Tag Archives: Judaism

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.

Is It Music?

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Neither the particulars nor the generics of musical sound are universally agreed upon. Music exists in many and widely variegated “dialects.” No single conception of what constitutes music is applicable cross-culturally; a definition that satisfies Western principles might fail when applied to a non–Western society. Arriving at a useful conception of music is further complicated by the fact that ideas about sounds change over time, as most music-cultures interact with the outside world, respond to internal and external pressures, and contain subgroups with divergent tastes and preferences.

It is not even foolproof to identify music by ingredients traditionally thought of as musical: rhythm, meter, pitches, durations, dynamics, etc. The musical envelope has been sufficiently stretched in our postmodern world to include an endless array of possibilities. Perhaps the best we can do is combine a few intentionally broad definitions, if only to enhance our recognition of music’s subjectivity.

Edgard Varèse famously called music “organized sound.” Taking a lead from ethnomusicology, the Encyclopædia Britannica states, “while there are no sounds that can be described as inherently unmusical, musicians in each culture have tended to restrict the range of sounds they will admit.” Philosopher Lewis Rowell avoids the “dangerous task” of defining music, recommending an inclusive approach instead: “let music signify anything that is normally called music.”

Merging these quotations, we arrive at a practical (though still lacking) elucidation: Music consists of tightly or loosely organized sounds that adhere to strict or lenient parameters of a given culture or sub-culture, and are accepted by a consensus large enough to qualify it as “normally called music.” But, as intimated above, attempting a catch-all definition is hopelessly problematic. Hearing something as music always depends on a complex web of culturally and personally determined factors, which are themselves subject to shift depending on the agenda of a person or group.

An illustrative case in point is the shofar, a sound-maker fashioned from the horn of an animal in the Bovidae family (excluding the cow). The shofar appears seventy-two times in the Hebrew Bible, usually to announce festivals, rally troops, intimidate enemies and call out to the deity. Any discussion of biblical instruments, long or short, includes a section on the horn. But Talmudic sources refrain from labeling the shofar a musical device.

The rabbis’ rationale had a double motivation: one part aesthetic, one part pragmatic. Outside of modern-day novelty acts (like the shofar player who blows Hatikvah), the shofar is a notoriously temperamental horn. The average blower produces two to three tones, which typically come across as unsettling or unattractive. Unlike other instruments, the shofar does not accompany singing or provide mood-setting preludes, interludes or postludes. Rather, it serves a ritualistic role akin to lighting candles or drinking from a ceremonial cup. For these reasons, it was not thought of as musical.

On a practical level, the rabbis felt obligated to include the shofar in the sacred service despite their ban on musical instruments (a ruling based on historical factors too involved to be discussed here). First and foremost, the biblical command to observe Rosh Hashanah decrees that the day be commemorated with shofar blasts (Lev. 23:24). Added to this are the vivid and abounding associations aroused whenever the horn is blown. Since biblical times, the sound and appearance of the shofar have served as a symbol of group identity, and eliminating it from practice would have diminished Jewish solidarity and self-awareness. Thus, it was not advisable to lump it in with other (banned) instruments. (As an aside, in communities bound by Jewish law the shofar is not blown on Shabbat—not because it falls under the prohibition against instrumental playing, but because it might be carried four cubits in the public domain, which is considered work. See BT RH 29a.)

Taking the minimal view that music is defined as organized sound understood as music, the shofar is clearly a musical instrument. And it has been described as such in enough publications and conversations to make it indisputably so. Still, the rabbis had ideologically coherent reasons for excluding the shofar from the musical realm. Similarly overt motives are present whenever someone remarks that a certain genre “isn’t music,” or makes (elitist) claims about “real music.” Though it is difficult to formulate an objective definition of music that is applicable everywhere, subjective opinions and agendas are easy to spot.

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

Singing the Self

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

There was a time when the academic study of religion meant the scrutinization of doctrines and texts. Rituals, ceremonies and other cultural pursuits were considered minor accessories to a religion’s cognitive content. Vedas and Sutras contained all one needed to know about the Hindus; Muslim life could be deciphered by reading the Qur’an; Zoroastrian affairs were explained in the Avesta; and so on. This paradigm gradually shifted in the twentieth century with the writings of Marcel Mauss, Victor Turner, Catherine Bell and others. Coming primarily from the practice- and action-oriented fields of sociology and anthropology, these scholars argued that dynamic actions, not static documents or dogmas, were responsible for shaping and defining religious life. They saw ritual as the “doing” or “performing” of religion, and sought to understand how such enactments form conceptions of history, identity, authority, meaning and transcendence. More important than the stories and teachings themselves was how they were translated into action.

While emphasis on the doing of religion was groundbreaking in academia, it was nothing new for practitioners of Judaism. Jewish systems across the spectrum of observance have always promoted a performative approach to texts. The People of the Book are also the People of Deeds—specifically mitzvot (commandments) derived from biblical and rabbinic sources. The amount of mitzvot and the stringency with which they are observed vary greatly from community to community and individual to individual. But the premise is the same: beliefs and convictions are essentially worthless until and unless they are put into practice.

The foundation of this philosophy can be traced to the biblical dictum, “na’aseh v’nishma”—“we will do and we will hear/understand” (Exodus 24:7). With this phrase, the Israelites’ accepted the requirements the Torah imposed upon them. The order of the statement suggests that one is to carry out stipulated actions first and understand them later. Not only did this give preference to performance over study, it also led to the rabbinic conclusion that fulfilling a mitzvah does not necessitate reflection or even comprehension. For both Judaism and ritual scholarship, it is the deed, almost independent from the rule or rationale, which shapes the identity of the actor.

This helps explain the prevalence of singing in Jewish religious life. Singing is, at core, the performance of words. It is a complex action involving muscle coordination, auditory perception and specialized body movement. Singing unlocks memories, induces emotions and summons images. Communal song—a dominant modality in Jewish settings—can heighten awareness, bolster camaraderie and connect individuals to a force larger than themselves. Most crucially, the sensations, thoughts and bonding facilitated through singing are concrete: they leave one feeling that something real and momentous has occurred.

Jewish ritual is fundamentally liturgical: it is structured, time-specific and text-heavy. All of this can contribute to a passive experience. How the words are presented is thus of paramount importance. Prayer texts attain their greatest impact when they are sung or chanted, mainly because it is an active, living experience. And if it is true that religious life is characterized more by practices than written sources, then the musical rendering of liturgy is a vital act of self-definition.

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