breath carries what is in me—my thoughts, desires, sighs, and groans—out beyond me, so it may find its way into you. It’s not too much to say that by our breath we literally touch one another—a fact of which the pandemic has made us newly aware. These opening verses of Genesis sound with a special poignancy in our present moment, when we must guard ourselves from one another’s breath, when the breath that passes between us carries the threat of illness rather than the testimony of life. By the movement of our breath, we are present to one another. Separation, whether by death or by distance, can be described as that state of affairs in which another’s breath can no longer reach us.

Third, the fact that I could recognize the sound of my son while he was only weeks old reminds us that breath is the bearer of more than words. When God’s people were in Egyptian bondage, “God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham” (Exod. 2:24). Our “sighing is not hidden” from God (Ps. 38:9), and indeed, Jesus in his earthly ministry offered up sighs (e.g., Mark 7:34), “loud cries, and tears” (Heb. 5:7). Our breath carries us out into the world in shouts, moans, gasps, laughter, and of course, melodies. These varieties of human sound aren’t simply minor adjuncts to speech. We don’t know of any culture whose people speak but don’t sing. Song comes to us as naturally and universally as speech. Infants do not need to be taught to sing. They begin singing spontaneously and moving rhythmically to music at about the same age they begin speaking. So, in giving us breath, God doesn’t simply empower us to produce words. He enables us to sound.

Fourth and finally, just as we see in Genesis 1, throughout the Bible the ruach of God moves not only in human lungs but also across the expanse of creation. There is no other source of life. All that lives, lives by the Breath of God.

O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom have you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures. . . .
When you hide your face,
they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath
[ruach], they die
and return to their dust.

When you send forth your Spirit
[ruach], they are created.

(Ps. 104:24, 29–30)

Just as in humanity, here too in the nonhuman creation God’s ruach gives not only life but a voice. The Bible portrays a creation that (much like humanity) moans (Hab. 2:11), cries out (Luke 19:14), groans (Rom. 8:22), proclaims (Ps. 19), shouts (Isa. 55:12), and of course sings (Pss. 65, 66, 69, 96, 103, and elsewhere). We may set these passages aside too quickly, as “mere metaphor,” without really attending to the kind of work the metaphor is doing. We might be tempted, for example, to paraphrase Psalm 19 (“the heavens declare the glory of God”) as something like: “When we look at the sky and the stars, we can see how wonderful and powerful God is.” While that statement is true, the paraphrase shifts agency away from the heavens and toward the human. The stars don’t simply provide the occasion for my reflections; they make their declaration. I am addressed by them. In the language of Scripture, the creation has a voice. Indeed, at the climax of John’s vision of the Lamb in Revelation 5, he hears the voice of “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them saying: ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!’” (Rev. 5:13).

Let’s draw together these threads. Taken together, all of this gives us the rudiments of a theology (or even a pneumatology) of sound:

• God has chosen to give us life in a way that also gives us voice.

• By our breath, we are present to one another.

• The breath of God gives rise not only to words but also to sounds.

• The sound-making breath of God gives life and voice to both the human and the nonhuman creation.

To summarize even more briefly: breath, life, and sound are inextricably bound up with one another.

A School for Sound

All of this takes us some way toward making theological sense of Signor Anguzza’s balcony performance. We are, as theologian Stanley Grenz says, “created for community.”[11] Yet in this moment, we are unable to touch, unable to be physically present to one another. Nevertheless, when Anguzza plays, it’s not fanciful to say that those on the neighboring balconies experience his physical presence. Air from his lungs passes through his instrument and out into the world, the cascading vibrations of air moving outward, touching and entering into the bodies of those within hearing.

