Singing About Singing

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The Hebrew Bible includes numerous song texts referencing the act of singing. Most conspicuous and recurring is the exhortation “Sing to the Lord,” which is found in so many places as to make it the refrain of the Bible itself. (A partial list: Exod. 15:1, 21; Jgs. 5:3; Isa. 42:10; Pss. 13:6; 95:1; 98:1; 96:1; 149:1.) Singing about singing is at the same time odd and common: odd because it is an act declaring itself, common because it is a frequent and effective theme. It occurs in religious hymns of most faiths, and appears with equal regularity in secular tunes (e.g., “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Sing, Sing a Song,” “As Long as I’m Singing”). This subgenre of song—call it “reflexive”—can come across as redundant, ironic or even inane. After all, it is obvious that the person who is singing is singing—we need not be sung the fact.

Of course, self-comment is found in other art forms. There are plays within plays (Hamlet), movies about making movies (The Blair Witch Project), paintings depicting painting (The Artist in His Studio), and books about books (Fahrenheit 451). What distinguishes self-referential songs from these other creative ventures is directness and simplicity. A novel like Fahrenheit 451 might be centered around books and literacy, but that does not restrict the intricateness or amount of characters, plotlines, imagery, expressive language and so on.

In contrast, singing about singing usually involves the affirmation that one is singing, followed by some justification. Typical is Psalm 98:1: “Sing to the Lord a new song, for He has worked wonders; His right hand, His holy arm, has won Him victory . . .” The activity is the focal point, whereas the substantive words are, to a degree, ancillary (i.e., why and for whom one is singing). This is true whether the lyrics are prescriptive—“Sing to the Lord”—or descriptive—“I’m Singin’ in the Rain.”

So, what accounts for the popularity of these songs? The answer probably lies in the act of singing—or, more precisely, the preeminence of music over words. To this point, Catholic priest and scholar Richard Viladesau has written: “Singing enables us to step back from the word’s immediacy as communication, and to make it an aesthetic object.” When a song begins with a directive to sing or declares that singing is taking place, our attention is placed on the action itself. It is not an intellectual exercise, but an exercise of the spirit.

There is considerable difference between singing “Praise the Lord” and singing “Sing to the Lord.” The first zeroes in on a message; the second extols the virtue of song. Songs about singing endorse singing for singing’s sake. Though they may have an air of redundancy—the singer is singing that the singer is singing—the performance is its own reward.

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

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