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A Psychological Comparison of Ritual and Musical Meaning

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image of Method & Theory in the Study of Religion

This article offers a theory of cognition and meaning of patterns in time. In religion, many practices are patterned in time such as ritual, chanting, meditation, and mantras. The study of ritual meaning has tended to look for meaning in the context of ritual and that to which the content supposedly refers. However, a large body of ethnographic data shows that ritual participants do not tend to understand the meaning of their rituals referentially. The aim of this article is to give an account of this data by showing how temporal patterns might be understood as meaningful in a non-referential sense. It looks for meaning in the form of ritual, that is, the temporal patterns themselves. I first argue that all patterns in time are understood in cognitively identical ways. If this is the case, then theories of the cognition and meaning of music would apply equally well to the study of the cognition and meaning of temporal patterns in religion. Theories of the cognitive realization of tonal/rhythmic patterns in music and the resulting meaning are presented and shown to be relevant to the study of ritual. The article ends with some final, more speculative thoughts on how meaning on this formal, non-referential level may fulfill a biological need.

Affiliations: 1: Department for the Study of Religion University of Toronto


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