Category Archives: worship

Musical Suspension of Disbelief

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Creators and performers of worship music come in two basic types: those who are believers and those who are not. While it might be assumed that the first group represents an overwhelming majority, candid admissions from composers, accompanists, choristers, music directors, and even some clergy would suggest that nonbelievers (and people on the fence) have a sizable presence among the makers of prayer-song. On the surface, their involvement reveals a scandalous contradiction: they lead congregations in devotional music, yet they are not themselves devout. However, a poll of people in the pews would show a similar assortment of true believers, nonbelievers, and occupiers of spaces in between.

Among other things, this indicates that level of conviction does not necessarily determine level of sincerity. One can be fully committed to the enterprise of worship music without pledging allegiance to the words. The simple reason for this is that music allows for easy suspension of disbelief—or, more precisely, makes belief secondary to experience. Music-making is an inherently spiritual activity in that it facilitates deep sensations, heightened awareness, and a departure from one’s ordinary state of being. As such, it accomplishes the religious goal of tending to the spirit—and it does so regardless of textual content.

This is especially true for religiously disinclined composers who nevertheless write music for expressly religious purposes. A famous example is Ralph Vaughan Williams, who, according to his poet wife Ursula, was “never a professing Christian.” In her biography of her composer husband, Ursula wrote: “Although a declared agnostic, he was able, all through his life, to set to music words in the accepted terms of Christian revelation as if they meant to him what they must have meant to [religious poet] George Herbert or to Bunyan.”

As a conscientious composer, Vaughan Williams was careful to match lyrical themes with appropriate musical accompaniment. He undoubtedly took equal care when setting secular words to music. In the process of composition, he absorbed himself in the text, not in order to believe its literalness, but in order to turn words into an elevated—and elevating—musical experience. Like so many musicians and congregants, he approached the words of prayer essentially as an excuse for music, and the spiritual gratification he received validated his efforts.

Before we rush to judge Vaughan Williams’ position as false or impoverished, let us reflect on these eloquent words from his wife: “He was far too deeply absorbed by music to feel any need of religious observance.” So it is for innumerable others who devote their talents to worship music.

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

Hearing the Sacred

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The term “sacred music” has fallen out of fashion somewhat in recent years. As a label for music used in devotional settings, it is synonymous with liturgical music, ritual music, and pastoral music. However, because “sacred” is an adjective, the term has been criticized as an attempt to distinguish some quality of the music itself. We cannot substantiate any claim of inherent sanctity, since the dividing line between secular and sacred music has never been strong and is increasingly blurred. Another problem is that when the term is expanded to performers, we get the boastful designation “sacred musician,” which may or may not accurately reflect the way a musician lives his/her life or views him/herself.

The issue lies in how “sacred” is understood. If we assume that it modifies the word next to it, then it is a misnomer. But if we see it more as a verb—something that the music does—then sacred is perfectly accurate. As difficult as it is to determine what (if anything) is holy about any sound, it is plain that sacred music is defined by its function.

A few examples from Jewish life illustrate the point. The core musical elements of the High Holy Days (called Mi-Sinai tunes, meaning “from Mount Sinai”) are derived in part from ballads and street songs of medieval Germany. A large portion of Sephardic synagogue music is essentially the same as Ottoman high court music. It is a Hassidic custom to transform popular songs into worship melodies by replacing the lyrics with nonsense syllable like “yai dai dai.” Twentieth-century America witnessed the emergence of liturgical music written in the style of 1960s protest songs; and a number of services have been composed in jazz, country, and other ostensibly “secular” idioms.

The list could go on, but the message is clear: sacred has little to do with the music itself, and everything to do with its purpose. This puts considerations like congregational preference and comfort level at the forefront. In order for the music to work (and thus be called sacred), it must be conducive and not disruptive to the worship experience. If it is sufficiently well liked and shown to succeed on a regular basis, it may earn a spot among the conventional favorites. Indeed, it is easy to forget that even the most popular and frequently sung synagogue melodies had premiere performances, and had to pass through several stages from novel to accepted to standard.

