Meaning-making through Music in Religious Education

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Once upon a time, according to a traditional story, there was a meeting of the nobility at court. Then, someone dressed poorly was invited by the King to sit in the best corner of the hall, while others marvelled at this. To justify his actions and to show that person’s worth, the King asked the strange visitor to present his talents. So, the visitor took out a couple of pieces of wood from his pocket (or bag) and assembled them to conduct an instrument. At his first performance, he made the audience laugh. Then he dismantled the instrument and assembled it in a different shape. While playing the second time, the listeners began to cry. Finally, when he formed the instrument with another new shape and played, then the audience found themselves in a deep sleep. When they awoke, the strange visitor had already disappeared.

While this story is told to glorify al-Farabi’s skill in music, it is of course not seen as strange that music affects humankind’s mood. This might be because Islamic thought accepts the power of music in inducing emotions, in music therapies, and for religious purposes.

Mozart or Music?

When Rauscher et al. (1993) coined the term ‘Mozart Effect,’ it gave hope to people that human capabilities could be expanded. The researchers showed that listening to Mozart’s music can basically increase college students’ achievements. This was considered amazing for educational advantages and beyond. However, the whole picture is quite different.

Despite the original findings, the Effect was widely criticised for its supposed role in the enhancement of intelligence. Rauscher et al. (1993) originally argued that listening to Mozart music can temporarily increase college students’ spatial reasoning, such as mental imagery and temporal ordering. However, without a scientific base, the commercial industry produced and sold many records, CDs, and books with the assertion that exposure to Mozart’s music stimulates the minds of children and has a positive impact on their IQ, creativity, and intellectual abilities. In this blog post, I argue that the pedagogical implications of the Mozart Effect need more attention.

The basis of the Mozart Effect denies the listener’s conscious and intentional awareness of his/her own emotions and response to music. Whatever happens with the Mozart Effect happens without listeners’ active engagement and involvement. Even if everything related to the Mozart Effect is scientifically proven, I do not favor using music in such a way that puts listeners (students) in a passive and unconscious position. For educational implications, bringing a piece of music into the classroom will not make teaching easier or students smarter. So, for learning and teaching settings, we still have a fundamental question: what does music mean to us and how can we utilize it in an active manner, especially in religious education (RE)?

Re-Considering the Musical Implications in Religious Education

Beyond the meaning of musical extracts, for the listeners who are informed by religious beliefs or cultural attachment, music is a subject of evaluation. The halalharam dichotomy is an example where religious thought is the driving force in evaluating music. A listener’s knowledge about music (or musical excerpt) itself can direct his/her response which is also true for cultural norms and practices that may accept music as an educational tool. Similarly, due to the social representations of various musical styles, listeners see themselves (or would like to be seen) in ways that confirm they have the same values, attitudes, and beliefs as other listeners.

Emotions occur in cultural, religious, as well as personal contexts and recognising the interplay between an individual and his/her social environment may foster the connectedness of students, with the help of their own emotional experiences. This implies that musically accessible emotions (such as happiness, sadness, awe, passion, love, etc.) can be utilized for meaning-making within the teaching/learning process, for which students are neither passive learners nor just directed by music without their conscious experience, during the musical activities in RE or other school subjects (Ogretici, 2021). I suggest studying with children, rather than on children, with the idea of promoting their emotional response and their self-evaluation during class activities where students are required to be active listeners and participants to facilitate the learning environment. In other words, their conscious and deliberative experiences will be part of the meaning-making process in the RE context. For instance, students listen to music and interact with it through activating the knowledge, skills, and attitudes related to the specific piece they listen to. Learning about the musician, expressing the emotions that it activates, and reflecting on attitudes about the musical piece as well as connecting it with the content learned may benefit students in regular or religious education. In this example, the students learn how to derive meaning and analyze information.

Emotions, knowledge, and meaning making, in line with musical experiences, are important themes in the context of RE, since music has a relationship with these in almost all cultures (Yob, 2020). From its basis in music and Islamic theology, there is a distinctive theoretical foundation for the concepts of ‘musical emotions’ and ‘communication of knowledge with music’––which then highlights ways of using music in RE. Thus, musical activity of RE requires students’ involvement, not (only) by singing and listening but also by active thinking for meaning-making and feeling through music. In this regard, music is here to enhance the students’ educational benefit, owing to its capacity of emotionally triggering listeners and promoting the meaning-making process.

Contrary to the Mozart Effect, I argue that educators should not plan their teaching upon an unconscious cognitive enhancement with music listening in the classroom context. However, students’ emotional and cognitive responses to music listening clearly identify and prioritize the significance of their conscious engagement (Ogretici, 2021). Teachers cannot perform this on behalf of students. Students must consciously and attentively deal with this experience. Otherwise, without this attention, the musical experience (of emotion and cognition) would not be an authentic part of teaching and learning. Assuming that emotions are successfully induced by music listening, and valued in the classroom, we need to integrate these experiences into the learning process. This stresses the connection between the processes of emotional response and the elements of cognition in relation to the musical experiences.

Two fundamental aspects of human inner life were highlighted in this post: reason and feeling, or cognitive and affective, or mind and heart. There are mutual empowerment and enrichment between them––as most of the world’s great religious, spiritual, and philosophical traditions teach. Human thought rarely excludes one from the other (Yob, 1997). Therefore, we should not separate cognition from emotion in education. Instead, we need to promote and strengthen the connection between emotional and cognitive faculties by means of music in RE classroom interventions.


Al-Ghazali, (2003). On Listening to music. Trans. Muhammad Nur Abdus Salam, with an introduction by Laleh Bakhtiar. Great Books of the Islamic World, series ed. Seyyed Hossein Nasr. n.p.: Kazi Publications.

Al-Ghazzālī, (1910). The alchemy of happiness. London: John Murray.

Al-Qaradawi, Y. (198-). The lawful and the prohibited in Islam [Al-halal wal haram fil Islam]. Indiana: American Trust Publications.

Rauscher, F.H., Shaw, G.L., & Ky, C.N. (1993). Music and spatial task performance. Nature, 365(6447), 611.

Siddiqui, M. (2012). The good Muslim: Reflections on classical Islamic law and theology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ogretici, Y.Z. (2021). Bridging theory, experiment, and implications: Knowledge and emotion-based musical practices for religious education. PhD Thesis, University of Glasgow, UK.

Uludağ, S. (2004). İslam açısından müzik ve sema [Music and sama’ from an Islamic perspective]. İstanbul: Kabalcı.

Yob, I.M. (1997). The cognitive emotions and emotional cognitions. Studies in Philosophy and Education. 16(1), 43-57.

Yob, I.M. (2020). Religion and music in an education for social change. In. A.A. Kallio, P. Alperson & H. Westerlund. Music, Education, and Religion. Indiana University Press (

About the author

Dr. Yusuf Ziya Öğretici works as an Education Expert at the Ministry of National Education, Turkey. He gained his PhD degree at the School of Education, University of Glasgow, where he submitted his research with the title of ‘Bridging Theory, Experiment, and Implications: Knowledge and Emotion-Based Musical Practices for Religious Education.’ He gained his MTheol. (Religion, Literature, and Culture-2016) in Glasgow-UK, MA (Religious Education-2012) in Turkey, and BA (Theology-2009) in Turkey. Dr. Öğretici is the recipient of the YLYS-2013 MONE-TURKEY scholarship (£105.000). His research interests extend to emotion, values, morality, culture, and music in the context of religious education. He may be reached at His ORCID page can be accessed at