Music Itself

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Conventional thought holds that liturgical song is of two basic kinds. The first is logogenic (word-born), where rhythm, shape, movement, phrasing and cadences are directed by the ebb and flow of a text. This is essentially musical grammar—sometimes called speech-melody or stylized speaking—and is the dominant trait of scriptural cantillation and modal prayer chant. The second type is melogenic (melos-born), where words are fitted to the music. This includes prayer-songs in which musical considerations, like meter and melody, outweigh textual concerns. There is room in each of these categories for simple and complex music, literal and interpretive approaches, prosaic and creative treatments.

While the full range of liturgical music can be divided between these groupings, there is a third, somewhat different class that deserves our attention: pathogenic. Strictly defined, pathogenic (emotion-born) songs are distinguished by vocables: meaningless or nonlexical syllables sung to deliver melodies. This is a common feature of Native American songs and the wordless tunes of Hassidic Jewish origin. The music is devoid of verbal syntax and substance, and emotional outlet is the foremost purpose.

Although pathogenic songs are technically extra-liturgical—they do not involve prayer-texts—many who attend liturgical worship experience the music in a pathogenic way. This is especially so in settings where texts are in a foreign language and/or contain ideas foreign to a participant’s worldview. An example would be a Jewish congregant who is an atheist and does not understand (or care to understand) Hebrew, but still finds satisfaction in synagogue song. He may be an object of pity for the pious clergyperson or the high-minded composer; but he is common—perhaps the majority in some places—and his experience is as authentic as anyone else’s.

Whether the design of a prayer-song is logogenic or melogenic, the music has an essence and vitality of its own. Of course, the skilled composer or presenter will use musical devices to bring out qualities they find in the text, and they generally expect worshipers to pick up on the word-music interplay. However, once notions and emotions are translated into sound, they tend to take on an independent life. Although the text is the reason for the music, it is not always the reason a person is attracted to the music. (In fact, one’s affection for a song may be diminished when he or she discovers its meaning.)

If we expand the discussion of liturgical song to include the experiential aspect, then pathogenic becomes a legitimate and profitable classification. This approach is consistent with the updated understanding of ritual music, which sees text as one of several components of musical worship.

In contemporary scholarship, ritual music addresses the entirety of the rite: words, actions, artifacts, music and physical space. This holistic view looks beyond language and transcends debates about the appropriateness or inappropriateness of a particular musical setting. It is the rite—not just the message—that shapes and reinforces identities and brings meaning to the lives of participants. The words may or may not be understood and may or may not be relevant for everyone in attendance. But there is acknowledged value in all elements of the rite, including the music itself.

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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