Worship through Music, or “This is your soul on music”

This is a blog version of a message I delivered August 4th 2013.

The readings (read by someone else) were

  • Joshua 6: 1-21: one of scariest displays of the Old Testament God’s power, music is central to this moment.
  • Psalm 98 — #750 in the Chalice Hymnal: as in the Joshua reading, notice how the world and music are bound up together
  • Matthew 26: 26-30: a tranquil reading contrasting the first one.  They make an interesting pair (the placidity of this one, vs the violence of the other one)

Then I read from 1st Samuel chapter 16, verses 16-23

Let our lord command his servants here to search for someone who can play the lyre. He will play when the evil spirit from God comes on you, and you will feel better.”

17 So Saul said to his attendants, “Find someone who plays well and bring him to me.”

18 One of the servants answered, “I have seen a son of Jesse of Bethlehem who knows how to play the lyre. He is a brave man and a warrior. He speaks well and is a fine-looking man. And the Lord is with him.”

19 Then Saul sent messengers to Jesse and said, “Send me your son David, who is with the sheep.” 20 So Jesse took a donkey loaded with bread, a skin of wine and a young goat and sent them with his son David to Saul.

21 David came to Saul and entered his service. Saul liked him very much, and David became one of his armor-bearers. 22 Then Saul sent word to Jesse, saying, “Allow David to remain in my service, for I am pleased with him.”

23 Whenever the spirit from God came on Saul, David would take up his lyre and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him.

I paused after the reading for a moment (including a brief invocation), then began my talk, introducing myself.  This is an entirely different sort of vehicle but I hope it’s suitable to my blog, at least as I reflect back on my experience standing in the pulpit last week.  I reflected that my usual location during a service is in the choir.  Sometimes I get to be substitute-organist when David Warrack is absent.  Normally the only words I have are words in the songs I sing.  Otherwise I am sitting listening to someone else preaching.

I began by holding up Daniel Levitin’s book THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON MUSIC, a recent best-seller.   Levitin is a psychologist.  The book looks at how we respond to music.  One reason the book was a best-seller is that, while music is something many people enjoy, knowing how it works inside us? Not only is this something most of us haven’t thought about, but it’s a fascinating question that science hasn’t fully answered.

There are some fun things to investigate.

  • Why do some melodies stay in our heads?  A good song does that.  A good advertising jingle does that too.  Some of the hymns we sing stay in my head for DAYS afterwards.  Sometimes people call these “ear-worms” because the song doesn’t leave.  Still, I think it’s a miracle if someone can create a song that stays in your head.
  • How does it work? Levitin reminds us of the mechanics of music:
    • rhythm
    • pitch
    • timbre
    • intensity

I suppose the appeal of Levitin’s book is to take music –something magical and transformative to most people—and try to explain it.  While I understand the sentiment, I am not sure I approve.  I like magic & mystery.  Science has given us many good things, such as modern medicine & space travel, but I do not want science telling me why I like a song, particularly when there’s no mention of the dimension of spirit.  Science can’t explain everything, can it?

I’m no psychologist, for instance like Dr Levitin, but I too am interested in how music makes us feel.  Not so much the science but the emotional, and even the spiritual.   If I were to write my own book, I might call it THIS IS YOUR SOUL ON MUSIC… not explaining, really, but exploring & celebrating.

I am certainly not trying to explain like a scientist (partly because – last time I checked, I am not a scientist).  I am coming at this in appreciation, gratitude. I am thinking of how church services use music as part of the act of worship, and indeed, how this connects to our experience of music in the world at large

  • To help us celebrate
  • To help us to pray
  • To help us to say thank you
  • To help us to commit ourselves & spread the Christian Message.

What are we talking about, really? It’s a huge topic, but I will just touch on a few obvious thoughts, in hopes of helping you in your experience of music, and as you go about your lives.

This includes both

  • what it’s like to LISTEN to music.
  • what it’s like to MAKE music.

