Tag Archives: spirituality

Above Noise

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Aldous Huxley authored one of the most widely cited statements on music: “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” The popularity of this maxim has long outlasted any general interest in the collection of essays from which it originated, Music at Night (1931). That the phrase resonates with many readers is evidenced by its frequent and usually context-less appearance on websites and books devoted to useful quotations. Some might reverse the hierarchy, placing music before silence, but the substance of Huxley’s comment remains the same: these acoustic phenomena communicate something beyond the limits of language.

It is fruitless to venture an elucidation of what Huxley meant by “inexpressible.” As the term indicates, the things expressed cannot be justly or fully described. Nevertheless, we can presume it refers to a category of experience variously called emotional, non-rational or spiritual. These ineffable sensations, while universally desirable, are not arrived at easily in our noise-saturated world.

Huxley’s thoughts on the subject are fleshed out in The Perennial Philosophy (1944), a compendium of mystical insights from sages of the world’s religions. In his chapter on silence, Huxley includes instructive excerpts from the writings of religious figures like Lao Tzu and William Law. His own remarks are hardly reserved.

The first barrier to silence he identifies is frivolous speech: “Unrestrained and indiscriminate talk is morally evil and spiritually dangerous.” Huxley claims that most words thought or spoken during the course of the day fall into three main groups: “words inspired by malice and uncharitableness towards our neighbors; words inspired by greed, sensuality and self-love; words inspired by pure imbecility and uttered without rhyme or reason, but merely for the sake of making a distracting noise.”

The other impediment to silence Huxley cites is incessant ambient noise. Writing toward the middle of the twentieth century, he diagnosed a reality that has only been exacerbated in the intervening years. As Huxley astutely notes, “the resources of our almost miraculous technology have been thrown into the current assault against silence.” Most damaging from his perspective is the still-ubiquitous radio, which “penetrates the mind, filling it with a babel of distractions—news items, mutually irrelevant bits of information, blasts of corybantic or sentimental music, continually repeated doses of drama that bring no catharsis, but merely create a craving for daily or even hourly emotional enemas.”

As is apparent from the passages above, Huxley’s praise for the non-material rewards of silence is matched by his disdain for unfiltered and unrewarding sounds—whether of our own making or mechanically produced. Quietness of mind and environment is, for him, the most effective path to emotional ease, psychological calm and spiritual awakening. Next on his list is music, which cuts through jumbled noises, diverts distractions and communicates directly with the realm of affections. Music combats noise not by eliminating it, but by organizing it. In this respect, Huxley would likely give preference to instrumental music, which is free of the potential contamination of linguistic assertions (like of the “sentimental music” he condemns).

For Huxley and the many admirers of his famous phrase, expressing the inexpressible is a lofty and virtuous aspiration. It implies reaching a level of awareness obscured by the trappings of ordinary existence. In the materialistic landscape of the modern world, meaningless words and noisy devices are among the obstacles blocking our way to a deeper experience. And for the reasons discussed, silence and music are perhaps the best antidotes.

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

Live Musically

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In the catalogue of values deemed essential for a virtuous life, gratitude is among the most universal. Rarely (if ever) does one find a system of thought that does not hold appreciativeness as a core ideal. The positive impact of being thankful is recognized in religions East and West, sciences hard and soft, political philosophies right and left. As a statement of principle, most would agree with Ben Zoma’s maxim: “Who is happy? One who is content with one’s portion.”

This sentiment, whether intuited from life experience or encountered in a written variation, is much easier to agree with than to enact. The “attitude of gratitude,” as it is popularly espoused, is regularly confined to the realm of aspirations. Multitudinous worries, complaints and regrets divert our attention from the beauty and wonder surrounding us, and from the many gifts of which we are the recipients.

Enumerating the plethora of potential sources of gratitude would be as cumbersome as it is unnecessary. The issue is not that we fail to recognize that many things deserve our humble thanks. Rather, our sense of appreciation is dulled by the burdens of everyday life. Our problems—big and small, real and imagined—are a perpetual and negative distraction. To modify a phrase, “I think, therefore I worry.”