So, what is “sacred” in sacred music? The answer to this question is that it is the wrong question. Sacredness is not found in pitches, rhythms, intervals, or phrases, but in themes, intentions, and performance settings. All sorts of styles have been used in this capacity, and their suitability for worship is, in the end, a matter of taste. It is not necessary (or really possible) to apply objective measurements to sacred music. What is important is that the music helps cultivate a prayerful mood, no matter what it sounds like.

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

Spirituality of the Human

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Many secular people are averse to the term “spirituality.” To them, it connotes something hopelessly religious, patently unscientific and irrationally romantic. These objections are not unfounded. The popularization of spirituality in the twentieth century owed to theologians like Rudolf Otto, religious enthusiasts like William James, and New Age groups like the Theosophical Society. We have inherited the term from pious sources, associate it with mystics and proselytizers, and encounter it in devotional discourse. As a result, the very idea of “secular spirituality” might seem a careless cooption of a faith-filled concept or, worse, a laughable oxymoron.

But a growing number of secularists are adopting “spirituality” as a useful designation. They discard the supernaturalism of an immortal soul, divine entity or astral plane, but recognize opportunities for transcendence in human qualities such as compassion, love, harmony and contentment. These ideals exist prior to and independent of religious doctrine. Without relying on otherworldly interpretations or deistic explanations, secular spirituality seeks inner tranquility, pursues higher virtues and cultivates awareness of something greater than our physical selves.

While this process takes place in the realm of cognition, the overall effect is, by definition, beyond the ordinary experiences of mind and matter. It is thus better to describe it by way of example than to rely upon the limited resources of language.

There is a church in Albuquerque, New Mexico that boasts of offering Sunday services “minus religion.” It is called the Church of Beethoven, a congregation dedicated to presenting “professional live music performances of the highest quality, together with other artistic expressions from fields including poetry . . . in a manner that transcends the commonplace.” The church gathers each week for a one-hour program, typically comprised of a short musical selection, a poetry reading, a two-minute “celebration of silence,” and a substantial work of chamber music. According to its founder, Felix Wurman (1958-2009), the gathering places music “as the principal element, rather than as an afterthought.”

It is no coincidence that music plays a key role in many of the world’s religions. Melodic expression, it is widely believed, helps prepare us for transcendence. Yet music designed for sacred purposes is generally used in support of words (“worship music” usually refers to song-settings of poetry and prayer). Such music is programmatic, guided by textual narratives and meant to convey specific extra-musical themes. In contrast, most of the music performed at the Church of Beethoven is absolute, or music for its own sake. For example, a past service consisted of Bach’s Sonata in E-minor, Höller’s SCAN for Solo Flute, and Mozart’s Quartet for Flute, Violin, Viola and Cello. The intent behind this music is not religious per se. However, as the church insists, these performances can foster the ecstasy and communal bonding one would expect from a religious service—just without the dogma.

Music has the potential to bring us to a higher place. This can occur within or outside expressly ecclesiastical contexts, and may be achieved with music made for many purposes. The Church of Beethoven embraces this realization. It offers an alternative to conventional worship services, which are cluttered with rules of doctrine and practice. Its gatherings are, in a way, “pure” activities, unhindered by agenda or ideology. The same applies when we find spiritual uplift in a child’s joy, the sight of nature and other this-worldly pleasures. Spirituality belongs to us all.

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

Seasonal Separations

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Maintaining distinctions between sacred and secular music is a common religious concern. Ever since people began writing critically about music, faithful authors have wasted little time and much ink appealing to a higher authority and inventing higher demands for the music of worship. Views on the issue can be passionate, imaginative and thought provoking; but they ultimately fall short of delineating objective qualities. While attempts are made to outline intrinsic differences between sacred and secular music (that is, looking at non-textual and non-contextual attributes), such efforts are always subjective, frequently elitist and habitually ethnocentric. Taste and convention play a far greater role in determining the “sacred” in music than anything else. Music is music, and all sounds are susceptible to multiple applications, religious and other.

The debate could—and perhaps should—end here. After all, if there is no such thing as a sacred interval or a secular chord progression, then critics are simply couching their opinions in pious language. However, while the scientific search for separate essences comes up empty, cultural conventions inform us otherwise. Continuous usage in one setting or another creates fixed associations. Add to this thematic content and musical purpose, and disco obtains a secular character, while plainsong earns a religious one. Pure reason tells us to abandon efforts to place genres in their “proper” place (a socially constructed concept); but visceral reactions to perceived musical encroachments remain real and often intense.

