Category Archives: Bible

Tuneful Bones

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Singing is a whole body activity. It involves resonating chambers in the belly, mouth, chest, head and throat, various articulators—teeth, tongue, lips—and the structural support of the spine, shoulders, knees, neck and so on. The more practiced and seasoned the voice, the more fully engaged and holistic the system. King David is known in biblical folklore as a masterful, accomplished and mellifluous singer. It is therefore fitting to find this lyric placed in his mouth: “All my bones will say, ‘Lord, who is like You?’” (Ps. 35:10).

Located in a psalm petitioning the deity for deliverance from foes, this phrase is meant to stress the severity of the situation and the intensity of the plea. “All my bones” is a poetic euphemism for the whole body, and to “say” really means to sing. Thus, we have a psalmist, identified as David, using his entire body—his complete instrument—to sing an entreaty for victory (in this case against foreign armies on the field of battle).

Less musically sensitive commentaries focus on the thematic context of the verse, understanding it to signify that the author’s bones thrill at the idea of justice being served and fearful circumstances being attenuated. But a reader aware of the physical effects of singing sees the words quite differently. The singer’s body, down to the bones, is vibrating with melody.

The religious intent of the verse opens the door to further exploration. Enter Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), famed Austrian philosopher and esotericist. Much of Steiner’s work strove to find a synthesis between science and mysticism and, more specifically, between the cognitive approach of Western philosophy and the spiritual needs of the human being. This venture led to some imaginative theories, including his concept of “universal tone.”

Steiner believed singing to be more than a physical process. It begins with physiology and technique, but “must be freed from a mechanistic approach and the singer awakened to an understanding of true tone as a spiritual reality.” In Steiner’s vocabulary, “true tone” refers to an oscillating spiritual energy present throughout the universe, which is carried into our ears and penetrates our inner being. So, when the singer emits a melody, she is actually reflecting back the sound of the universe. Steiner put it thus: “the singer [has] the all-engrossing experience of the whole being as a ‘resounding column of sound.’ The entire etheric organization of the human being—all of his life forces—then becomes involved in the singing process.”

The parallel between Steiner’s elucidation and the verse from Psalms is obvious. In both, the entirety of the person is said to sing. For the psalmist, this was an intuitive feeling—a feeling intensified by the gravity of circumstances and the urgency of the song. Steiner saw it as a metaphysical resonance with the cosmos: the singer is filled with the universal tone, takes hold of it and produces a song.

Not insignificantly, Steiner maintained that great singers are prone to this experience; they are trained and expert in the art of full-body singing. Someone like David, the vocal legend of the biblical world, would have attained this feeling regularly—especially when the song really mattered. But Steiner was optimistic that anyone could, with proper orientation and preparation, sing from the bones. “Now the path to it must become conscious for all,” he wrote. “Not that we can all become professional singers, but we can all learn how to sing well. This is one way to help us find our humanity.”

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

Bad Vibrations

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The destruction of Jericho is the most powerful sonic event in the Bible (Josh. 6:1-27). Told as the first Israelite battle during the conquest of Canaan, the story depicts deafening sounds shaking the walls of Jericho to the point of collapse. Sound waves alone, the story tells us, were enough to topple the thick fortification and assure a swift and victorious invasion.

The opening verses of the narrative set the dramatic scene. Joshua is given a divine command to send his troops marching around the walled city for six days. They are to circle Jericho one time per day, accompanied by the Ark of the Covenant and seven priests carrying shofars. On the seventh day, they are to complete the circuit seven times as the priests violently blast their horns. The march is to climax with a sustained blast accompanied by screams and shouts. “Thereupon the city wall will collapse,” the Bible tells us, “and the people shall advance, every man straight ahead” (Josh. 6:5).

In the excessive attack that follows, Joshua’s soldiers exterminate the inhabitants of Jericho, slaughter their livestock, and burn the city to the ground, sparing only the family of Rahab, a harlot who hid two Israelite spies during a reconnaissance mission to the city. The Israelites also pilfer gold and silver and objects made of copper and iron, which “go into the treasury of the Lord” (Josh. 6:19).

In the first decade of the twentieth century two German archaeologists, Carl Watzinger and Ernst Sellin, conducted a scientific investigation of the Jericho site, expecting to validate the historicity of the biblical account. They determined instead that the city had been unoccupied during the purported period of Joshua (c. 1400 BCE). Archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon confirmed their findings in the 1950s, and radiocarbon tests done in 1995 dated samples from the site to 1562 BCE (plus/minus 38 years).