Vincent Van Gogh, a man who was no stranger to distress, devised a way of transcending nagging concerns and cultivating gratitude. He was deeply attracted to what he considered the vital relationship of music, art, spirituality and the harmony of nature. He included this keen remark in a letter to his brother Theo: “In the end we shall have enough of cynicism and skepticism and humbug, and we shall want to live more musically.”

Van Gogh penned this comment in response to common forecasts of his time, which painted a bleak future filled with anxiety, unrest, war and cultural bankruptcy. In his assessment, this still-familiar prediction could be ameliorated or even erased by grasping and being attentive to the interlocking harmony of all things in nature.

This “natural spirituality” derived from Van Gogh’s impression of a Japanese painter fixated on a single blade of grass. The blade “leads him to draw every plant, and then the seasons, the wide aspects of the countryside, then animals, then the human figure. . . . Come now, isn’t it almost a true religion which these simple Japanese teach us, who live in nature as though they themselves were flowers?”

Van Gogh was convinced that adopting this perspective could effortlessly switch thoughts from worry to appreciation. Harmony, not dissonance, would become the dominant musical metaphor. Of course, an understanding of the world as congruous sound is not arrived at without effort, and it is doubtful if Van Gogh reached it himself. But, if pursued with diligence, it can potentially alter our mode of thinking for the better. Living musically is a frame of mind from which gratitude naturally and abundantly pours forth. Though not easy to obtain or simple to sustain, it is a healthy outlook worthy of pursuit.

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

Spirit in Sound

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“Wagner is my religion.” Thus said an enthusiast when asked by a friend why he had not been attending church. The response was certainly not a comment on Wagner the man, whose character and views are even less worthy of devotion than the average person. Nor was it meant to imply that Wagner’s music was sufficient to replace the multi-layered and multi-faceted complexity of religious affiliation. Not coincidentally, the quip hearkened back to words penned by Wagner himself, namely: “I found true art to be at one with true religion,” and “[I]f we obliterate or extinguish music, we extinguish the last light God has left burning within us.”

What, if anything, should be gleaned from the remarks of Wagner and the extoller of his musical virtues? Is it not careless to compare works of music to religious beliefs and practices? How can listening to music possibly fulfill the duties and obligations placed on the religiously observant? Is human-made music really comparable to the light of God? Are these statements hyperbolic or intentionally provocative?

These and similar questions appear on their face to be reasonable challenges. Surely, it is impossible for music to replace the awesomeness of a deity or the dogma, ritual and pageantry a deity commands. But this line of questioning does not accurately address the “music as religion” position. It is better to ask if and how, on an experiential level, music satisfies central aims and expectations of religious adherence.

A musical experience might involve a series of quasi-religious epiphanies. Attaining them depends on a number of conditions, not the least of which are the listener’s orientation and attributes of the music itself. Just as religious practices yield varying and circumstantially shaped results, epiphanic musical moments can sometimes be unobtainable, at times fleeting and other times long-lasting. Any discussion of the overlap of music and religion must therefore begin with recognition that we are dealing with ideals.

Potential musical revelations include the following: Penetrating tones might stimulate deep introspection; Emotional and kinesthetic reactions might suggest the indwelling presence of a spiritual force; The arrangement of sonic materials might evoke a sense of cosmic order; The abundance of sound might suggest a transcendent power; The creativity the music exudes might inspire renewed faith in humanity; The listener might be motivated to translate the music into positive action. In these and other ways, musical and religious engagement can have similar (or even identical) benefits.

R. Heber Newton (1840-1914), an Episcopalian writer and priest, supplied a summation of this effect in his treatise, The Mysticism of Music. In characteristically eloquent language, he compared the feelings roused at a concert with those derived from religious activities: “Here is the broad thought known to all who love music intelligently, that it expresses, outside of the church, the highest principles of religion and morality, as they influence the sentiments and actions of men. Music vindicates thus the cardinal principle of religion, its central article of faith—that human life, as such, is divine, that the secular is after all sacred.”

What Heber observed and what has been described above is probably closer to spirituality than religion proper. Religion is a technical term encompassing an intricate network of social, historical, cultural, doctrinal, aesthetic and ritual elements. Music alone cannot replace such a system. But, again, this misses the point. Religion and secular music converge in the arena of outcomes. They differ in substance and form, but can be directed toward like ends.