Of course, he could have just shouted to them. That also would have been experienced as Alberto’s presence. But if Alberto had shouted, his neighbors (and those of us reflecting on the event later) would probably be talking about what he said, rather than simply the event of his saying it. The specifically sounding dimension of Alberto’s voice—his presence, borne by his breath—would not have been any less important or any less potent. But it might not have been the focus of our attention. Philosopher Kathleen Higgins writes,

The physiology of hearing discloses our connection to the larger environment, our sharing that world with other agents, and our capacity for attuning the dynamics of our behavior with them. By conveying these aspects of our relationship to a world and beings beyond ourselves, music helps to develop a sense of securely sharing a world with other people.[12]

Music, then, is a way of exercising the gift of breath given to us by God—the gift of proceeding into the world and toward one another by our sounding. It also trains us to attend to that gift. It’s a school for attending to one another’s presence and the particular manner in which others are present to us. The church father Athanasius commends the singing of the psalms for just this reason.

For in the other books, one hears only what one must do and what one must not do. . . . But in the Book of Psalms, the one who hears . . . also comprehends and is taught in it the emotions of the soul.[13]

While elsewhere in Scripture,

We are asked to bless the Lord, and to acknowledge him, . . . in the Psalms we are instructed how one must praise the Lord and by speaking what words we properly confess our faith in him.[14]

Singing, as a particular training in presence, teaches us the proper posture we should adopt when present to another. Athanasius writes in the same letter,

One who comes in to the presence of a king assumes a certain attitude, both of posture and expression, lest speaking differently he be thrown out as boorish.[15]

When we sing the Psalms, Athanasius says, we learn how to speak in the presence of our king.

Songs in a Strange Land

Therefore, by our breath we proceed, moving out beyond ourselves. Through the sound carried by our breath, we are present to one another and present with one another in the shared space in which our breath re-sounds. Music is one way in which we give deliberate attention to this way of being present to one another.

If all of this is true, then one of the remarkable features of contemporary society is how often we use sound to separate ourselves from one another. The two artifacts that best characterize our culture’s engagement with the aural environment are the amplifier and the earbud. By the first, we are able to control and dominate the aural landscape; by the second, we are able to isolate and remove ourselves from it.

I am sitting in my office now. If I speak or sing aloud, I hear not only my voice but the distinctive sound of my voice in this space. The sound of my voice in my office is different from the sound of my voice in my kitchen, or my car, or my shower. My sounding in this space is a way of being in this space, and my sound bears testimony not only to my presence but to the place in which I am present. You could say that when I sing here (I hope my colleagues don’t mind), I hear both myself and my office. What’s more, the sounds of my office include not only those that I am making but also those I am not making: the neighborhood outside and the people who live there, the way the wind rattles against the window, and (at this moment) the sound of the rain against the glass. None of this would be the case if I were to sufficiently amplify the sounds I make in this space, overwhelming the distinctive acoustical character of this room with that of some other room. I could, for instance, put on a recording of a choir singing in a Gothic cathedral and fill this space with a sound that could never be produced in this space. Nor would I experience the particular acoustical situation of my office if I were to put on my noise-canceling headphones. In both of those instances, music—rather than becoming one way I am in a space and attentive to it—becomes a means of separating myself from a space and choosing what I will and will not hear in it.

The possibility of controlling my sound environment is also closely connected, of course, to the emergence of modern recording technology. It is remarkable to realize that for most of human history—really, until this past century—one could hear music only while in the physical presence of those making the music. I could make a similar point about photos or video. For most of human history, you could see a moving image of a person only if you were in the presence of that person.

The case of music is different though. I see lots of people on film, but it hasn’t become rare or unusual for me to encounter another human being in person. Photos of trees don’t mean we hardly ever see trees firsthand. But something like this is true in the case of music. The overwhelming majority of the music we hear is recorded music, while hearing music in the presence of those making it (again, for most of us) is relatively rare. (A 2018 Nielsen report estimates that 52 percent of Americans went to hear live music “sometime during the course of the year.”[16] Compare this to a 2017 Nielsen report indicating that the average music listener “uses 3.4 devices to engage with music each week, listening to a little more than 5 hours of music per day.”[17])

Does this matter? It would be easy to make a curmudgeonly sort of argument against earbuds and iPhones and great big speaker systems. But the truth is, I am grateful for recorded music. I’m grateful that, though I can never see Vladimir Horowitz play piano, go to a stadium where the Beatles are performing, or step into a club where Billy Holiday is singing, I’m still able to hear all of these remarkable musicians making music. Likewise, if it weren’t for recording technology, no one outside of Trapano, Sicily, would ever have heard Alberto Anguzza’s version of “Imagine.”

