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Music and Vital Congregations
A Practical Guide for Clergy
By WILLIAM BRADLEY ROBERTS
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2009 William Bradley Roberts
All rights reserved.
Music Belongs to Everyone
Over my head I hear music in the air, Over my head I hear music in the air, Over my head I hear music in the air; There must be a God somewhere.
The Capacity for Making Music
For many clergy, music elicits fear. How I wish I could take the strangeness out of music for clergy who are afraid of it. Some clergy I've worked with find music to be foreign, mystifying, almost like an occult art that only belongs to a select few. I hope to demonstrate that even though there are people with extraordinary talent, and even though some clergy don't comprehend its written language, music is available to everyone.
Most cultures on earth love music. Music making seems to be one of the activities that characterizes us as human. Though musical style varies greatly from one group to another, as well as from one era to another, music seems omnipresent. Humans are a music-making species.
God has greatly gifted us with this amazing dimension of life, and we are immeasurably enriched because of it. Every great congregation has music as a vital component, often widely diverse, but essential.
Why, then, for many in the human family, including clergy, is music confounding, bewildering, puzzling, mysterious, and a language they don't understand? Such persons are daunted by those who appear to understand music, who display a richer appreciation than they, and who also seem to have a special insight into what makes music work. Sometimes the fear arises from unfamiliarity with the written symbols of music. But reading music and enjoying music are not necessarily related. I will argue below that (1) the language of music can be learned like any other language, and (2) a person may also experience great joy from music without knowing the written language.
Are there those whose very birthright places them among the cognoscenti—those who know—while others simply must remain forever unenlightened? Are a few people on earth blessed with a special sense that the remainder of humanity must live without—people who hear, who understand, who perceive music with utter ease?
Art educator Betty Edwards, who wrote the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, teaches people to observe objects in a different way so that they can begin to draw. She recalls that even as a child, she saw things in a manner that allowed her to reproduce them graphically. The ability to see shapes and forms readily transferable to paper or canvas was always easy for her.
In the same way, hearing, responding to, and reproducing musical sounds is easier for some people than for others. Oliver Sachs, a noted neurologist and popular author who is also a musician, wrote a fascinating book called Musicophilia in which he documents case studies of people who have an extraordinary ability to hear music, as well as the opposite—those whose ability is impaired. He recounts absorbing stories of people with unusual, sometimes even curious, musical ability. For example, one out of every two thousand people displays a phenomenon called "synesthesia." Such persons relate specific musical sounds to corresponding colors. While for most of us this is true at the level of metaphor ("that brilliant chord is fire-engine red"), for synesthetes, the correspondence is not metaphorical at all, but literal and consistent. Sachs tells of the composer Michael Torke who, when he was five years old, told his piano teacher that he liked that "blue piece." When she asked which piece he meant, he answered, the one in the key of D major. "D major is blue."
Scientists debate among themselves over the origins of musical talent—is it genetic or environmental, nature or nurture?—but most are agreed that some people have a heightened capacity for creating and perceiving music. There are people who seem predisposed to extraordinary musical talent.
The truth is, however, that nearly everyone is blessed with the ability to appreciate, and, indeed, at some level to perform music. In some cultures it is assumed that everyone will be involved in music making. Indeed, in the U.S. this assumption also prevailed in an earlier era of our society. As the availability of recorded music has increased and our own participation in music dwindled, music has become a commodity to be consumed more than a group activity. We are intimidated by the sophisticated, nearly perfect performances in recorded music, which let us judge our own efforts unworthy. Whereas manual laborers used to sing songs to alleviate the boredom of repetitive work, today their successors are more likely to listen to recorded music.
Just look at the definition of the "music store." What a music store is has changed radically in the last half-century signaling a dramatic shift in attitude. When I was a boy a music store was a place that sold instruments and sheet music, which suggested that you bought things there that help you make music. Those stores sometimes also had departments that sold phonograph recordings, but their primary merchandise was instruments. Now shift to today. When we see a sign at the mall saying "music store," what is sold inside? Probably compact discs, no instruments at all, much less sheet music. While I don't suggest that this change is ipso facto a bad thing, it does represent a quantum leap in our culture. What it says to me is this: We are more likely to be consumers of music than producers. Indeed, church is one of the few remaining environments in U.S. culture where people are expected to make music.