As mentioned, this is most frequently a religious problem. It is, in fact, a symptom of a larger religious concern: separating sacred from profane. Fans of popular music are not as likely to complain when a church-linked idiom creeps into a Top 40 hit. But religious intrusions into secular music can be just as jarring, and may occasionally ignite criticism.

A seasonal example is “Here Comes Santa Claus,” written by Gene Autry and Oakley Haldeman. Christmas is a double holiday: one part secular, one part sacred. The first part manifests in snowmen, ugly sweaters, dazzling lights and fruitcakes, while the second includes nativity scenes, scriptural passages, angels and worship services. The two halves of Christmas have their own soundtracks: “carols” for one and “songs” for the other. Sonic differences between the two are sometimes clear and sometimes not, but the lyrics rarely conflict. “Angels We Have Heard on High” retells a New Testament story, “Jingle Bells” depicts a winter joyride. Among the few exceptions is “Here Comes Santa Claus,” a song that intentionally confuses the territories.

As a cultural icon, Santa Claus fits neatly on the secular end of the Christmas spectrum. Santa is not Jesus, and Jesus is not Santa. Autry and Haldeman stepped over this line. “Here Comes Santa Claus” utilizes light and dancey music typical of the non-religious category, and travels through the usual secular references: reindeer, stockings, presents, sleigh bells. But beneath this innocuous façade is a religious agenda, evident in these sneaky lines: “Hang your stockings and say your prayers”; “Santa Claus knows we’re all God’s children, that makes everything right”; “Peace on earth will come to all, if we just follow the light. So lets give thanks to the Lord above, that Santa Claus comes tonight!”

Not surprisingly, this song is a favorite of the “Jesus is the reason for the season” crowd. In their minds, it shines a much-needed religious light on the “frivolous” celebration of a sacred holiday. But just as religious people complain when elements perceived as secular seep into their music, secularists are justified in objecting to the Autry-Haldeman concoction. If distinctions between sacred and secular songs exist at all—and they certainly do to the ears of many listeners—then respect for borders should be upheld on both sides of the divide. For this reason, “Here Comes Santa Claus” is, at the very least, an uncomfortable hybrid.

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

The Body Thinks

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The scene is not uncommon. A group gathers to study the ancient language of a scriptural passage or liturgical text. As they delve into the themes and imagery, judgments are made and ideological lines are drawn. One person accepts it as unquestioned truth. Another finds it hopelessly linked to a distant time. Someone else searches for hidden meaning. Another relates it to current events. The points they argue and sides they take reflect the group’s composition: a traditionalist, a rationalist, a mystic and a political activist. As always, their lively exchange ends in respectful disagreement. They put down their books, finish their coffee, shake each other’s hands, walk into the sanctuary, and disperse among the congregation. In a few minutes, they will be singing the words they were just debating. And they will be happily absorbed in the melody.

To the casual observer, this scene illustrates the dichotomy between study and song. The first is an intellectual activity, inviting scrutiny, deconstruction, reconstruction and reasoned dispute. The second is an emotional experience, disarming the analytical urge and inviting the flow of passions. Because the first involves critical thought and the second uncritical feeling, studying is generally viewed as more virtuous. To be moved by music containing words we struggle with is a case of lower capacities overtaking higher faculties.

There is, however another, less hierarchical way of looking at it. Anthropologist Michelle Rosaldo challenged us to appreciate emotions as “embodied thoughts.” They are not, she contended, involuntary or irrational exertions of the animal self, but the result of a deliberate and engaged body. Like cognition, emotion is a genuine and considered expression of who we are. It is the body’s way of reasoning.

As word-centric beings, we tend to dismiss the non-verbal realm of feelings as primal or crude. We take a dualistic stance, dividing thought and emotion into firm categories. We appraise the mind as literally and figuratively above the body. The intellect is the basis of our superiority as a species; feelings arise from our base biology. According to Rosaldo, this viewpoint is a reflection of culture rather than reality. While the mind processes information in words, the body processes information in sensations. One is not necessarily better or more efficient than the other. Both constitute our humanity.

