Why do we sing? | 8 February 2015

Texts: Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-11

Speaker: Katie Graber

I love music. When I was growing up, I took piano and violin lessons and sang in choirs and musicals. I was a piano teacher for many years, and now I’m an accompanist and I teach music history classes at Otterbein and Ohio State. Because I love music, I’m tempted to repeat all the grand statements that people like to make about music. Here are a few that I often see posted on facebook in fancy fonts over photos of sunsets: Music says the words we’re too afraid to speak out loud. Without music, life would be a mistake. Music is what life sounds like. Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, and life to everything. Yes, music is all of those things! … sometimes, but not always. Music is also hard work, and it can be humbling. How many of you have ever been bored when we sing hymns? Have you ever been confused? Have we ever sung a song you don’t particularly like? Have you ever been a songleader and screwed up a song so badly you had to start everyone over?

So, instead of repeating platitudes about music, I actually want to challenge some of these statements, hopefully to come to a better view about why we sing and what it means for our spiritual life. This is not a more realistic view, because those grand and magical moments are real too. Instead, this is part of my ongoing project to find God in everything – the small, the insignificant, the everyday, even the failures and frustrations. Everything can be worship, our obligation is to be aware, to be watchful, to find that worship.

Let’s start with the saying, “Music speaks what cannot be expressed.” Or “Music says what words cannot.” This is beautiful, but I know too many people who are talented with words to believe this statement outright. In fact, isn’t that exactly what poetry does? Poetry is words that express what words cannot express. Prayer does this too, and much of the rest of our liturgy. The Bible is a whole book of words that tries to express what words cannot express – God, the indescribable. We see this in the Isaiah passage today. Starting with verse 22, we hear a string of metaphors about the power of the divine: “God sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. God stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in. God brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.” We don’t really believe that our God’s mission is to take out all the rulers of this world; this statement (like music) is seeking to express the inexpressible – the beyondness, the hugeness of the divine mystery. The end of this passage is the famous, also extravagant statement of our relationship and access to that divine power: (I’m sure you could sing this with me) “they that wait upon the lord shall renew their strength; they shall soar on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not faint.” … So what does singing do here? The words are already expressive, but the melody adds to it and cements it to our memory. It also slows us down, and (if we’re not bored or distracted) can let us breathe into and heighten those inexpressible meanings that lie beyond the words.

On the other hand, that ability of music to solidify something into our psyche can also have more sinister applications. This brings me to grand statement number two, “The function of music is to release us from the tyranny of conscious thought.” I suppose this statement is supposed to be about meditative, contemplative silencing of the mind, but it makes me think of a long history of repressive and violent groups securing power through nationalistic and propagandistic songs. Our government uses music in some disturbing ways as well, including torture and teaching soldiers to pull the trigger – and to want to pull the trigger (popular culture does this too). On a very different level, music can be coercive in our churches as well. There are statements in some of our hymns that I don’t agree with, and sometimes I just sing it anyway. This could be understood positively: isn’t it great that we can put aside our differences and sing together? Or it can be understood negatively: isn’t it scary that I will say something I don’t believe as long as it’s set to a pretty tune? I don’t have an easy answer to this, other than that we should not turn off our brains when we sing.

We have to use our intellect in all areas of religion, of course. But sometimes familiarity can make us feel like we understand something that we don’t. For example, the next lectionary passage from Psalms reads: “Praise the Lord! How good it is to sing praises to our God, for God is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting. The Lord builds up Jerusalem and gathers the outcasts of Israel. God heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. God determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name. Great is our Lord and mighty in power; God’s understanding has no limit.” Most of us in this room might not even pause at the words “Jerusalem” and “Israel” buried in the middle of that passage, because we know the historical context. We’re so accustomed to it that we might forget that the stories of the Hebrew people and the building of the nation of Israel are not natural, universal information. The other grand statements can be numbed by familiarity as well – God is great, God has no limits. Using our intellect also needs an element of mindfulness that goes beyond simply understanding the history. Singing can help that, by slowing us down, or it can hinder by turning off our thoughts.

This issue of understanding – the Bible, music, each other – brings up another common oversimplification about music: “music is a universal language.” We say this because it often feels true. We can encounter some music from other cultures that feels like it speaks directly to us. We have some songs in the hymnal from around the world that feel this way to me. But we have to admit that these songs have been, to some extent, translated into our musical language. We rarely sing unaccompanied melodies – if I were leading them, I would normally have you add more notes (which would make it more like four-part harmony) or add piano (which would be very Western European). Trying to sing a song in the style of another culture would often take us out of our comfort zone. That’s what we have to do to encounter the Other, and we don’t do that very often. Let’s try a song that will take us out of our comfort zone: STS 97. Rabinadranath Tagore (who wrote v. 1) was a Bengali poet who lived a hundred years ago, Seong-Won Park (who wrote v. 2-4) is a living theologian from Korea, and Francisco Feliciano (who wrote music) is from the Philippines and studied with American and European composers. Let’s sing this melody by overlapping the notes – start at a different place from your neighbor, and sing at a different speed from your neighbor. … When I first sang this song, I didn’t particularly find it worshipful. But maybe that’s not a fault of the song but a fault of my definition of worshipful.

