Tag Archives: Singing

Gestural Aesthetics

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“Gestures should be minimized during training in order to heighten awareness of interior, involuntary muscular movement.” Thus reads the entry on “Gesture” in Cornelius L. Reid’s A Dictionary of Vocal Terminology. As a Western vocal pedagogue, Reid was ever concerned with the aesthetic standards and norms of European classical music. His recommendation is in keeping with a long-held view that music should speak for itself. An early example comes from Franchinus Gaffurius’ Practica musicae (1496). The chapter on “How a Singer Ought to Behave When He Performs” warns that an “extravagant and indecorous movement of the head or hands reveals an unsound mind in a singer.”

These rules of conduct have been reiterated in various ways within the “proper” world of European classical music. However, they do not apply to the opera subgenre, where theatrics are essential, or to many music-cultures outside the classical sphere. A global view of gestural aesthetics would place subdued movement alongside two other options: ritualized gesture and free bodily expression.

The union of gesture and melody is normative in many cultures. Melodic knowledge is embodied in gesture, such that one reinforces the other. For instance, Hindustani khyal singers incorporate stereotyped and quasi-spontaneous hand motions resembling the tracing of lines in space. Mothers in rural Uganda sing and sway ritualistically during pregnancy. In these and other public and private settings, vocal action is “co-performed” with bodily action. It would be improper and unnatural to sing the repertoire without the accompanying physical display.

In the less regulated arenas of popular music, there is an array of genre/style-specific singing movements, both spontaneous and choreographed. These include rock and roll gesticulations, punk aggression, pop diva arm flails, funk dancing, and many others. Audiences expect such exhibitions, which provide a visual analog to the audible content. The absence of visceral antics would be perceived as inauthentic.

The three gestural options—minimal, ritual, and freewheeling—engage musical expression in different ways. For the classical purist, expression is housed in the music alone; unimpeded inward focus is central to a song’s interpretation. In settings where gestures are traditionalized, song and movement act as mutually reinforcing modes of expression. In the heterogeneous realm of popular music, movements are employed to complement and enhance musical expressiveness. The contrasting conventions also imply differing ideas of what constitutes music—specifically, music as sound, sound plus choreography, or sound plus free (or seemingly free) bodily expression. What is crucial in all cases is that the performance conforms to expectations.

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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Sousa’s Menace

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“Sweeping across the country with the speed of a transient fashion in slang or Panama hats, political war cries or popular novels, comes now the mechanical device to sing for us a song or play for us a piano, in substitute for human skill, intelligence, and soul.” These dire words begin John Philip Sousa’s 1906 article, “The Menace of Mechanical Music.” Riding on anti-modernist sentiments and fears of cultural degradation, the March King warns against the nascent technologies of phonograph recordings and piano rolls (for player pianos). He predicts the demise of amateur music-making and the deterioration of human intimacy: “When a mother can turn on the phonograph with the same sense that she applies to the electric light, will she croon her baby to slumber with sweet lullabys, or will the infant be put to sleep by machinery?” “In the prospective scheme of mechanical music, we shall see man and maiden in a light canoe under the summer moon upon an Adirondack lake with a gramophone caroling love songs from amidships. The Spanish cavalier must abandon his guitar and serenade his beloved with phonograph under his arm.”

Sousa abandons his usual charm for a prophetic voice calling out on behalf of the populace. Without the impulse to sing or play instruments, the nation’s throat will weaken, its chest will shrink, and its soul will recede. Modern critics have noted Sousa’s cultural nearsightedness and hypocrisy (his band was among the early recording ensembles). Others have shed light on personal interests underlying the essay. Among other things, Sousa worried that recordings would adversely affect ticket sales, decrease royalties and threaten composers’ rights (concerns still relevant today). The old business model relied on amateur musicians, who would purchase sheet music, learn it, and go see it performed in concert, or attend a concert and rush out to buy the sheet music. Both of these put money directly into Sousa’s pocket. Not so with the record industry’s corporate-controlled mass production.

Setting these observations aside, it is worthwhile to return to Sousa’s surface argument. Like most alarmists, his prediction was overblown. One hundred years later, the United States is home to thousands of amateur choirs and orchestras, and music teachers can still find work. Yet, although the “menace” was not as severe as Sousa warned, homegrown music-making has been in decline. Access to recordings, glitzy concerts, and aggressive promotion of selected performers have made consumption the norm. Why make music if others can make it for us (and do it better than we can)? It seems that the more technologically advanced a society is, the more passive its music culture.

In contemporary America, there are only a few social contexts in which ordinary people are expected to contribute musically. These include preschools (where song is a pedagogical tool), karaoke bars (where liquor drowns inhibitions), and houses of worship (where singing is a form of devotion). It is important to note, too, that in many (most?) congregations, the harmonized notation of hymnals has been ditched for unison song—yet another sign of dwindling musical literacy.

