Reviving Tones

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

American Baptist preacher and musician Adoniram Judson Gordon (1836-1895) wrote, “eras of spiritual refreshing in the Church of Christ have generally been eras of revival in popular and congregational singing.” This comment is specific to American Christianity and its various “Great Awakenings,” but it can be applied cross-culturally and cross-religiously to revivals like Neo-Hassidism—a Jewish movement that draws much of its vigor from the songs of Shlomo Carlebach and others. As a rule, religious revivals are not innovative in the sense of presenting new doctrines or ideas. Their originality lies instead in how they package and present existing material in new and emotionally convincing ways. As the “re” of the term connotes, the objective is not creation but restoration, renewal, reassertion, reconnection, reinvigoration, revitalization and return. The success or failure of a revival depends on how effective it is in converting inherited views and established thoughts into vibrant sources of energy. This is why group singing is so heavily relied upon.

Of all the arts, music is understood as the most directly emotional and the most closely associated with religious life. The freeness and intensity with which music interacts with non-rational strata of our consciousness is perceived as a deeply spiritual matter. The sensation is amplified in group settings, where communal song brings individuals to shared sentiments, common physiological reactions and strengthened ties to one another. When the context is religious, music-stimulated group energy is naturally translated into divine or spiritual energy. The content of the songs and the conditions in which they are sung add a powerful interpretive layer.

Musical responses play a crucial part in cultivating large-scale religious revivals and sustaining them over time. Again, the messages that are sung are typically conventional (though they can be phrased in fresh and relevant ways). What is novel and attractive is how the messages are experienced. As Gordon observed, revival songs tend to be popular and congregational: they embrace current musical tastes and encourage collective participation. Both of these elements—trendiness and communal engagement—contribute mightily to rekindling interest and enthusiasm in the religion.

In this sense, lyrical content—whether hymnal, liturgical, scriptural or other—is less important than how it is performed and received. This reflects a general musical truth: even when tones are used to transmit texts, they are perceived to explore and express levels and kinds of feelings that elude or transcend the words themselves. This has significance for religious revivals, which, as mentioned, are concerned with reigniting feelings rather than inventing ideologies. And it is for this reason that “eras of spiritual refreshing,” as Gordon called them, are almost always propelled by song.

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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