Media is a gift. What must be remembered, though, is that media (Latin meaning middle or intermediate) “goes between” and “comes between.” My guess is that at the end of a year of Zoom classes, Zoom church, Zoom meetings, and Zoom Easter, I don’t need to say a great deal to convince readers of this point. The pandemic has given us all a more profound understanding of what can and can’t be mediated. Technology has been a gift: the media “going between” us. Yet technology has been wildly unsatisfying: the media “coming between us.”

We can acknowledge this gift, without forgetting the experience to which it points. When we were engaged, my wife and I wrote letters to each other. Those letters were wonderful. Yet when our wedding day arrived, we never gave serious consideration to continuing our relationship by post. Neither would we be celebrating Anguzza in this essay if he had responded to the pandemic by sending his neighbors a Spotify playlist (as thoughtful as that would have been).

So, yes, I think breath and physical presence matters in music. There is a deep musical wisdom in Psalm 137:

By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How shall we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?

On the face of it, this seems like an ideal circumstance for singing. God’s people are in exile, heartbroken, and far from home. Why not sing one of the old songs, to remind each other of good times and good places? This is, in a way, an “earbud” approach—our approach— to music. I change the soundtrack to change the environment, to put myself in a different place, emotionally or imaginatively. But Psalm 137 suggests that for these heartbroken musicians, it wasn’t the music that created the environment, but the environment that created the music. Music was profoundly connected to place. Notice the repetition of the word there: “there we sat down and wept,” “on the willows there we hung up our lyres,” “for there our captors required of us songs.” The problem is that they are there, but these are the songs of Zion! How then can we sing them in a strange land? The message isn’t that music is unable to comfort. The message instead is that the comfort of music is bound up with place and presence.

Shared Breath

“What I get out of music,” wrote guitarist Eric Clapton, “is a feeling that I’m not alone.”[18] Clapton is right to sense this. Music addresses our loneliness because the procession of our breath mirrors the procession and activity of God’s own Spirit-Breath. This Breath is sent forth by God as his “empowering presence,” sent so we would not be orphans, that his life might live in us. In music, we attend particularly to the breath that proceeds from one to another.

If this is one of the things music does, then this suggests a set of criteria different from what we might ordinarily apply to the music in our churches. As I’ve said, in our culture music is often used as a way of being “somewhere else” and with someone else. In a culture of people who feel exiled, it’s worth thinking instead about how music might help us—not to create some other space, but to be present together in this space. How might music help us, not to “create an environment” but to fully inhabit the environment we are in with one another? Concretely, that might mean something as simple as allowing the worship band to sound like the people they are and in the place they are, rather than trying to make them sound like a group of professional touring musicians in a five-thousand-seat theater. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we shouldn’t care about the quality of music in the church. (Alberto Anguzza is very good trumpet player. If he were awful, his playing might have been a gift his neighbors preferred not to receive.) The point is just that if one of the functions of music is to be present to one another—to be the body of Christ, gathered—then this will motivate different musical decisions than if the purpose of music is simply to achieve a particular aesthetic standard or some general ideal of “musical excellence.”

At a very basic level, all of what we’ve said here points to the extraordinary value of the church and of congregational singing in particular. The church is in fact one of the few places in our culture where people sing together. Apart from annual performances of “Happy Birthday” and the occasional “Star-Spangled Banner,” it’s likely that church is the only time when the people in our congregations will sing with others. If it is true that song is one of the ways we experience others as present with us in place, then the singing of the church is not just filler to pad either side of a sermon, nor is it simply an opportunity for individual emotional expression. Rather, it’s a way of being the church, of being a people together and, as such, an irreplaceable medicine for healing our loneliness.