This perspective helps us decipher the liturgical scenario above. Despite the differing views expressed around the study table, the heterogeneous group joins in the joyful singing of passages they had argued over moments before. Objections they raised with the text and one another remain unresolved. But as the words melt into music, so do their intellects melt into feelings. Their thinking brains are quieted, their thinking bodies stimulated. The debate is put on hold until next time.

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

Playing Favorites

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

A young cellist waited anxiously for her turn to audition for the high school all-district orchestra. She had searched carefully for an audition piece that was both appropriately demanding and personally meaningful. Her choice fell upon Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei, Op. 47 (1881), a work combining motifs chanted on Yom Kippur evening, phrases from a song arranged by Isaac Nathan (“O Weep for Those that Wept on Babel’s Stream”) and passages derived from Bruch’s imagination. For the cellist and most others reared in Ashkenazi Judaism, Bruch’s Kol Nidrei is saturated with associations linked to the atonement holiday and larger themes of Jewish culture and identity. (This, despite the fact the Bruch was a Protestant, composed the piece for the concert hall, and intended it as a study in folklore, not for sacred consumption.)

As the cellist played for the adjudicator, her mother sat in the corner of the room weeping. The soaring tones flooded her with memories and emotions, just as they did each time her daughter practiced at home. The adjudicator was less visibly moved, partly because he had to maintain a professional demeanor, but mainly because he was not Jewish and had no investment in the music. To him, it was merely a nice piece, which was the term he used to describe it (and the performance).

This vignette is indicative of how we process music. No piece is heard in isolation. The mother’s experience was informed by past exposure, religious sentiments, ethnic affiliation and pride that her daughter, through her playing, was preserving their heritage. The adjudicator’s experience was not so weighty. The piece had no personal resonance for him, other than maybe recalling other late-Romantic adagios. If the girl had played something that touched him on a personal level—like a sonata he learned from a dearly departed mentor—he might have shown more emotion.

Our backgrounds always inform our musical reception. If we are intimately familiar with certain music and if that music has deep associations for us, we are likely to hear it as superior or otherwise set apart. It matters little what the music is or from which genre, era or purpose it derives. What is important is that we hear it as our music, and that it serves as an extension and self-reminder of who we are.

There are no rules or limits regarding which type of music can conjure profound attachments. Kol Nidrei might be an obvious example, with its lofty Romanticism and ethnic-religious substance; but for someone else, a tango, doo-wop ballad or cartoon theme song can have the same effect. There is really no point in debating whether one selection is more worthy of this high esteem than another. Fondnesses occur on such an individual level that they (at least should) escape criticism.

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

Feeling Belief

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D

Anthropologists place the world’s religions into several categories, including animism, ancestor cult, nature religions, polytheism and monotheism. Each of these broad groupings contains a diversity of convictions, practices and mythologies reflective of the fertility of human imagination. Religion, it seems, is as variegated as humanity itself. Still, it is possible to locate shared purposes within these sundry (and in many ways incompatible) systems. For instance, they all strive to help people deal with uncertainties, provide meaning for their lives, give answers to difficult questions and promote social cohesion. While no particular belief or practice is common to or deemed valid by every group, these aims are universal.

A rationalist might argue that the extreme variety of religious beliefs is evidence of their falsity. If each claims to be the absolute truth, then none of them can be absolutely true. It might also be asserted that scientific research and other modern advances have made and will continue to make religious answers obsolete. Even sacred subjects like the soul, morality and apparent glimpses of the afterlife have been shown to have brain-based origins. At the same time, it is clear that the core issues religions address are inherent to the human condition. If centuries of philosophical inquiry and empirical data have taught us anything it is that life is uncertain, unpredictable and devoid of absolute meaning. That religions construct order in this chaos is justification for their persistence, even in the age of science.

It would be a mistake to dismiss religious beliefs as mere wish fulfillment. Though faith derives from and appeals to the intellect, it is not without experiential confirmation. Believers genuinely feel that they are in contact with supernatural forces. Proof of divine concern is not always observable in the course of everyday life, but there are certain feelings that provide assurance. Knowledge of horrors and tragedies might pose a challenge to belief, but sensations mitigate doubt.