This does not mean that the myth is without basis. Jericho is an earthquake-prone location. In fact, a fault line runs through the area, known as the Jericho Fault. Most researchers agree that a massive earthquake struck the region and demolished the city’s ancient walls. Legend of the cataclysmic event grew as the story passed from person to person and generation to generation. The Israelites inserted themselves into the retelling, distorting and embellishing the details to include their tribal hero Joshua and the noisy people under his charge.

Clothing earthquakes in mythological images is fairly common. Seismic events have given rise to several Japanese myths, including the story of a gigantic catfish named Namazu, upon whose back the land floats. When the fish flips its tale, the ground trembles. A West African myth has the Earth resting atop a giant’s head. Earthquakes occur whenever he sneezes. The Maoris of New Zealand tell a story of Mother Earth, who is pregnant with the god Ru. When Ru kicks in the womb, the world shakes.

These and other earthquake myths are rooted in observable phenomena. Trying to explain the Earth’s random and ruinous power, they draw on imagery from ordinary experience: fish, pregnancy, people, etc. And since the audiences are familiar with these elements, the stories seem like reasonable depictions of cause and effect. Mystery solved.

The plausibility factor is important when considering the biblical story of Jericho. The people of Israel were intimate with the audible force of the shofar, a utilitarian instrument with civic, ceremonial and military uses. They heard its ear-splitting tones and felt its bone-rattling vibrations—the impact of which was amplified when more horns were added to the cacophonous mix. With a little imagination and exaggeration—and the added roars of Israelite troops—the sound was amplified to destructive levels.

The collapse of Jericho is a uniquely Israelite take on earthquake mythology. It projects human responses to sound onto the Earth, and incorporates Israel’s favorite instrument into one of its most important stories.

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Parties and Piety

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

There are musical puritans in every age. Viewing the enjoyment of the sonorous art as a symptom and instigator of depravity, they vehemently preach the avoidance of musical sounds. Their disdain for music derives partially from knowledge of its effect. Human beings are, it seems, helplessly at the mercy of musical influences, which can steer us to darkness. They also malign music as part of a larger mission to separate sacred and profane. Song, argue the puritans, should be designated for the house of worship and used exclusively (and sparingly) for prayerful purposes. Sacred song might inspire virtue, but secular music always leads to transgression.

This viewpoint is repeated so much that we need only cite a few pronouncements to illustrate the point. Clement of Alexandria (c.150-c. 215) condemned instrumental playing: “if people occupy their pipes and psalteries, etc., they become immodest and intractable.” Islamic scholar Ibn Abī al-Dunyā (d. 894) said, “all dissipation begins with music and ends with drunkenness.” A major figure in Jewish anti-music discourse was Moses Maimonides (1135-1204), who declared: “A person who listens to foolish songs with musical accompaniment is guilty of three transgressions, listening to folly, listening to song and listening to instrumental music. If the songs are sung with accompaniment of drinking, there is a fourth transgression, if the singer is a woman there is a fifth.”

Underlying these opinions is the belief that delighting in music is a self-indulgent diversion, which stifles awareness of the divine and opens the door to other hedonistic vices. To borrow a contemporary phrase, it is considered a “gateway drug.”

Not surprisingly, we find this attitude among biblical prophets, whose role it was to condemn behavior regarded as sinful, immoral and deviant. The prophets railed against actions they thought reflected a lack of allegiance to divine will. They denounced rote sacrifice, chastised idol worshipers, berated the unjust and criticized people whose preoccupation with “frivolous” music apparently distracted them from righteous causes.

Isaiah refers to those who, “at their banquets have lyre and lute, timbrel, flute and wine; but who never give a thought to the plan of the Lord, and take no note of what He is designing” (Isa. 5:12). Amos castigates the upper echelon of Samaria, who have ostentatious banquets and “sing idle tunes to the sound of the lute . . . They drink straight from the wine bowls and anoint themselves with the choicest oils” (Am. 6:5). In these and similar instances, the prophets forcefully advocate piety over parties. Sumptuous foods, abundant drinks, luxurious oils and decadent music can only derail the eternal cause of justice and goodness.