For whatever reason, it has become fashionable in our society to make extravagant claims of one's lack of musical ability. Teachers of music grow weary of those who groan comments like, "You have never heard anybody as bad as I am." Despite these insecurities, most people have the capacity to appreciate and perform music to some degree. A person's exposure to music, especially at an early age, may play an important role in the ability to enjoy music, but in truth almost no one is devoid of musicality. With few exceptions—and these are nearly always due to rare genetic conditions, disease, or accidents—all people are able to appreciate music.
The Language of Music
There is, however, a distinction between appreciating music and knowing the language of music. Just like French, Zulu, or Tagalog, music has vocabulary, syntax, and grammar. Learning the language of music is no more difficult than learning any of these verbal languages. In fact, it is easier, because, in most instances, new students of music have been listening to a musical language all their lives. While the study of Zulu for a nonnative necessitates listening to words that sound strange, the sounds of music have already been in the ear for the duration of one's life. Learning the rudiments of music is simply a matter of connecting symbols and procedures to sounds that are already familiar. Becoming conversant with the language of music is an ordinary and easily achievable goal.
The phrase "music is the international language" is inaccurate and misleading. While a French person might derive a great deal of pleasure in listening to the music of the German composer J. S. Bach, this is because the musics of France and Germany have a common ancestry, the result being that the languages are not too dissimilar from each other. If the same French person were to listen to a piece of classical music from India, or to music that is native to an isolated tribe in South America, that person would likely perceive the music to be confusing, if not downright cacophony. Musical languages vary greatly around the globe, as well as from one era to another.
This story will illustrate. Wycliffe missionary linguists travel to remote parts of the world to translate the Bible into local languages, a project that usually takes ten years or more. This long and arduous process gives the linguists time to come to a deep understanding of the local culture.
In correspondence with a Wycliffe missionary linguist, I learned about the Canela people, who live in a remote, isolated part of Brazil in the Amazon rain forest. Jack and Jo Popjes, the Canadian missionary linguists who went to live with the Canelas, were fascinated with their music, which sounded like nothing they had ever heard. Even though the missionaries were musically trained, they couldn't make sense of the Canelas' music, even after twenty years of effort. Having heard Canela music for myself, I can attest that it is the most exotic music I have ever experienced. Let me describe just one feature of it. Canela music cannot be played on a piano, because there are extra notes that would fall "in the cracks" between the keys of a conventional piano. That is to say, Canela music has more possible pitches than conventional Western music.
For the Canadians, trying to sing along with these indigenous people, even after years of exposure to their music, proved only frustrating. They were eager for the Canelas to compose new songs, so that their worship music would be indigenous, arising from their own culture and experience. Unfortunately the Canelas had no concept of composing new music, because from their perspective the music that formed their repertoire had simply always existed. The missionaries, therefore, had to look elsewhere if there was to be Canela-style Christian hymnody. Contacting a friend who specialized in analyzing the music of indigenous people, the Popjeses were able to create some twenty hymns, Canela-style, mostly with scriptural texts.
The moment of reckoning came when the linguists demonstrated the songs to the Canelas. "It was like throwing gasoline on a campfire!" Upon hearing the songs, the Canelas reacted with great excitement, imploring the linguists to teach them the new music. They wanted to know what tribe had taught the North Americans the songs, because they couldn't imagine that foreigners had made them up. The linguists wept with joy. One Canela man, with tears in his eyes, exulted, "You gave us the book in which God speaks to us, but your friend Tom gave us songs in which we speak to God."
Before the concept existed in missions that indigenous peoples should have their own Christian music, missionaries taught native peoples Western hymnody. Despite the fact that it sometimes made no sense to the people, the practice persisted. Even today, Christians in parts of Africa, for example, sing late nineteenth-century American white gospel hymns, because these were popular in the missionaries' homeland when they arrived in Africa. One of the problems with songs of faith belonging to another culture is that this inscribes Christianity as a foreign religion.
Had the Wycliffe people insisted upon teaching the Canelas "Amazing grace," "Come, thou fount," or Bach chorales, as lovely as those are, they wouldn't have gotten very far. Just as the missionaries' English was foreign to the Canelas, so was their musical language. They had labored hard to speak the Canelas verbal language, and an equal amount of work was required for them to learn the musical language.