That wonderful passage from 1 Samuel 16 is very moving, but also a bit of psychology, a story that illustrates the workings of mind & spirit.  It feels very modern to me.  Sometimes I work a bit too hard, and have difficulty relaxing or sleeping, my mind too full, over-burdened with cares.  To me Saul’s troubled spirit wouldn’t be out of place in many of the films or TV shows I see. I feel so sorry for him, and I understand his response to David’s music.

David Warrack

It’s also funny because of course, here at Hillcrest we have our own David, David Warrack who plays the organ & leads the choir.  While listening to music may be good for us, composing, singing, performing is even BETTER for you.  I am not just saying this because we’re trying to recruit new members for the Hillcrest Chancel choir.  Singing is really good for you.  If you don’t believe me, try googling HEALTH BENEFITS OF MUSIC.  Trust me, you’ll see many articles. I saw…

  • evidence that singing in a choir is as good for you as yoga.
  • I read online that heartbeats of choir members become synchronized.
  • Singing releases endorphins (the pleasure hormones that we feel in the brain).
  • The lymphatic system –an important part of the body’s defense against disease—is stimulated by singing.
  • Other research is investigating whether Alzheimers is held back by musical performance.
  • Music HEALS! ….so much so that

I believe I’m exploring this because I want to share my experience: something that defies my understanding.  I suppose the choice to speak about this in a pulpit is a lot like blogging: the desire to bear witness as a part of my own spiritual journey.

It’s a big irony that a lecture or a sermon argues, tries to appeal to your brain, while MUSIC works thru the mind and the emotions.  To be standing up there, in the space for words, talking about music?   It is so ironic to be speaking of music, to turn it into an essay for discussion: when music can be so much simpler.  Music is always more eloquent.  During the sermon, we normally send the children downstairs:  Because the sermon is challenging… Harder work. The music appeals to all ages.  I have SO MUCH RESPECT, and gratitude for the people who stand in the pulpit.  Music seems so much easier, by comparison.

You have probably heard someone say that “music is abstract”.  Indeed, how much meaning is there in the music itself?

You may recognize this hymn-tune:

Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee, God of glory, Lord of love;
Hearts unfold like flowers before Thee, opening to (or Hail Thee as) the sun above.…

HENRY VAN DYKE wrote those words in 1907.  But the tune was ALREADY almost a century old, from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, written back in the 1800s with a different set of words before… in GERMAN.  The message of each set of words was joyful, but not really the same.

OR here’s another example.

I could sing…

Alas, my love, you do me wrong,
To cast me off discourteously.
For I have loved you well and long,
Delighting in your company.

 BUT… I can sing the same tune with different words

What child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap lay sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:
Haste, haste to bring Him laud,
The Babe, the son of Mary.

I bring this up as an illustration.   Music is in many ways a MYSTERY to us.  The same melody can work in many ways.  The effect comes from the combination of words & music.  The words may lecture us, and seek to teach us something. But when we sing the words, our response is much more than just argument.  When we sing some words, we are living the words, making them real.  In the moment we sing, it’s as though we are making a promise, as though we are talking to God, and for awhile the congregation is connected as one into a single body.

Music is a pathway to the spiritual, to the divine, to God.  I daresay, it’s not just that we worship through music. Music itself is a kind of worship, God manifest around us as we bask in the moments of music.

If you think of what we experienced, it’s words + music.  Why exactly do we feel these things about music? How could something non-verbal, something abstract, inspire such strong emotions?  Let’s think about it.

Before we understand complex words… We understand simpler words
As a child imagine–or recall- how this hymn sounds:

We do not need to understand big words…. Its a hymn of small words  And this hymn is as meaningful to me at 60 as it is when I was just 6.

Jesus Loves me this I know
For the Bible Tells me so
Little ones to him belong
They are weak but he is strong
YES Jesus loves me, Yes Jesus loves me
Yes Jesus loves me. The Bible tells me so.

This is a hymn about trust.  I’ve been singing this hymn for a very long time.  Singing those words has given me several ideas.

  • Jesus loves me… Singing it, I believe it.
  • It feels good to say so… I feel happy to place my trust in Jesus
  • When I sing “the Bible tells me so” I am not just reminded about the Bible, I am getting in touch with my own faith, my connection to this wonderful book.