The problem with the idea of universalism is that we’re usually actually translating music – and people – into our own view of the world. This problem with the idea of universalism is that if someone believes that all music has this common core, then anything different is interpreted as a deficiency. Right now I’m teaching a class at OSU about the history of ethnomusicology – the history of the study of world music. Starting in the late 1800s with new recording technologies, Europeans began to collect and analyze music from around the world. Because they were looking for universal truths, they interpreted the music as being on the same universal path toward civilization. They explicitly classified different cultures and music as primitive or savage, semi-civilized, or civilized. If another culture didn’t do harmony the way “we civilized Europeans” do harmony, then they must be deficient.

I see a similar line of reasoning today in churches, in some people’s arguments against praise songs. They’re too simple, there’s no harmony, the theology is deficient, and aren’t we more noble for singing our four-part a capella hymns. I don’t personally like a lot of the praise band style of singing, and I agree there can be a fine line between playing or leading music for worship and trying to be a superstar up front. However, most of the arguments about the songs themselves are about personal preference and not about grand theological issues. I would venture to guess that a lot of people who say they don’t like repetition in praise songs do like repetition and simplicity in Taize hymns (see HWB 294 for an example). There is good and bad theology in both praise songs and hymns. If we were more honest about the fact that music is not universal, and that it doesn’t have to be, perhaps we could be more generous about other people’s musical tastes. And, these songs can be “translated” as well, similar to how we translate songs from other cultures. HWB 87 is a song I first learned with guitar and drums. It’s repetitive and simplistic, but here, in four part harmony in our hymnal, it feels much more like “our” music.

… Probably some of you liked this song and some of you did not. And this brings me to my last cliché, “music creates community.” I completely buy into this one, but not in an idealistic or coercive way that we all come together as a great unity of voices and thoughts and experiences. Singing can powerfully bring us together, but it doesn’t make us a conflict free utopia. A professor at OSU, Barry Shank, proposes a beautiful definition of community: a group of people who can disagree meaningfully. I’m sure you can think of people in this world that you couldn’t even argue with because you come from such different understandings of the world. Of course, we can also probably think of people that we love that may fall into this category – in that case, I think the commitment to loving each other is that starting point for disagreement.

Shank argues that this kind of community can be enacted or produced through music through a decades-old ethnomusicological theory called participatory discrepancies. A basic (extremely oversimplified) explanation of participatory discrepancies is that human element in live performance. These ideas can be applied to any performance, in varying degrees. Of course the participatory discrepancies of our congregational singing are at a completely different level from the string quartet we’ve heard today. But, even beautifully polished groups have an element of communication or exchange in their playing. We like to hear the way performers negotiate through changes in dynamics, tempo, vibrato, timbre, everything.

Then, when we are singing ourselves (and not just listening), we are participating in these negotiations. We’re not blindly trying to be the same. When we sing, none of us is perfect. But yet, we hold each other up, carry each other forward through the melodies and harmonies (and usually through the rests). Sometimes we are so egalitarian that we don’t like to watch the songleader. The idea of community through meaningful disunity says that if we have the starting point of the same hymn, then part of the pleasure comes from the discrepancies … for me, this is anything like knowing others will keep singing if I need a breath, knowing I can stop to acknowledge my kids’ questions for a minute, trying to hit those high notes even if I’m not sure I’ll make it, or testing an unfamiliar alto line.
This is also a wonderful analogy for our spiritual life together. We don’t have to be perfect to participate in this community, or to stand in the presence of the divine. We sing because it links our imperfect selves to each other and to God. Coming together in song can let us experience and participate in those divine sparks that are in each person. And we continue to sing in part because it doesn’t work – you never worship so well that you’re finished. We come back here every week for those elusive moments where everything feels like it comes together, but we can also value the rest of the moments as well. We sing not just because words aren’t enough to express this, but because nothing is enough to express this. We sing not to stop thinking, but to engage our thoughts with our resonant bodies and affective responses. We sing not because music has universal meaning, but because it can bring together particular individuals who disagree – even while maintaining the particularities and the disagreements. You might simply say that we sing because we’re human, and we’re fumbling toward singing the mighty power of God.