Sing an Old Song

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The idea of “newness” is hardly treated in the Hebrew Bible. When it is, it usually comes in seasonal contexts, like the new moon and new grains, which are less about novelty and more about maintaining an agricultural schedule. For the most part, the biblical authors were preoccupied with stability and continuity—hallmarks of a religious worldview; and frequent mention of ritual enactments, heroic ancestors and prior generations make it a past-affirming document. That being said, two well-known verses do address the concept of the new, though from opposing directions. One is the somber observation of Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing new beneath the sun” (1:9). The other is the gleeful injunction, “Sing to the Lord a new song” (e.g., Isa. 42:10; Ps.98:1). Placing these quotations side by side, we are left with the obvious question: How can a new song be sung if such a thing does not exist under the sun?

The sentiment in Ecclesiastes is surrounded by verses stressing the futility and repetitiousness of nature and human effort. The passage of life, cycle of the sun, returning winds and flow of water are cited as evidence that all that occurs has occurred before. The dismal consequence is that, ultimately, we have nothing unique to offer the world. Whether we should adopt this severe outlook is open to debate; but it does encapsulate the common observations that history repeats itself and most things have already been thought of. We can even presume that the phrase “nothing new beneath the sun” was conjured many times before it crossed the mind of Koheleth, the ascribed writer of Ecclesiastes.

“Sing unto the Lord a new song” conveys an entirely different attitude. It is an exclamation shouted in response to divine deliverance, feelings of wonderment and general good fortune. The author is so overwhelmed with gratitude that he must sing out. That the song is “new” reflects the spontaneity of the experience: the sudden surge of emotions is expressed in correspondingly unrehearsed tones.

But is it truly possible to sing a new song? Koheleth would answer in the negative. No artistic creation arises independent of prior encounters, experiences and observations. What might be called a musical innovation—a recent composition, nascent genre or state-of-the-art instrument—really consists of links between existing ideas and information. In the abstract, this is because music involves the retrieval, manipulation and arrangement of sounds already present in nature. More practically, there is only so much one can do within a medium defined by conventions, styles, forms, phrases, intervals, harmonies, progressions, voicings, and so on. Even if one tried to write something completely alien to the ear, certain elements would invariably recall other works. These sonic limitations are confirmed when we search “all music sounds the same” on the Internet—an innocent request that yields some 200,000 complaints of the derivativeness of music on the radio.

There is, however, at least one way to reconcile “a new song” with “nothing new beneath the sun.” Instead of trying to invent or discover something wholly original, we can approach music as an opportunity for fresh insights and experiences. This concerns the singer’s state of mind rather than the song itself, which can be something sung for the first time or many times previously. If one is completely focused on the activity of singing, there is little risk of old melodies becoming stale. Singing a “new song” in this sense means finding continuous inspiration in even the most familiar tune.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

1 thought on “Sing an Old Song

  1. Michael Isaacson

    “New” in this context, once again, means living in simultaneous time zones. When a congregant asks a cantor or a composer for a new piece they are really asking for something from the past: “Like we used to sing when I was a kid”, the present: “something that’s like what we hear today” and the future: “Something that my kids might like to learn”. We don’t need anything “new ” under the sun all we need are new perspectives to refresh what has existed, exists, and might exist in the future.



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