For biblical prophets and later sages of the Abrahamic faiths, music is a symbol of self-gratification. Being caught up in the amusement of music—especially that of a nonreligious kind—is an automatic affront to virtue. Few who enjoy music would support this puritanical principle, the absurd potential of which is displayed in Hells Bells: The Dangers of Rock ‘N’ Roll (1989), an infamous documentary that portrays rock music as satanic and anti-Christian. Nevertheless, we might concede that music should be used to enhance life, not to distract us from things of ultimate importance.

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

Composing Legends

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Prolificacy is a common characteristic of the creative mind. The creator must create. By definition, a painter paints, a sculptor sculpts, a cake decorator decorates cakes. Yet there is a certain (if unspecified) quantity of creating that must be done before one can earn such a title. And in most creative fields—artistic, culinary or otherwise—a substantial body of work is a prerequisite for being considered exceptional. In the musical world, astounding output is seen as a sign of special insight, sensitivity and genius. The giftedness of a musician is thought to be proportional to his or her productivity. Thus, we find large sums of music attributed to two biblical figures remembered for their astuteness, sagacity and wisdom: David and Solomon.

Tradition ascribes the entire Book of Psalms to King David, and 73 psalm chapters bear his name. A version of the Psalter from the Dead Sea Scrolls goes further, claiming that David wrote 3,600 psalms, along with 450 additional songs. Solomon, David’s son and successor, is said to have authored 1,005 songs and 3,000 proverbs (1 Kgs. 5:12). That reference prompted a veritable library of Solomonic pseudepigraphy, including two biblical psalms (72 and 127), the books of Proverbs, Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes, the deuterocanonical Wisdom of Solomon, and the Psalms of Solomon (an extracanonical book from the first or second century B.C.E).

Doubts have been raised about whether these monarchs authored any of the songs to which their names are attached. For one thing, it was customary to put wisdom in the mouths of kings, regardless of their reputation. It could thus be that David and Solomon were made into fertile songwriters as a way to venerate their wisdom above that of “ordinary” monarchs. Another problem is that epigraphical evidence from their time is scanty. The world of David and Solomon was virtually illiterate, and it is likely that neither was capable of writing—let alone scribing beautifully intricate verses.

There is a more basic question apart from these historical considerations: Is it even possible for the kings to have been so musically prolific? The answer is a qualified yes.

Über-prolific musicians have been known in every epoch of human history. Purandara Dasa (1484–1564), the father of Carnatic music, wrote at least 1,000 songs. The oeuvre of German Baroque composer Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) is believed to comprise over 3,000 pieces. Simon Sechter (1788-1867), who taught music theory at the Vienna Conservatory, wrote over 8,000 pieces (a comparative few of which were published).

Super-productive musicians of modern vintage include Sun Ra, an avant-garde jazzer and self-styled extraterrestrial, who is credited with 159 albums. Musical polymath Frank Zappa put out 62 albums during his brief lifetime, and 29 additional albums have been released posthumously. Minimalist composer Philip Glass has nearly one hundred albums to his credit, and Ennio Morricone has provided scores for some 340 films.

It hardly needs mention that the work of these creative personalities is not always masterful in terms of quality, originality or care of construction. Anyone who has done a lot of anything knows this to be an inevitable truth. Nonetheless, a simple fact must be acknowledged: prolificacy requires time, diligence and dedication. This makes the idea of David and Solomon as fertile songwriters all the more doubtful.

As a rule, prolific musicians are fully absorbed in their calling. In contrast, David and Solomon are portrayed as warrior kings whose days were full with diplomacy, strategizing and nation building (not to mention their eventful personal lives). At best they would have written songs in their limited spare time. So, even if we set aside questions about ascriptions and literacy, the volume of material attributed to them would have been exceedingly difficult to achieve. It might be a remote possibility, but remote bordering on highly improbable.

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

Songs of Derision

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Song is a forceful implanter of information. Whether we want it to or not, a properly proportioned and memorably melodious tune can mold our thoughts long after the music has ceased. Because music imbues words with emotional content and fastens them into memory, song is an invaluable and penetrating purveyor of opinion. There is no shortage of studies and anecdotes espousing the aptness of melody for communicating (and manipulating) viewpoints and ideas. Rhythm, repetition, tempo, pattern and other devices act as tools of indoctrination, reiterating convictions and influencing attitudes.

Melody is a neutral carrier of a singer’s intentions. The music is a means of transmitting content, but cannot by itself relate definite viewpoints. The same tune might be used to tell of lost love, impart a moral lesson or petition a deity. When the focus is a human being, the singer might paint that person in a positive or negative light. In the vast treasury of world music, there are probably as many songs extolling individuals as there are songs ridiculing them.