There is no "right" system of music—none that is more correct than all other musics on earth. Until rather recently, musicology was Eurocentric in orientation. Western European music was assumed to be the standard, and all others were relegated to an inferior status. Westerners seemed to believe that given enough time, all other cultures would eventually catch up. This Eurocentricity is seen to some extent in the label "ethnic music," meaning the music of cultures outside Western Europe (and, by extension, the U.S. and other predominantly Anglo cultures). This terminology carries the implicit assumption that European music is the norm, placing all others outside the norm.
Careful research by musicologists has demonstrated that music from certain other cultures is far more intricate than European music in specific respects. Music from India, for example, is more melodically complex than European music. Indian ragas, intricate melodic formulae, are extremely sophisticated, requiring extensive study.
Likewise, African music is more rhythmically complex than European music. Western missionaries, upon first encountering African music, are said to have declared it unrhythmic, incredible as that sounds. Apparently African percussion music was so vastly complex that it surpassed the missionaries' comprehension, so they judged it arbitrary and disorganized. Now, of course, musicians recognize that the music of sub-Saharan Africa is highly developed rhythmically, and not easily understood by Westerners.
Even within the same culture, two people may have widely divergent responses to music. When I was in seminary, a neighbor of mine asked me to listen to a recording of his favorite piece of music. I agreed, asking him if I could also share a favorite of mine with him, to which he consented. First he played a piece of country music, which I determined to listen to as carefully as possible. The truth is that even though it was not my cup of tea, I was glad to hear something that meant a lot to him. My seminary colleague was surprised that I was such a stranger to his music, and he was incredulous that I had never heard of the artist.
Next it was my turn, and I played what at the time was my favorite composition, an English cathedral anthem by Benjamin Britten, Festival te Deum. It met with a rather amused response: "Well, Roberts, that's just fine if that's what you want to listen to." He didn't seem to mind Britten's music; it just didn't have any effect on him.
Neither his music nor mine was "right"; they just used different languages. He was moved by one, I by the other. I would never suggest that this neighbor was "wrong" in his musical taste, but rather that he is free to like what he chooses, and I hope he would accord me the same liberty. In fact, differing preferences in music might be seen as an extension of the discussion of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12. It takes all of us, with our orientation to different music, to make up the complete Body of Christ.
There is a close connection between cultural identity and specific musical styles. While there are different languages of music, within those languages there are regional "dialects" and "accents." Despite the fact that my seminary friend and I had grown up in neighboring states, we responded differently to the two examples because of our respective musical languages—both derived from Western European tradition (though his might also have contained blues, and, therefore, African elements).
Often, in describing their inability to perceive music as well as they'd like, people say they don't "understand" music. Yet understanding is probably less important than exposure. A professor of mine said that the old cliché "I don't know much about music, but I know what I like" should really be "I don't know much about music, but I like what I know."
Most people enjoy their favorite music, whether it is classical European or Argentine dance music, without knowing much about its structure or theoretical components. This lack of technical knowledge does not prevent someone from being deeply moved by the music. Its impact comes from years of exposure to music, stored in the mind and heart, and the associated experiences and feelings. Old familiar sounds, or new sounds related to the old ones, evoke an emotional response as they fall on our ears and trigger our memory.
When one has had a profound spiritual experience, hearing the music later that was connected with it powerfully recalls the event or even evokes new spiritual response.
Predictably, the kind of music that a person is exposed to before adulthood is likely to elicit lifelong responses. Certainly new types of music, as well as further examples of familiar styles, may be added throughout life, just as we may develop new tastes in food as we age. There may always be, however, a particular fondness for the music of ones youth, just as there is for the food of ones home.
A friend of mine who loved working with children's choirs said, "I figure that one of the most important things I do is to sock away snippets of Mozart into their little temporal lobes, so that they will love it for their lifetime."
Still, it is never too late to learn to love new music, and we may find that repeated exposure to music even later in life elicits strong feelings about it. Hearing a little music a lot has a greater impact than hearing a lot of music a little. Repetition of a composition allows it really to belong to you.
Excerpted from Music and Vital Congregations by WILLIAM BRADLEY ROBERTS. Copyright © 2009 William Bradley Roberts. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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