“But why do we sing at all? What’s wrong with speech alone? Isn’t that enough? Singing a text surely doesn’t alter the content, does it? What more is there?
“A number of issues that relate these questions need to be sorted out. First, let us acknowledge that only our modern world would even think of asking why we sing. As I indicated in the last chapter, primitive peoples did not regard music as the extra that we do. Until prone and Low Mass in the medieval West and parts of especially Zwinglian Protestantism or Quaker worship thereafter, worship was always sung. Even today Jewish synagogues, Eastern Orthodox churches, and many other worshiping communities treat music as intrinsic to their worship.
“Once we have asked the question our modern western tendency is to answer it by saying that, before there were microphones, the reason for singing was to amplify the voice so it could be heard better. As Frank Senn has pointed out, singing has inevitably accompanied worship in both large and small spaces, where amplification would be needed and where it would not be needed: amplification is obviously necessary and perhaps tangentially related, but it is not a primary reason for singing in worship.
“The real reasons for singing are far more profound. One reason is that singing, like nothing else, binds together a corporate gathering. Leaders of nonviolent marches know of and use music’s tremendous power. They use music not only because it gives a group a common physical response, but because in the process it also creates a psychosocial unity. Dictators, including Adolf Hitler, have been highly aware of music’s potentials. They have used music’s power for deadly demonic ends, which need to serve as a solemn warning to all of us in the church. If we do not use music well, tyrants will fill the vacuum and use it for devious purposes. But music can be used positively for the common good and for an incredible shalom. People do not think this out logically. They simply yearn to sing when they gather for worship and know how right it is to sing after they have done it. The psalmist, the poet-musician, gives them the voice they yearn for.
“Music also aids the memory. A text that has been sung will be remembered long after one spoken. This mnemonic capacity of music is related not only to the corporate binding power of music, but to its value over time. Music helps the memory at the moment the worshiping community assembles, and it is one of the primary vehicles for remembering across time, from gathering to gathering, and between gatherings. The sounds of a given hymn, sung weeks or months apart, are ways to remember and live different parts of the story. The sounds of Christmas are different from the sounds of Easter or Pentecost. And sound is part of our individual stories, from birth to death. At old age and death we remember sounds from childhood and youth, which is why it is so important to have sounds we can grow into rather than out of.
“Joy inevitably breaks into song. Speech alone cannot carry its hilarity. The physical equipment we used to laugh is the physical equipment we use to sing. From laughter to song is a small step. To praise God, the highest form of joy, is to make music. Song cannot be avoided. The language of joy and praise is the language of song. The repeated Alleluia, “Praise Yah,” which frames each of Psalms 146-150 at the end of the Psalter is inherently musical.
“The same can be said for sorrow, the opposite of joy. Sorrow also inevitably breaks into song. Speech alone cannot carry its moan. The physical equipment we used to cry is also the physical equipment we use to sing. From mourning to song is but a small step. To cry out to God in lament, the deepest form of sorrow, is to make music. The language of sorrow and lament is the language of song. The cry “Miserere” of Psalm 51 is inherently musical.
“Music is also the means to interpret a text. At one level interpretation gives rise to sing-song formulas like the call of a horse race or the call of the auctioneer, which increase in pitch level and melody, in tempo, and in dynamic and rhythmic intensity as the excitement grows. At a much more profound level this gives rise to the cantillation of readings by a Jewish cantor and the ecstatic cries of an African-American preacher–which also increase as the excitement grows. In these latter examples the call of God to proclaim and interpret the word is at work. Call-response patterns inevitably arise from this: the call of the cantor and the preacher cannot be imagined without the responses of their congregations. These call-response patterns are inherently musical. They are virtual certainties in any worshiping community, unless, of course, they are artificially blocked.
“All the elements we have noted–binding together, memory, joy, lament, and proclamation–find their locus and make sense in the context of a worshiping community. Memory, joy, and lament can, of course, be imagined individually, but apart from a group of persons in the worshiping matrix they quickly lose their meaning, which does not mean that there are no individual singers in worship. Individuals and groups each sing alone, the whole community sings together, and dialogues take place between individuals and the whole community or between groups, depending on the nature of the song to be sung.”
Paul Westermeyer, Te Deum: The Church and Music, pp. 27-29.