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

Reviving Tones

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

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

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

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

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

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

Musical Peaks

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Music is a common element of trance. Musical sounds combine with other sensual cues—like incense and bright ornate colors—to bring individuals into feelings of euphoria and a perceived connection with a sacred realm. In the Santería religion of West Africa and the Caribbean, songs with repetitive and extended rhythmic patterns are played to call upon deities, known as orishas. A typical ceremony begins with oro seco, dry drumming without singing, followed by a salute to Elegúa, the messenger between gods and humans. Next comes the oro cantado, or sung prayer, during which individual orishas respond to set rhythms and musical themes, and enter the bodies of consecrated priests—a sensation called “mounting the horse.” The musicians and dancers, propelled by polyrhythmic textures and repetitious melodies, continue performing for many hours. The emotions and physical exertion escalate as the ceremony carries on. The end goal is spirit possession, in which orishas are believed to work within the possessed and deliver messages, advice and healing.

This is just one culturally and religiously specific example of how rhythm, melody, dance and belief merge to inspire feelings of transcendence. The type and level of rapture will vary according to factors like physical space, group makeup, belief system and style and duration of the musical episode. How and for what reason the trance is induced is situational: it takes different forms and is interpreted differently depending on whether the context is Hassidic, Dervish, Santerian or something else. Moreover, similar feelings can be aroused at secular venues like a rave or rock concert, and can potentially be achieved in unplanned and informal dance sessions done in private.

The diversity of perceived causes and meanings indicates two things. First, human beings seem to be drawn to this kind of experience. We have an instinctual urge for ecstatic moments and use music and dance to reach them. Second, it is in the level of interpretation—prior to and afterward —that we assign meaning to what takes place. The kinds of responses that occur are essentially identical from person to person and group to group, but the environments and explanations span a wide spectrum of possibilities. Many of them involve some form of theological language, as with the notion of orishas possessing their invokers. But is this a necessary component?

Dance trances, in all their multifarious incarnations, exemplify what Abraham Maslow called peak experiences. Maslow, a humanist psychologist, rejected the premise that supernatural forces ignite feelings regarded as spiritual. Instead, he saw these “peaks” as perfectly natural moments of self-actualization: especially exciting events involving sudden feelings of wholeness, elation, epiphany and awe. These wondrous instances can be triggered by an assortment of inducements, including love, works of art, the beauty of nature, and music.

In The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, Maslow cites listeners of classical music who describe themselves being delivered to “great joy,” “ecstasy,” “visions of another world” and “another level of living.” A few sentences later, he notes the consciousness-altering effect of music when it “melts over, fuses over, into dancing or rhythm.” According to Maslow, the potential outcome of such peak experiences is manifold. They can release creative energy, affirm the value of existence, renew a sense of purpose and promote oneness with the universe. And the mark they leave can be permanent, reorienting the individual for the better.

Again, none of this depends on an external power; it all takes place within the “farther reaches” of the body and mind. In this sense, there is no inherent contrast between spiritual/religious experiences and peak/highly emotional experiences. They are one and the same. The only difference is whether religious or secular language is used to contextualize and interpret what has occurred. Regardless of how we choose to frame such experiences, they demonstrate the human propensity—and need—for extraordinary moments.

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

Consciousness, Cognition and Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

An issue of The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion published over a decade ago includes two conflicting articles on the nature of spiritual awareness. The first, by Robert A. Emmons, argues for what he terms “spiritual intelligence.” The second, by John D. Mayer, challenges Emmons’s formulation, replacing it with “spiritual consciousness.” More than a semantic squabble, their contrasting approaches address whether or not spirituality should be viewed as a form of cognitive activity or as an enigmatic element of consciousness.

Emmons offers a five-part definition of spiritual intelligence: (1) the capacity for transcendence; (2) the ability to enter into heightened states; (3) the ability to find sacredness in relationships and everyday actions; (4) the ability to use spiritual resources to solve problems; (5) the capacity for virtuous behavior. The problem with this list, in Mayer’s view, is its reliance on “ability” and “capacity”—language ordinarily reserved for discussions of mental aptitude and high-level reasoning. In classical discourse, abstract thought is the first hallmark and foremost attribute of intelligence. It involves executing various kinds of mental transformations, such as identifying patterns, generalizing information, registering similarities, contrasting dissimilarities and performing other regulated cognitive functions. From Mayer’s perspective, forcing spirituality into this limiting arena of cognition is more indicative of a desire to raise the prestige of spirituality than an accurate representation of what it entails.