Songs of praise and songs of disparagement are equally capable of sculpting our judgment. Melody encodes the characterization into the brain, where it rests so comfortably and is recalled so effortlessly that there is seemingly no reason to question or refute it. Its message becomes our own.

Depending on the tone of the lyrics, people songs can be a source of uplift or a cause of pain. We can imagine the subject of a heroic ballad being puffed up by the glowing terms with which he is described (hyperbolic though they usually are). We can also picture the subject of a mocking song feeling deflated or fearful at the words he hears. Songs of the latter type are all the more devastating as they typically contain untruths and exaggerations aimed at inciting hostility and aggression.

Derisive songs are meant to break people down. Their success in doing so is proven by their historical prevalence; they are sung because they work. Jeering songs crowded the repertoires of the jesters of Aztec Mexico, skalds of Scandinavia and minstrels of Anglo-Saxon Europe. They remain popular among folk balladeers of West Africa and the Bahamas, and are heard on schoolyards everywhere. The psychological toll of such music is documented, among other places, in the Hebrew Bible.

Although the lyrics of mocking songs are not part of the biblical record, their consequence is described in several verses. The psalmist bemoans, “I am the taunt of drunkards” (Ps. 69:12). Job weeps, “Now I am the butt of their gibes; I have become a byword to them” (Job 30:9). The author of Lamentations cries out that he has “become a laughingstock to all people, the butt of their gibes all day long” (Lam. 3:14). In each instance, the ridicule is felt so deeply that the person turns to divine help. Heavenly reassurance seems the only possible antidote.

Presbyterian minister William Swan Plumer (1802-1880) called scornful songs “an old weapon of the adversary.” He cautioned that the blend of piercing melody and spiteful verse makes taunting music especially hard to bear: “Few have courage to endure it. Under its stroke thousands quail. The natural temper of most men quite unfits them for this kind of suffering. . . . They dread the finger of scorn more than they do the warrior’s steel.” If there is any truth to the tired aphorism, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” it most certainly does not apply when words are sung.

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

Inventing Hymns

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.  

The biblical account of the exodus from Egypt culminates with the fervent singing of the Song of the Sea (Exod. 15:1-21). It is the first instance of communal worship in the Bible and the first time singing is used to express divine praise. Presented as a spontaneous response to the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, the Song celebrates the Israelites’ escape from bondage and release to freedom. In style and structure, it is identical to poetry found in the Book of Psalms—so much so that it could be plucked from its surroundings and wedged between two psalms without raising suspicion. This close affinity seems to suggest that the Song is a perfect prototype for later prayers. After all, it comes about a thousand years before the heyday of devotional singing in the Second Jerusalem Temple. But critical scholarship views the Song as an inset hymn, which was added to the story for religious and literary purposes.

During the Second Temple period, there was a calculated effort to shape biblical literature for use as liturgy. This was accomplished by injecting original poetry into sacred stories or embellishing poetic kernels already present in the text. This is why we find epic psalms at the climax of the exodus, at the end of Moses’ life (Deut. 32:1-43), after Deborah’s victory (Jdg. 5), as Hannah’s expression of thanksgiving (1 Sam. 2:1-10) and so on. (Other instances are 2 Sam. 22; Isa. 38:9-20; Jon. 2:3-10; Hab. 3; Dan. 2:20-23; and 1 Chron. 16:8-36.)

These poetic excursions create stark breaks in their respective storylines, and often seem out of place or contradictory to the presenter’s personality. Hannah, for example, is shown as a meek and quiet woman, yet after bearing her much-longed-for son, she becomes a verbose and exquisite poetess. It is also common for inset hymns to reference events or institutions of later eras. Hannah’s prayer mentions a king although her story takes place before Israel’s monarchy came into being.

These insertions were mainly used to establish precedence for Temple liturgy. By putting prayers into the mouths of biblical heroes and infusing key narratives with devotional flourishes, the liturgical authors read themselves into Israel’s hallowed past. In so doing, they devised ancient templates for their own brand of worship, and added to the (imagined) lifespan of their psalm tradition.

The Song of the Sea is an instructive case in point. Parts of the Song indicate that it is one of the oldest poems in the Bible. It shares linguistic features with Late Bronze Age Ugaritic poetry, and the short refrain attributed to Miriam is legitimately archaic (Exod. 15:21). However, its psalmic structure and reference to Philistia, the conquest of Canaan and the Jerusalem Temple (vv. 14-17) reflect the anachronistic perspective of a chronologically distant generation.

