Sunday, December 08, 2013

Sermon: "Why Do We Sing?" (Delivered 12-8-13)

Call to Worship

Why do people sing?

Anthropologists and musicologists hypothesize about the primal origins of singing, suggesting it may have originated in animal mimicry or mother-child connection.

Educators tell us that exposure to music and music education positively influences the brain development of the young.

Gerontologists tell us that singing assists the memory of the old.

Mathematicians point out that the relationships between the notes of the diatonic scale reoccur throughout the natural world.

In religion we find praise bands, cantors, boys choirs, chanting monks, sung mantras, and ecstatic song. Religious people the world over turn to singing as a means of worship, praise, and spiritual practice.

Activists note that singing helps protesters to stand courageously and powerfully against injustice.  We shall overcome.

This morning, come and open your hearts and minds to music and song.  Do not worry if you think you cannot sing like angels or speak before thousands.  You can still change the world with your love.

Now let us sing.  Now let us worship together.


About a year ago the acclaimed recording artist Beck Hansen, best known for several of the ‘90s’ best alternative rock songs, released a new album, (sort of.)  What he actually did was publish 20 original songs in sheet music form and challenge his fans to interpret and perform the songs for themselves.  It was, as he put it, “an album that could only be heard by playing the songs.”  The songs had a definite old-timey flavor to them and the liner notes asserted that people relate to music differently today than they did many years ago.  Beck writes,

I came across a story about a song called “Sweet Leilani” that Bing Crosby had released in 1937.  Apparently, it was so popular that, by some estimates, the sheet music sold 54 million copies.  Home-played music had been so widespread that nearly half the country had bought the sheet music for a single song, and presumably gone through the trouble of learning to play it. It was one of those statistics that offers a clue to something fundamental about our past…  Learning to play a song is its own category of experience; recorded music made much of that participation unnecessary… The opening-up of the music, the possibility of letting people work with these songs in different ways, and of allowing them a different accessibility than what’s offered by all the many forms of music available today, is ultimately what this collection aims for.

What I hope to do this morning is weave together a number of different ideas and observations related to making music in order to talk broadly about the role that participatory music plays in our lives and about why we create space and place for participatory music in our worship services at church.  I’m certain that the sermon this morning is going to blend into the sermon next week – a mash-up if you will – when I will speak on the subject of transcendence.  I know I plan to talk about music as a gateway to transcendence.

The first observation I want to share with you is to re-state the point that Beck makes, that our relationship with music is probably very different today than it was in 1937 or 1887. A piece of sheet music is lucky to sell, I don’t know, maybe 54 thousand copies today, but certainly not 54 million. In the age before the web, before computer games, and before television, people made music together to keep entertained.  Today, between Spotify, Pandora, YouTube, and iTunes, practically every piece of music ever recorded, not to mention every movie and television show ever made, is available more or less instantaneously to us wherever we are.  As a result a lot of people sing less with others today than they would have if they had lived a century ago.

I only own two collections of printed music: a hymnal and Beck’s album.  In any given week I sing three songs with other people: an opening hymn, a meditative hymn, and a closing hymn.  A couple times each year, if I’m lucky, “I’ll sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh inning stretch along with several thousand other Royals fans at Kauffman Stadium.  (In the bottom of the sixth Garth Brooks comes on the Jumbotron to lead Royals fans in singing, Friends in Low Places, but I usually pass on singing that one.)  In contemporary culture, it’s rare that we sing with other people.  If you don’t attend church, or go to sporting events, or belong to a civic choir, do you ever sing with other people?

Last month we sent a worship and music survey to the congregation asking for feedback about the worship life of this congregation.  More than 100 people took the time to respond and the only result that I found surprising was that more people than I expected told us that they didn’t like singing hymns.  Hymns came in second to last when we asked what types of music people most enjoyed in the worship service.  Seven people wrote that they wished we sung with a faster tempo and more energy.  A couple of respondents wrote that they desired more immediacy in singing.  Put the words up on a screen rather than having our noses down in a book, they implored.  But many said they just didn’t like singing, period.  Consider these comments:

I don't enjoy singing, but I know that others do, so I just keep participating.

Too many hymns

Two hymns would be enough

I don't particularly enjoy the hymns, affirmations [and the participatory parts of worship] but the rest of the congregation seems to.

Fewer hymns

Others said that they found singing hymns to be challenging,

Occasionally some new hymns are tried which are difficult in nature -- foreign language, tricky rhythm, etc. These may just be beyond the capabilities of some Unitarians to pick up in one Sunday morning without rehearsal and may not be worth it.

Some of the hymns are too wordy and difficult to sing.

And others wrote about a time when participating in worship made them feel self-conscious.  One person wrote,

Please, please, please stop with the interpretive dance sessions. There was one time when many of us were saying how embarrassed we were because we had visitors there for the first time and oh my.... what a typical hippy, dippy thing to do!

Now, let me say that comments can have a way of cancelling each other out, or at least revealing that differences of opinion do exist.  One person wrote that my sermons are too long; someone else wrote that they wished they were 40 minutes in length instead of 20.  Someone wrote that they wished “Spirit of Life” would be sung every week and another person wrote, “I know ‘Spirit of Life’ is the UU fight song but I really can't stand it! Please give it a break!”  There’s no pleasing everyone.