In the same way, the church is one of the few places where people will hear music played by musicians who are present with them. Moreover, unlike most concerts or live music events people attend, in church the musicians aren’t with them as performers to be observed but as participants to be joined. Again, this is a remarkable and remarkably powerful gift the church (and almost no other venue or institution in our culture) can offer to a lonely people. If music is an important way of being together, then we might ask: Is the music in our church oriented toward participation, toward hearing one another’s voices?

Our “pneumatology of sound” suggests one other way of responding “soundingly” to the epidemic of loneliness. Somewhat counterintuitively, one way of overcoming isolation is by cultivating intentional “located” silence. This is not the silence of noise-canceling headphones, but the silence of attention. As we’ve said, the Ruach of God who hovers over the face of the deep gives life and voice, not only to human beings but to all of creation. As we quiet ourselves, as we silence the others-silencing drone of our individualized soundtracks, we may become aware that our own voices are located within a many-voiced, sounding creation. We can then realize we are not alone. The nonhuman creation speaks and even sings. As Job says (12:7–10),

Ask the animals and they will teach you,
or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you;
or speak to the earth, and it will teach you,
or let the fish in the sea inform you.
Which of all these does not know
that the hand of the Lord has done this?
In his hand is the life of every creature
and the breath [ruach] of all mankind.

Steven R. Guthrie is professor of Theology/Religion and the Arts at Belmont University in Nashville. He had a first career in music and continues to perform in the Nashville area. He is the author of Creator Spirit: The Holy Spirit and the Art of Becoming Human and co-editor with Jeremy Begbie of Resonant Witness: Conversations between Music and Theology.

1. Jena McGregor, “This Former Surgeon General Says There’s a ‘Loneliness Epidemic’ and Work Is Partly to Blame,” Washington Post, October 4, 2017,
2. Loneliness among Older Adults: A National Survey of Adults 45+ (Washington, DC: AARP, 2010),
3. National Diabetes Statistics Report 2020: Estimates of Diabetes and Its Burden in the United States (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020),
4. “Loneliness and the Workplace,”
5. Tara John, “How the World’s First Loneliness Minister Will Tackle ‘The Sad Reality of Modern Life,’” Time, April 25, 2018,
6. See for instance, Katharina Schäfer, Suvi Saarikallio, and Tuomas Eerola, “Music May Reduce Loneliness and Act as Social Surrogate for a Friend: Evidence from an Experimental Listening Study,” Music & Science 3 (January 2020),
7. Jack Levison, A Boundless God: The Spirit according to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2020), 18.
8. Walter Ong, The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967), 112–13.
9. Gordon D. Fee, God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul, repr. ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009).
10. Didymus the Blind, “On the Holy Spirit,” II (12), in Works on the Spirit: Athanasius the Great and Didymus the Blind, trans. Mark DelCogliano, Andrew Radde-Galwitz, and Lewis Ayres (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011), 147.
11. Stanley J. Grenz, Created for Community: Connecting Christian Belief with Christian Living (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996).
12. Kathleen J. Higgins, The Music between Us: Is Music a Universal Language? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 152.
13. Athanasius, “A Letter to Marcellinus,” Athanasius: The Life of Anthony and the Letter to Marcellinus 28, trans. Robert C. Gregg (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980), 108.
14. Athanasius, “Letter to Marcellinus,” 109 (my italics).
15. Athanasius, “Letter to Marcellinus,” 112–13.
16. Dan Rys, “Nielsen Releases In-Depth Statistics on Live Music Behavior: 52 Percent of Americans Attend Shows,” Billboard, November 15, 2018,
17. “We Listen to Music for More Than 4½ Hours a Day, Nielsen Says,” Marketing Charts, November 13, 2017,
18. Eric Clapton, Official Tour Program 1998, quoted in Higgins, The Music Between Us, 145.
Saturday, May 1st 2021

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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