I recognize, in bringing this to my blog, that some readers won’t have the same experience.  They might not feel the same connection, and indeed might not want to sing such a song.  But whether or not you’re Christian, whether or not you want to sing “Yes Jesus loves me”, there’s no denying the influence and power of having a child singing such a message, and continuing to sing it yourself.   Who needs membership cards, when the music can show your allegiance and faith so clearly?

So I have spoken about some of the words we learn, while we are in Sunday school, while we experience Christmas, and gradually develop a greater relationship with the church, with Jesus and come to understand the Bible and its teachings.
BUT  even before this, we encounter music. Before we have ANY words, we hear music.

I don’t pretend to remember.  I simply have my sense of how my mind works and how I think it always worked.
We have concrete expressions.

…words saying


And other things not so clear, because they are ABSTRACT



Yes “music” itself is an abstraction….

Music continues to speak to us from the abstract place of symbols, of our dreams, the images and shapes that we recall from our sleeping time, from our unconscious.

I don’t think we need to talk about psychology… or invoke Siegmund Freud… we don’t need to get that serious.   But… Music speaks to each of us, a language of immediate feelings.  Music helps us to feel that which we can’t precisely name.  At any age, music is part of this dichotomy between specific and abstract, between word & symbol.  The irrational and unconscious hold of symbols upon us is primal, from a time before we could think rationally.  I’d like to think that music points in both directions: back to our childhoods, and forward to where we’re going after we pass away.  The symbols speak to us so powerfully because they are in the language of our spiritual home: not of this world but the next, our once and future home. 

Feelings and emotions can be expressed in music. 

When someone gets married, music is there.  Music helps us solemnize the occasion, to help us hear the promises and feel the seriousness of the occasion.

And Music helps us celebrate. Can you imagine a party without music?  Yet some people have no choice.  Ludwig van Beethoven, who gave us that melody we use in the hymn “Joyful joyful we adore you”, gradually became deaf in his adulthood. He wrote that amazing tune without the benefit of hearing. He was deaf.  Be grateful for your hearing, and try to be respectful of those around us who are losing their hearing.  They are still able to come to the party, even if their celebration may not be the same as yours.

So music is one of the things we use to celebrate.

And we use Music to mourn.  We know we are at a serious occasion by the music.  But music may help set our emotions free.  I know that some melodies make it easier to cry, to be in touch with my sense of loss.

As a composer, as a singer, as a piano player, we all seek to harness the beauty of music to serve the purposes of worship: because music is a pathway to Jesus.

One of the great pleasures and PRIVILEGES I enjoy, is helping pick the hymns for many of our services (not all of them…it depends on the pastor).  There’s a handbook that is purchased for me each year, that makes hymn suggestions that are designed to match the biblical readings for the week, whether it’s…

  • Advent
  • Christmas
  • Lent
  • Easter
  • Pentecost

The hymns we sing at Christmas are different than what we sing during Lent or during Easter.  That handbook makes it much easier.

I went on to talk a bit about the mechanics of the church service, how the music is meant to lead us to the different emotional spaces of the service.

I closed with this suggestion, that in the days, weeks and years to come…: I invite you to notice the power of music, whether or not you’re ever in a place of worship.  Notice it and let that inform your life, recalling how music has been your pathway during childhood, during your moments of jubilation, and during moments of crisis & mourning.  Music is a gift coming to us from God, and our pathway back to the divine, from the beginning of our lives, and at every moment going forward.

This entry was posted in Music and musicology, Personal ruminations & essays, Psychology and perception, Spirituality & Religion and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Worship through Music, or “This is your soul on music”

  1. Alan Gasser says:

    “They’ll sing as they make their way home to Zion …” Isaiah’s vision from The Message

    A reading for a funeral today, for my godson Ethan, who had more joy in music than most handfuls of people. Also it’s just a good story, and a classic: what we do when we have an ideal life is to sing.

  2. Pingback: The Walrus Talks: Spirituality or ymmv | barczablog

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