Why sing together? 1: Neuroscience and the Creator’s Intentions
I have argued that the primary purpose of music in corporate worship is to facilitate congregational singing. And I plan to get into what this means for worship leaders in a later post. But before I do, I want to take one or two posts to gather some ideas about why corporate singing is such an important experience in the life of the Christian and why I think all churches should strive to make corporate singing their highest musical priority.
I want to try to answer the question from a few different angles, beginning empirically and moving to the theological. My basic claim is this: God designed us such that corporate singing resonates with our emotions on a deep level. Singing together instills in us, in a way that spoken theology and other forms of communication cannot, that we are not alone, that we are living members of the glorious Communion of Saints.
A Curious Feeling of Transcendence
Corporate singing, as I mentioned in my post about U2, can create a transcendent feeling of hyper-connectedness. I’ve never known exactly what to call this feeling, but whatever it is, it’s the opposite of loneliness. This is why people, even those who have no particular religious persuasions, leave a great rock concert gushing with enthusiasm, ebullient with a feeling of joy and connectedness. Singing loudly together with lots of people (especially thousands, like at U2 concerts) speaks to us on an emotional level.
Neuroscience, Oxytocin, and Singing
Where does this feeling come from and why do we have it when we sing together? An entire branch of the neuroscience community studies the effects of music on the brain, trying to answer questions like this one. (See, for instance, the Library of Congress’s series of interviews on the topic.) If you research a bit, one of the first answers you’ll find for our question is oxytocin. Oxytocin, (not to be confused with Oxycontin, the pain-killing drug) is a hormone produced by the human brain that contributes to feelings of trust for the people around you. It is most well known for its role in sexual behavior–oxytocin levels are high after orgasm, leading people to feel tremendously bonded together with their partner. It’s a bit like neurochemical soul glue.
According to Daniel Levitin, author of This is Your Brain on Music, sex isn’t the only thing that leads to high levels of oxytocin. What’s the other? Singing, particularly singing with other people, causes the brain to produce unusually high levels of oxytocin. Just to double check, I found a study at the National Center for Biotechnology Information that lends credibility to this claim: when people sing together, their brains make oxytocin, and that makes them feel trust, solidarity, and connectedness with the people around them.
Some readers may find this a bit anticlimactic. “Oh, it’s just a chemical in the brain.” Or if you’re skeptical of religious experience in general, you may say, “Ah ha, see, it’s just a hormone, not any of that holy spirit nonsense.” I won’t really take the time in this post to respond to the latter charge (although I’ll include a brief comment/footnote at the bottom).
But I do hope that the rest of this discussion addresses the former concern. Simply because a mental event has a corresponding neurological reality does not make it spiritually or personally insignificant. God designed our brains as surely as he designed anything else, and he made our brains such that corporate singing causes a profound feeling of solidarity and trust with those around around us.
The Gift of Corporate Music
So why does God tell us to so frequently (in the Psalms) to sing together? Well, an initial, empirical answer, is that he knows us, and He wants us to not only know cognitively but also feel emotionally what is true. He designed us such that corporate singing would draw us out of our self-oriented little worlds and declare to us loudly that we are not alone. You are not just a lone ranger in your walk with the LORD, you are, to borrow the language of the Book of Common Prayer, a living member of the mystical Body of Christ, the blessed company of all faithful people, and an heir of God’s eternal kingdom.
Music is a gift God has given to the church to help declare loudly to us this fundamental theological truth, which is sometimes otherwise difficult for us to believe. We often feel alone. I think it’s a product of the Fall that we are so prone to loneliness and disconnection. Music is one of the primary gifts God has given to help us unlearn the lie that we are alone. And it’s not just listening to music, it’s corporate singing, that makes the point.
In conclusion: at least one reason why God tells us to sing together in church is b/c he knows that this will help bind us together as a Body, his Bride, and he wants us to know that we are not alone. Therefore, churches should make corporate singing their highest musical priority because it produces in us a God-given response that helps us feel and know that we really are part of the Communion of Saints.
Filed under: Congregational Participation, Corporate Singing, Music & the Brain | 13 Comments
Tags: loneliness, music and the brain, neuroscience, Oxytocin