To be sure, consumer culture is not totally to blame for declining musical activity. There are other factors, such as the high cost of lessons and instruments, the elimination of music programs in many public schools, and the increasing value placed on specialization. Music as a hobby is no longer a cultural expectation. Still, listening to recorded music has stunted amateurism in two important ways. First, high quality recordings are intimidating. The unfiltered sounds of our own making seem inferior in comparison, and thus not worth attempting. Second, it is well established that music satisfies fundamental emotional, psychological and social yearnings. How and by whom the music is produced can have varying degrees of impact, but what is important is that music is being experienced. Thus, given the convenience and capabilities of mechanical devices, it is only natural that we gravitate toward them. We need music and they give it to us.

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

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.

The Worm-Eaten Clavier

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Musical experiences have been described as mind-altering, soul-stirring, body-consuming, and humdrum-transcending. More than hyperbole, these terms attempt to elucidate the ineffable moment when music fills the whole of an individual. Such occurrences are not regular in the sense of happening all the time or resulting from all exposures to musical sounds. Reaching this higher plane depends on the type of music and the type and level of one’s involvement with it. Still, it is achieved often enough for the above depictions to resonate. Though perhaps not automatic for the majority of us, we can recall experiences of musical captivation.

Moments of this sort can be profoundly life-enhancing (and, in some sense, life-saving). Musical absorption offers temporary relief from fears, anxieties, stresses, ailments, and other burdens. Surrendering to the sounds, the person is transported from an existence fraught with turmoil to one in which all is well.

As might be imagined, those involved in the making of music are especially susceptible to its optimal impact. A quotable espouser of musical relief was Joseph Haydn. In his youth, Haydn possessed an exquisite soprano voice. He was sent off to study music, first at the household of a relative, schoolmaster and chorister Johann Matthias Frankh, and later with composer Georg von Reutter, who was music director at Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Neither master took proper care of young Haydn, who was frequently hungry and often wore filthy clothes. Part of his motivation to sing well was to gain the audience of aristocrats, who treated him to refreshments.

By age sixteen, Haydn’s voice had lost its boyish luster and he was dismissed from the choir. He found himself in destitute conditions, living in a cold and leaky attic. He earned a meager income giving music lessons to children and performing in orchestras. But he was not inclined to complain, for it was then that he embarked on a campaign of composition, which would eventually yield over 750 works. Looking back on those lean years, Haydn recalled: “When I sat at my old, worm-eaten clavier, I envied no king his great fortune.”

So it is with anyone who receives music’s holistic embrace. In that moment, however brief, it is as though reality is held in suspension. Hardships resolve in musical waves, and emotional surges quiet the worried mind. The individual enters another realm where nothing is lacking.

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

The Social Basis of Singing

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

According to Chorus America, a national research and advocacy organization, the United States is home to some 270,000 choruses. A large majority are “church” choirs (217,000), a species that presumably includes non-Christian denominations as well. There are also roughly 41,000 school choirs (K-12) and 12,000 independent community and professional choirs. Nearly a quarter of American households boast one or more choral singers, a figure accounting for an estimated 42.6 million people (32.5 million adults and 10.1 million children). Together with researchers from the National Endowment for the Arts, Chorus America confidently asserts that choral singing is the country’s most popular form of performing arts.

Surely, the numbers are too large and too steady to suggest a fad. Choral singing is as ancient as it is popular, and while endowments and advocacy groups can create opportunities for participation, they do not guarantee the participants’ dedication. Advertisements help get singers to the audition, but commitment is cultivated through the singing itself.

Author Stacy Horn compares singing to “an infusion of the perfect tranquilizer, the kind that both soothes your nerves and elevates your spirit.” This observation is rooted both in anecdotal experience and emerging science that demystifies that experience. The “tranquilizer” effect is partly attributed to two hormones released while singing: endorphins and oxytocin. Endorphins, known as the body’s “happy drug,” are chemically related to opium-derived narcotics, and induce feelings of pleasure and well-being. Oxytocin acts as a stress and anxiety reliever, as well as an enhancer of trust and bonding.

These latter results—trust and bonding—help explain why group singing is usually felt as the most exhilarating and transformative of song activities. From an evolutionary standpoint, the positive effects of singing can be viewed as a biochemical reward for coming together in cooperation—a social process essential to our species’ survival. It is plausible that endorphins and oxytocin were originally released to encourage group cohesion. Indeed, while solitary singing can have a similar effect, the difference in degree is telling. Almost without exception, the benefits are greatly amplified when singing with others.

This premise finds support in a recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In a paper titled “Unraveling the Mystery of Music: Music as an Evolved Group Process,” neuroscientists Chris Loersch and Nathan L. Arbuckle suggest a tentative (but potentially once-and-for-all) explanation for our emotional response to music—an occurrence that has long baffled scientists and philosophers. Using seven studies, the researchers establish human musicality as a special form of social cognition, demonstrating that musical-emotional responses are tied to other core social phenomena that bind us together into groups. This evolutionary basis is still extant in the psychological pull of music, which remains linked to the basic social drives underlying our interconnected world. Put simply, music evolved as (and continues to be) a tool of social living.

Concepts like these are not unique in the scope of theories on music’s origins. Social conjectures comprise a major area of speculation in the field (the other being sexual selection). What is coming to light is scientific backing for such claims. The benefits have always been felt in choral and other group singing. Now we are beginning to understand why.

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.

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.