It is no coincidence that cultures far and wide associate singing with the supernatural and infuse religious activities with song. Religion needs singing. It is a primary mode by which convictions become feelings. Songs of hope generate feelings of hope, songs of peace promote feelings of peace, songs of gratitude create feelings of gratitude. They yield tangible results. Of course, all of this can be attributed to music-triggered emotional and neurological responses. But in the context of worship and the mind of the believer, they are confirmations of faith.

Music’s role in supporting belief can be traced to prehistoric times. Archaeological ruins indicate that rituals were often performed in rooms and caverns with the liveliest acoustics. Paleolithic paintings are generally clustered on the most resonant cave walls, suggesting that they were used in conjunction with ritualistic chant. Neolithic stone configurations, like Avebury and Stonehenge, were similarly composed of echoing rocks. As society advanced, the association of vibrant sounds with the holy found its way into sacred architecture, where reverberating sanctuaries symbolically convey a back-and-forth between humanity and the supernatural.

It is not necessary to accept this devotional interpretation to understand music’s confirmatory power. Whether we are religious or not, we remain a species attracted to the emotionalizing effects of song and vibrant acoustics. Their impact is enough to convince us that what is being sung is right and valid. While the beliefs themselves might not resonate with people outside of a particular worldview, we can at least appreciate the persuasive hold of the music.

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

Music Non-Lovers

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Aaron Copland wrote a brief and candid article for the music industry magazine Billboard in February of 1964. In it, he explained the dilemma of the modern symphonic composer, whose livelihood is built on commissions, royalties and rights collected for public performances. It is a ruthless system that grants few successes, partly because there aren’t many places or productions that pay well for original works, and partly because of something Copland was brave enough to admit: “Composers tend to assume that everyone loves music. Surprisingly enough, everyone doesn’t.”

Sitting through an orchestral performance is not something most people were born to do. Patient reception of drawn-out passages and serene acceptance of slowly developing movements are virtues obtained through discipline, education and cultural training. Even some classical musicians will confess—usually off the record—that lengthy performances can be less than tolerable. Copland found it refreshing whenever people told him they cared little for orchestral fare. He knew that as a composer and music educator, he could drift out of touch with the average listener.

There is one instructive exception to this orchestral rule. Composers have a firm and steady place in movies and television. Anyone who has watched an anxious or action-packed scene with the sound turned off realizes that it is far less anxious or action-packed without the frantic strings, blaring horns and penetrating percussion. The ears are more emotionally attuned than the eyes. Visuals attain their full effect through the aid of the score.

The cinematic example is reflective of how humans have utilized music since the dawn of the species. Music’s original and still overwhelming purpose is as an accompaniment to other things: teaching, storytelling, dancing, healing, praying, relaxing, eating, competing, warring, rejoicing, socializing, driving, watching, shopping, napping, waking. Listening to music for its own sake is a recent and largely Western phenomenon, and the amount of people for whom absolute or “for itself” music has any real appeal is so small as to be statistically insignificant.

A multitude of musical functions might be simultaneously present in a given context. For instance, melodies sung and played at a religious service establish sacred time, foster cohesion, encourage introspection, enliven texts, guide choreography, focus concentration, recall memories, inspire sensations, affirm heritage, facilitate moral instruction. The list could go on, and similar lists could be devised for other musically aided events.

It is difficult to imagine just how impoverished a service would be without its musical component. If melody were eradicated, attendance would surely diminish and would probably disappear altogether.

This returns us to Copland’s observation. It is certainly the case that not everyone is a music lover. The pure musical experience removed from any practical purpose is a learned and essentially artificial activity. Yet, it is also true that human beings are music “needers.” Whether we are conscious of it or not, we rely on musical sounds to support, assist and enhance all sorts of endeavors. This is what Austrian-Jewish musicologist Victor Zuckerkandl meant when he penned these dramatic yet hardly exaggerated words: “man without music is not man and a world without music is not our world.”

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

Mythic Melodies

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In the summer of 1953, Cantor Reuben Rinder of Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco submitted a composition to Julius Freudenthal, his trusty publisher at Transcontinental Music Corporation. It was a setting of Adon Olam (“Master of the Universe”), a closing doxology of Jewish prayer services. Rinder received a letter of rejection from Freudenthal, who explained, “Time and again we encountered great reluctance on the part of the synagogues to change the music for the final hymns of the service.” Adon Olam exists in hundreds, if not thousands, of renditions, and fresh ones are being written all the time. Despite this, most congregations settle on a few versions and have little desire to try something different from the array of alternatives.