As a corrective, Mayer modifies Emmons’s intelligence model to convey what psychologists call “structuring” or “developing” consciousness. He removes spirituality from the realm of reasoning and places it in the mysterious territory of consciousness, where it resides as a phenomenon distinct from rational systems of thought and an activity grounded in mechanisms of an intuitive, rather than cerebral, kind. He rephrases Emmons’s characteristics thus: (1) attending to the unity of the world and transcending one’s existence; (2) consciously entering into heightened states; (3) attending to the sacred in relationships and everyday actions; (4) structuring consciousness so that life problems are seen in light of ultimate concerns; (5) desiring to act in a virtuous way (italics from the original). These are processes, as opposed to mental exercises, and give preference to sensations—attending, altering, entering, desiring, etc.—over logic and reasoning.

To be sure, cognition can and usually does play a supporting role in spirituality. Religious stories, mythologies, doctrines, customs and interpretations provide language with which to frame the experience. These conceptions may be rehearsed beforehand, recalled during the act, or reflected upon afterward. But such discernment is ultimately separate from the experience itself. Indeed, the main reason spiritual pursuits elicit feelings of transcendence is because they are, at root, non-rational or supra-rational. They exist apart from ordinary mental states. Thus, argues Mayer, spiritual consciousness should not be confused with intelligence, where abstract thought reigns supreme, and should instead be embraced as a distinct way of knowing, where sensations are processed as meaning-giving and life-changing currents.

Such extra-mental awareness is commonly instigated and sustained through music. The naturalness with which music lends itself to this undertaking has made it a staple of spiritual practices worldwide. To paraphrase English theater critic Jeremy Collier (1650-1726), exposure to musical sounds activates passions that destroy reason. Stated more positively, if we allow ourselves to succumb to and be absorbed in musical stimuli, we can reach a level and category of consciousness discrete from the usual modes of cognition.

This does not mean that all music or all musical contexts are equally conducive to spirituality or will promote that end with equal effect. Nor is it always possible to keep the brain’s interpretive functions and critical faculties sufficiently in abeyance to be fully exposed to musical inducements. But the extent to which music is used in public devotion, private meditation, and other spiritual praxes proves its potency as a vehicle for transcendence. More importantly, it demonstrates an inherent distinction between mental processing and spiritual consciousness, without depreciating the latter. Spirituality may not be intelligence, but it is indispensable just the same.

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

A Higher Noise

Jonathan L. Friedmann. Ph.D.

In the non-theistic mysticism of psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm (1900-1980), God is not a power hovering over us, instructing us or judging our behavior. God is a concept: a symbol of our higher self and a metaphor for what we can become. Fromm articulated this view, among other places, in The Art of Loving: “[God] stands for the highest value, the most desirable good.” He considered this conception of the deity harmonious with the Jewish faith of his birth, since the essence of Jewish monotheism is “imitation of God,” not some rarified theological formulation. This is a principle affirmed in the Torah—“To walk in all His ways” (Deut. 11:22)—and reiterated in rabbinic literature: “Just as God is merciful, you too must be merciful . . . just as God is compassionate, you too must be compassionate” (Sifre, Ekev 49).

Fromm agreed with the believer that the divine (or at least the divine concept) can and should be experienced. He regarded himself a mystic—not in the sense of striving for an external entity, but in the sense of seeking one’s highest potential, symbolically represented as God. In this framework, which he called humanistic religion, “transcendence within” can be achieved in three ways: cultivation of knowledge, ethical development and rising above the “prison” of daily routine. The first two uphold critical thinking and healthy relationships as aspirational ideals. The third endorses the value of transcendence.

Although Fromm did not state so explicitly, the third path is ably facilitated by music. Music is almost universally acknowledged as a language of transcendence. It pierces through the ordinary noises of sound and speech, and has an expressive capacity surpassing other forms of communication. This is the underlying reason why prayers are regularly sung in houses of worship: the “beyondness” implicit in musical tones is felt as contact with the deity. For Fromm, however, communion is not between humanity and a higher being, but between humanity and higher human essence.

