Why sing together? 2: The Nature of Music

07Dec09

Diagram of guitar harmonics

I have been arguing that corporate singing is the primary purpose of music in worship and should be the highest priority of every church music leader.  But why?  Why should corporate singing be so important?   In the last post, I gave an answer based on the way God made our brains, but that was just an echo of the argument I am beginning today.

My discussion today is a long one–it will extend over at least 2 posts–but it is by far the most important thing I want to say on this blog.  This is the core of my beliefs about the role of music in the Church.  I do not have it all worked out and neatly packed into clear language.  But I want to share it with you and ask for your feedback, because I think this conversation is tremendously important–too important for me to squirrel my thoughts away and self-critique to the point of supposed perfection.

The argument goes basically like this: God designed music in such a way that it draws us into harmony with other people.  When we make music together, we experience a taste of the beautiful interplay of unity and diversity that we were created to enjoy as beings who mirror the image of a Triune God.  Since music-making is a fundamentally Trinitarian activity, it is intended for everyone to participate in, not just “the musically gifted,” or “professional” musicians.  And corporate singing at church is the best way for most people to enjoy this transcendent joy of music making.  Thus, the Church should make participation in music (through singing) its top priority.

Today we’ll just cover the first part: the nature of music.

The Nature of Music: Unity Among Diversity

First, a few words about how music works:  Simply put, God created matter such that when it vibrates it makes waves of sound that our ears hear as distinguishable tones.  This is why we have music: matter vibrates, we hear it.  It’s basic, yes, but kind of remarkable if you think about it.

Even more remarkable is the next, more surprising building block of music.  Amazingly, musical tones actually call forth other tones; that is, the vibrations that produce one note actually cause others notes to sound, as well. Don’t believe me?  Go find a piano, press the sustain pedal (to un-mute all the strings), and hit middle C, not only will the middle C string vibrate, but also all the other C strings, as well as the G and E strings across the entire keyboard!  Amazing!  The vibration of the C string actually causes the other strings that are in harmony with it to resonate, even though no one touched the G or E keys.

The result is a physical property of sound that forms the foundation of music, what we call harmonic frequencies.  (The diagram at top visually demonstrates these notes on a guitar.)

In other words, it’s as if musical notes themselves actually beg for accompaniment; they want to be unified with other notes and exist in ensemble. Musical notes do not like to be alone.  And this plays out both on a micro level of individual notes and on a macro level of multiple instruments and voices in a musical ensemble.  In the very essence of music is a demand that we, the agents of music, combine our voices (or instruments).  And it’s a demand with built-in rewards:  when done well, the sounds we can produce as ensembles are more grand and more beautiful than the sounds we can make alone.  If you want to hear an example, go listen to any well-rehearsed choir or ensemble of musicians perform together, or just click here and listen.  The example is of classical choral music, but it doesn’t have to be that.  Heck, go listen to Pet Sounds or any music by a great ensemble at the height of their musical collaboration.  The phenomenon of multiple voices (by voices I don’t mean just human voices, but also instruments) blending into one voice is simply stunning.  Musical notes were designed to be played with other musical notes, and voices were designed to be combined.

Thus, at the core of music’s existence is a call for unity among diversity. And this basic core truth about the physical properties of music leads to a social demand: that we, as distinct individual persons, get together to make unified ensembles.  We do so because the music essentially asks us to.

Perhaps most remarkable of all is the fact that humans did not invent this.  We merely discovered it.  This call for unity among diversity is built into the fabric of the universe and the way that vibrating matter produces notes.  It is not “Western harmony” as we typically call it.  The West did not make it up.  God did.  God built this interplay of harmonious tones into the world He created.  We humans have simply been discovering how it works and developing ways to make it happen more effectively.

But why did God do that?  And what does it have to do with corporate singing in church?    Stay tuned until next week, and I’ll continue to develop the argument.  Thank you for reading!

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6 Responses to “Why sing together? 2: The Nature of Music”

  1. 1 Lewis Grant

    Interesting, and once again, I’ll have to think this through before I can really say too much.

    But actually, here’s a first thought:

    The timbre of an instrument (one of Levitin’s seven fundamental characteristics of music) is made up of the overtone series that is produced by the instrument, right? Does that mean, then, that certain timbres automatically call forth more inherent harmony than others? If so, and if we accept your premise about inherent harmony having some sort of value-relevant dimension, does that mean that we can begin to talk in some objective way about some timbres as being better than others?

  2. 2 Dana Litke

    Here are some questions that your post brought up in my mind:
    What about the beautiful unison of Gregorian Chant? For the first 1000 years, church music was monophonic and sung a cappella. So maybe it would be helpful to talk about the relationship between notes, either successive as in a Gregorian Chant, or in polyphony.

    On the other hand, what do we make of our Reformed predecessors who purposely eliminated all harmony and instrumental accompaniment from their church music? When they had available music in beautiful harmony such as Josquin or Palestrina, they chose to sing simple tunes in unison. Personally, I think it was a bit of overkill to eliminate harmony, but I’m sure they thought there were good reasons for it.

    • 3 churchmusicblog

      Dana,
      Love your comments. Thanks.

      Regarding Gregorian chant: despite the fact that the music does not have overt harmonies, it still had the social effect of drawing multiple people together to make one voice from many. I think that singing in 4-part harmony does the same thing in an obvious way, but even just unison singing still gives us the effect of transcending our isolation and being part of a voice larger than ourselves.

      Regarding the Reformers: I honestly think they were wrong about eliminating harmony and instrumental accompaniment. Not wrong in the sense of “sin,” but just unnecessary. I haven’t really studied the Reformer’s views on music enough yet to say a lot about this. But I suspect, as in other areas, they were reacting against Catholic worship. This is something I want to research more. If you have ideas, let me know.

      Thanks for commenting.

  3. 4 Lewis Grant

    This is a pretty picky point, but at the extremes, there are some limits to the harmony produced by the overtone series. One overtone series is this:
    C C G C E (12% flat) G Bb (30% flat) C D E F (actually closer to an F#) G……..

    So the first six overtones give you a nice, simple major chord. The seventh gives you a seventh chord, which is fine in my books. The ninth gives you a ninth chord, which is also fine in my books. With the tenth, you’re adding another major third, so you’re still OK. By the eleventh, the chord doesn’t sound very good anymore. Plus, you’re way off the pitch. (Even by the seventh, you’re a little off).

    (Of course, if you can get a sound that has lots of the first ten overtones, but none of the eleventh, then it’s less of an issue for that particular timbre. But it still might be an issue (albeit a pretty small and picky one) for your point about the inherent nature of pleasant-sounding harmony in individual notes.)

  4. 5 BG

    You make a great point. If we were made in the image of a God who has never been alone, who is perfect unity and community, then surely we’ll find reflections of this in our worship. Not only in the very concept of public worship, where many become one, but even in the down-to-earth experience of sharing a hymnal and making music together.

    This should not only give us a sense of wonder, joy, and privilege when we raise our voices together, but should also give us patience with the older man two rows back that’s a mile and three notes off key! He may sound like hell, but love taking part in a foretaste of Heaven.

    Thanks, keep writing!

    • 6 churchmusicblog

      BG, my next post is about the Trinity. You beat me to it, but that makes me happy. Thanks for the comment.


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