What accounts for this hesitation? There are a few simple explanations: the comfort of the familiar, the fulfillment of expectations and the old maxim of complacency, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But these only go so far. Familiar prayer melodies are tightly woven into the fabric of the service and etched into the identity of the congregation. Replacing the music is tantamount to a desecration. The service and all of its repetitive parts are felt as holy, and musical departures threaten the sacred flow.

The reasons for this are rooted in what mythologists call “strong time.” We live in a complex, unstable and rapidly changing world. The only certain thing is uncertainty. Myths offer a remedy for this fluctuating and unpredictable reality. They give a perception of strong time:  prodigious moments when something foundational, unparalleled and inflexible was made fully manifest. These are episodes removed from the laws of nature and the ambiguities of the day to day. They include creation narratives, hero tales, miraculous interventions and other legends. They are the unshakable and unhistorical stories that people gather to commemorate, and around which identities and ideologies are constructed.

For strong time to remain strong, it must be periodically recounted in rituals, recitations and song. These scheduled reminders, which punctuate the calendars of devotees, provide a sense of steadiness amidst the randomness of existence. If these observances were neglected, the world would fall into chaos—or at least the turmoil of reality would become more apparent. Repetition imparts stability.

It is largely because of this that prayer-songs resist change. Worship services are devised to harness and project strong time. Repeated scripts, regulated rituals and predictable choreographies transmit a sensation of security. The musical score to which the liturgical drama is set likewise demands consistency. Certain melodies become attached to certain occasions. Their specific sounds encompass the essence of the events themselves. Deviations from the expected music are experienced as more than just novelty or harmless variety. They are, quite often, unwelcome reminders of life’s fragility.

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

Collective Voice

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Religion always involves community. It is learned in social contexts, grounded in shared ideas, built upon social relations and sustained by collective actions. As Émile Durkheim reminded us, a religion is a system of beliefs and practices that unites individuals in a single moral community called a church (or another faith-specific synonym). While there is space for personal practice—and while such practice is vital for retaining members and strengthening the whole—religion is not an individualized spiritual path. There is no religion without a church.

In both Judaism and Christianity, the congregation is the most significant and influential level of social organization. It draws adherents together in a common location and provides them with opportunities for shared devotional, educational, gastronomical and recreational experiences. Because a congregation’s central aim is to foster and maintain communal cohesion, group singing has long been its most trusted aid.

The effectiveness of congregational song is rooted in the nature of the congregation itself. It thus behooves us to look more closely at what a congregation is and what it seeks to achieve. For this, we turn to John Locke, the English physician and Enlightenment philosopher. Locke’s most cogent description of a congregation is found in A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689). Published amidst fears that Catholicism was taking over England, the short treatise cautions against government-imposed religion. In Locke’s view, religious tolerance is key to maintaining civil order, whereas civil unrest is the natural response to magistrates who attempt to outlaw religious sects and denominations. Since genuine religious converts are gained through persuasion and not coercion, governments have no right to intrude upon matters of the soul. In Locke’s eloquent words, “the power of civil government relates only to men’s civil interests, is confined to the care of the things of this world, and hath nothing to do with the world to come.”

Against this backdrop, Locke defined a congregation as a “voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord, in order to the public worship of God, in such a matter as they judge acceptable to them, and effectual to the salvation of their souls.” This observation pertains specifically to Protestant contexts, where affiliation choices can be many. Under ideal conditions, individuals are free to join in or drop out according to their comfort or discomfort with doctrines, rituals, policies, membership and so on. Thus, to a certain and important extent, those who gather together want to gather together.

The voluntariness of congregational affiliation—which obviously varies from place to place—is precisely why communal song is so valuable. Congregants need compelling reasons to congregate. It is one thing to share values, views and heritage, and another thing to engage in them. What group singing accomplishes is a kind of transformation. Voices united turn common beliefs (lyrical content) and identity-affirming sounds (melody) into a lived collective experience.

It is often said that song is the glue that keeps a congregation together. Ideologically and emotionally reinforcing music replenishes and rededicates group commitment. Without group singing—and other means of creating palpable unity—the church risks losing its appeal and dissolving away.

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