But, for the purposes of contrast, let me describe a church that takes a different approach to music.  When I spent a year living in Dallas, Texas, I decided one afternoon that I would attend a worship service at one of that city’s largest mega-churches.  Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas, is one of America’s ten largest churches with an average weekend attendance of roughly 20,000.  Its worship center, at least in 2002, had the architectural charm of a Wal-Mart.  It was a warehouse, basically, without any natural light.  All the seats were theater seats, the kind that automatically close if you stand up.  But there was no standing during the service.  A band began the service by playing a couple of songs on stage.  The minister came out and delivered a prayer.  Then the band played another song.  (I remember the song because I found the selection kind of puzzling.  The band played a secular, bland, inoffensive rock song that was at that moment ubiquitous on Top 40 radio, the song Drops of Jupiter by Train. Not only does the song contain the line, “heaven is overrated,” – did they change the lyrics? – but the song reaches its climax at the bridge when the singer belts out “the best soy latte you’ve ever had” without irony.  Not a fan of this song.) Next came a 40 minute sermon.  I actually left during the sermon, which is its own story, but I doubt that they sang a closing hymn.  Through the first hour of the service there had been no singing, no standing, no reciting a creed, no participation in any way whatsoever.  There certainly were no interpretive dance sessions.  And there were no hymns.

Almost exactly a year ago, at the same time Beck published his non-album, David Byrne, the former frontman of the Talking Heads, published a fascinating book called How Music Works.  In the opening pages of the book he makes an interesting claim about the creative process which is that music is created, is composed, to work within the limitations of the context in which it is enjoyed.  Music is created for its context.  He remarks, “Birds of the same species in the same place adjust their singing as their habitat changes. Birds in San Francisco were found to have raised the pitch of their songs over 40 years in order to be better heard above the increased traffic.”

Byrne also points out that hip-hop and rap music is largely written to be heard in a car and, if you have a good sound system, by the other cars around your car.  While for many years popular music had tended to occupy the middle registers, hip hop moves to the extremes, combining a pulsing low bottom with a “strong and precise high end as well.”  It does this because the noise of your car’s engine occupies the mid-range of sound.  Rap music sounds the way it sounds because it’s written to sound good in the car.  [The other day I switched over to Hot 103 Jamz Kansas City in my car and they were playing a vulgar song by 2 Chainz.  Here's the beat.]

Byrne also points out that the other leading music venue in contemporary life is the personal digital music player.  Popular music is now written with the idea that the speakers will actually fit inside your ears.  Music is composed to be dynamically flat; “extreme and sudden dynamic changes can be painful on a personal music player.”  But music is also written to accentuate extreme detail and subtlety, tiny details that would be lost in the atmosphere in even an intimate live venue.  “You can hear breath intake and the sound of fingers on strings.”  [Check out Birdy’s cover of Bon Iver’s Skinny Love to see what I mean here.]

Weaving all these threads together, we might say that if we live in a society in which collective singing and collective music making is increasingly infrequent, and if our culture is trending towards thinking of listening to music as an individual experience rather than as a social experience, then the act of singing hymns, singing songs that live in the middle registers and go out of their way to avoid musical complexity and subtle detail, will be experienced as increasingly awkward, discomforting, old-timey, and passé.

In other words, we have a choice to make.  It is a cultural choice.  We can go the Fellowship Church mega-church route and reject or minimize participation in the service, including doing away with hymns.  Or we can go against the grain of our culture and keep singing hymns even though doing so may feel increasingly odd in our society, and may feel embarrassing or awkward, especially for those in younger generations who are less inclined towards collective singing.

As you may know, I’m a huge fan of indie alternative rock music.  One of my favorite bands is Bon Iver.  Their first tour was as a small ensemble featuring a really stripped down sound.  During their concerts they were known to hand out lyric sheets, transforming the show into a sing-along.  When I went to see them on tour two years ago, the band’s lead singer spent two and half minutes giving instructions about the audience’s singing part on the last song of the performance. [Here's the instructions.  Here's a good sounding live version of the song.]  He introduced it as if it would be a very strange thing that we should sing along.  Even though it was scripted, it was a still a powerful, transcendent experience of collective singing.

My point here is that our acts of worship that we create together are actually fairly unnatural and represent ways of being together that are increasingly uncommon in our culture.  Sermons are weird events.  Where else do you find preaching, except on Sunday morning?  Where else do we listen in this way, without PowerPoint presentations, multimedia clips, and so on?  Where else in our lives do we recite things in unison?  Where else do we hold even a minute of silence among others?  Where else do we sing together?

Why do we sing?  We sing because the words of hymns are poetic articulations of our values.  Even if we can’t memorize the seven principles, we can still memorize a couplet that expresses our values.  We sing hymns because it is how we deepen in UU identity.

Why do we sing?  We sing because it is a spiritual practice.  There was once a gathering of UUs together in a room at General Assembly.  Inside the room, someone had a heart attack and collapsed.  Paramedics were called.  As the man was attended to, the gathering spontaneously sang “Spirit of Life.”  It was their way of coping with the shock and trauma of what they had experienced.  I know members of this congregation who sing “Meditation on Breathing” when they find that they could use a bit more peace and love.

Why do we sing?  We sing because it helps us to access parts of our brains and parts of our spirits that are sometimes hard to reach.  Music opens up emotion.

Why do we sing?  We sing because singing reminds us of the courage we need to work for justice.

Why do we sing?  We sing because we seek transcendence.

Why do we sing?  We sing because we want to be together and singing together builds community and helps us to feel our connection with one another.