When we hear or sing or play music, we are activating areas of our consciousness that are dormant under regular conditions. Absorption in the musical activity can deliver us into a world of emotions, memories, sensations, images and epiphanies rarely approachable in other pursuits. The experience is so distinct from the norm that the theistically minded rush to label it sacred or holy. But Fromm saw it otherwise. Stimulants like music unlock a deeper layer within us all. They do not tap into some cosmic energy; they lead us further within ourselves.

Fromm would recognize music as a spiritual encounter in that it is immaterial and essentially ineffable. Yet he would identify the object of the encounter as our interior potential. On an experiential level, this perspective does not automatically conflict with conventional theism, since both promote peak experiences as life-enhancing moments. And whether one’s religion is theistic, humanistic or none at all, it is hard to argue against Fromm’s assertion that knowledge, relationships and transcendence are key avenues toward self-realization.

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

Emotion, Spirit and Sound

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Benjamin Ray includes this optimistic observation in his textbook, African Religions: “Through ritual man transcends himself and communicates directly with the divine. The coming of divinity to man and of man to divinity happens repeatedly with equal validity on almost every ritual occasion.” The thought of a ritual—or another periodic activity—having the same impact or perceived potency each time it is performed is foreign to most people. Human beings are complicated creatures, and the potential elements of complication—interpersonal conflicts, financial worries, professional turmoil, indigestion, etc.—tend to hamper full engagement. Even the most devout will admit that spiritual highs are much less common than spiritual middles or lows. Perhaps things are different in generic Africa, though that is unlikely.

Added to this is the nature of ritual itself. In order to earn its designation, a ritual must be standardized, controlled and occasional. Several benefits stem from this predictability, not the least of which are feelings of stability and authenticity. But the religious ideals of attentiveness and elevation are often lost in repetition. The struggle to find personal meaning in religious ritual is as prevalent as ritual itself. This is especially so in liturgical traditions, where participants are expected to absorb themselves in texts they have read or heard hundreds of times before.

Music is typically turned to as a tool for fixing fractures in devotional concentration. There is an implicit awareness that text alone is not always compelling or stimulating enough to envelope the distracted worshiper, and musical strains are employed to do the trick—or at least aid the process. Of course, musical solutions are not infallible: liturgies are sung in faith communities the world over yet the challenge of focus still persists. Nevertheless, music’s unshakable place in religious services owes greatly to its ability to ameliorate—though not alleviate—barriers to concentration.

The success of music in this regard derives from the close proximity of spirituality and emotions. On some level, these sensations are indistinguishable. A flush of emotions felt in a religious setting—a holy site or house of prayer—and/or linked to texts considered holy—scripture or liturgy—is likely to be designated spiritual. Likewise, a peak or epiphanic moment outside of a formal setting may be understood as spiritual depending on the outlook and vocabulary of the actor(s). Thus, a more precise classification might be that a spiritual experience is an idiosyncratically determined species of emotional experience.

Whether such emotions are a sign of something beyond, a pathway to self-realization, or a combination of the two is, from an experiential standpoint, inconsequential. The important takeaway is that the emotional part of the human persona must be activated in order for worshipers to feel the “coming of divinity to man and of man to divinity,” as Ray puts it.

Herein lies the fundamental value of sacred music. Music serves to dramatize prayer, giving the language a personality and making it come to life. Music also generates psychophysical responses, steering the mind and body to feel a certain way. This influence can be traced to culturally conditioned reactions to musical techniques, such as tension and release, as well as personal and communal associations, such as nostalgic memories. In the end, the effect of the music becomes its character: calming, disconcerting, charming, invigorating, depressing, etc.

Again, music’s emotionalizing function is not a sure-fire way of drawing people into prayer or of retaining their attention. Old tunes, like old texts, can become dry after too many repetitions, and a given piece must be at least moderately attractive (not repulsive) to the individual. But under ideal conditions, music prompts emotional responses, which kindle spiritual connotations, thereby triggering thoughts of a heavenly source.

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.