It can thus be assessed that the Song contains an ancient core—antiquated language and Miriam’s verse—which was embellished, expanded and updated by Temple liturgists. The motivation for this editorial elaboration is also apparent. Like other inset hymns, the Song had a distinct liturgical application despite being housed in a non-liturgical book. It was most probably sung during the Sabbath sacrifice in the Temple.

Viewed as a literary phenomenon, inset hymns illustrate what historian Bernard Lewis calls invented history. The hymns were affixed to older literature and introduced ideas, developments and poetic forms of later times. They were not inserted merely to beautify or liven the text, but rather to advance a liturgical agenda. Through textual invention and manipulation, ancient figures were made into proto-liturgists and Temple practices acquired a richer heritage. To use Lewis’ phrase, the hymns reshaped history for a purpose.

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

Music as Rhetoric

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Rhetoric, the art of persuasive communication, has origins in the earliest human civilizations. Persuasion by speech was a pillar of classical Greek education, and ancient writings from China, Mesopotamia, Egypt and elsewhere show varying levels and types of formalized rhetoric. Cicero identified the tripartite purpose of rhetoric as docere, movere, delectare—to teach, to move, to delight—a formula later claimed by Augustine for Christian oratory. In a less systematic way, these ambitions are present in vocal music, which aims to inform, convince and/or motivate a targeted audience.

The conception of music as rhetoric has developed into a minor, though enriching, topic of philosophy and musicology. Scholars of these disciplines are cognizant that a careful pairing of text and tones is often better at teaching, moving and delighting than an unaccompanied message.

Of particular note are theories pertaining to musico-liturgical performances in Jewish and Christian contexts. Music in these settings is valued for its ability to simultaneously convey conceptual and emotional content. Whether it is a choral piece, congregational melody, plainsong, biblical chant or something else, music is relied upon for ideological grooming, social conditioning, identity shaping and morale building. This succeeds both because of the emotionalizing effect of the sound and because the listener does not anticipate persuasion. Unlike a speech or debate, a song tends to be convincing without overtly revealing its objective.

The effectiveness of musical rhetoric has less to do with the music itself than the intention and conviction of the presenter(s) and/or composer. The use of song to sway a congregation has roots in biblical prophecy, which was closer to chant or speech-melody than true singing. The three-fold task of the prophet was to capture the people’s attention, admonish them for apparent sins, and compel them to live in accordance with religious precepts. The literary prophets—Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the twelve Minor Prophets—voiced their pronouncements as poetry, an auditory medium closely related to (and arguably identical with) music.

Their style of oration was probably similar to that of Baptist preachers, whose sermons freely employ musical devices and exhibit movement reminiscent of a crafted composition. They begin with relaxed speech at normal volume, but as the talk intensifies, vocal pitch and decibels dramatically rise and fall. The preachers insert dramatic pauses, exaggerated punctuations, sustained syllabifications, poetic locutions and repeated phrases. The congregation is emotionally drawn to accept the content of the stylized discourse.

Rhetorical potential is present in music of divergent genres and situations. Whether it is the speech-song of a prophet or preacher, a Baroque piece guided by the doctrine of affections, or a blues song saturated with raw emotion, music is uniquely able to penetrate and win over the mind and spirit. We are compelled to feel what the performer feels and believe what the performer believes. And when we are ourselves the performers, it is almost impossible to avoid being moved in the direction the piece wishes to lead us.

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

Beauty and Function

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Listening to music for pleasure was an unknown concept in the ancient world. Performances were thoroughly context-bound, and music had little value outside of the undertaking for which it was used. This functional essence is captured in the Bible, which depicts singing and instrument playing as activity-supporting efforts, and refrains from affixing adjectives to the music itself. Though the authors freely reported that music was made, we are left to guess whether it was heard as soaring, jarring, quieting, rousing or something else. Music was present and appreciated in biblical society, but was it aesthetically appealing?

The closest the Bible comes to answering this question is when it calls King David the “sweet singer of Israel” (2 Sam. 23:1). This designation suggests that David’s voice was regarded for its sweetness, and points to a broader appreciation of pleasant sonorities. Yet this is the only time the Bible states a preference for pleasing tones. Elsewhere we read of singers specially selected for public rituals. We find music accompanying joyous celebrations. We encounter instruments marking grand occasions. But outside of this verse, music is not given aesthetic attention.

Still, we should not presume that beauty and function were mutually exclusive in the music of biblical times. Were it not for an attraction to music, Israel would have never employed it in support of non-musical activities. Qualitative labels are absent, but there was an awareness of music’s ability to satisfy the human need for artistic stimulation. It is, then, best to view music of the Bible as a utilitarian art form: utilitarian in purpose, artistic in design. This is analogous to items of modern-day life that combine utility and allure, such as clothing, silverware, packaging, appliances and automobiles.

By definition, music is artistic in all its permutations. There are at least nine reasons for this, drawn from the philosophy of art. Music is a product of human creativity. It is made for human consumption. It is comprised of sensuous material (sound). It is perceived through the senses to which it is addressed. It is created in response to a guiding idea or vision of the whole. It conveys unity and completeness. It cannot be replicated in precisely the same way. It can be judged in terms of excellence. And it is perceived as separate from ordinary things.

These rules apply to all music, whether aesthetics is a primary or tangential concern. Concert music, for instance, is supposed to be appreciated on its artistic merits, while a lullaby is a means to an end. But even the simplest lullaby can be assessed on the basis of beauty, both in terms of composition and presentation. The principle was true in the ancient world as it is today: whatever music’s reason for being, aesthetics plays a role in our experience of it.

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

Loving Love Songs

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Roy Shuker, professor of popular music studies at Victoria University of Wellington, offers a wonderfully succinct explanation of “pop”: “[It] is defined by its general accessibility, its commercial orientation, an emphasis on memorable hooks or choruses, and a lyrical preoccupation with romantic love as a theme.” The last point should not be overlooked. A quick glance at popular song titles exposes a massively disproportionate number of love songs. This is so of ragtime, swing, rhythm and blues, country, disco and everything in between. Cross-culturally we find romance dominating song catalogues of the South Pacific, the Far East, the European continent and seemingly everywhere else.

The inescapable theme of romance on the radio amounts to a kind of sentimental ideology. As musical genius and world-class cynic Frank Zappa quipped, “Romantic love songs are a sham that perpetuate a lie on unsuspecting young kids. I think one of the causes of bad mental health in the United States is that people have been raised on love lyrics.” Zappa’s point is legitimate: these songs are unrealistic and overdone. Yet our rate of consumption suggests that most people desire them on a deep and basic level.

The perennial popularity of these songs must owe to something. Perhaps their ubiquity simply reflects the universal human longing for romantic partnership. It could also be that these songs articulate something to strive for, especially as a relationship ebbs and flows. Or maybe there is a biological reason, since our prehistoric ancestors evidently first used song in mating rituals. Whatever the source of their appeal, Shuker’s observation holds true: like all popular music, love songs are accessible and standardized.

This two-part character is even present in romantic songs of the ancient world. A good example is Psalm 45, the sole love song in the Psalter. It was composed for royal weddings and is stamped with the mark of convention, both lyrically and musically.

Beauty was associated with royalty in ancient Israel, a norm conveyed in the verse, “You are fairer than all men; your speech is endowed with grace . . .” (v. 3). In ancient Near Eastern cultures, wives—including queens and princess brides—were expected to leave their families, places of origin and religions of birth. That custom is reiterated thus: “forget your people and your father’s house, and let the king be aroused by your beauty; since he is your lord, bow to him” (vv. 11-12). The psalm also includes a perfectly generic description of the processional: “The royal princess, her dress embroidered with golden mountings, is led to the king, her maidens in her train, her companions, are presented to you” (vv. 14-15).

The psalm’s music was similarly standard. Its heading contains the designation al shoshanim, which many scholars agree specifies a tune to which the text was sung. Shoshanim is commonly translated “lilies” and is a stock erotic metaphor in the Song of Songs. In the context of Psalm 45, it is most likely the title of a popular love song, which we can imagine was as sugary to the ears of Israel as our love songs are to us.

It is logical to predict that audiences will lose interest in a subject that is rehashed, reshaped and restated again and again. Over time, one might assume, the topic will collapse under the weight of its popularity. Human nature is such that we constantly crave variety, and we are keenly aware when a theme or idea has run its course. But instead of meeting this fate, love songs constantly proliferate in every age and musical idiom. These songs reveal a fascinating truth about ourselves: even as we admit that they are, for the most part, mawkish and excessive, we cannot get enough of them. They constitute proof of sociologist Bryan S. Turner’s point: “Human beings are primarily sentimental creatures, not rational philosophers.”

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

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.