The importance of music in biblical religion is shown very simply by the fact that the verb ‘to sing’… is one of the most commonly used words in the Bible. It occurs 309 times in the Old Testament and thirty-six in the New. When man comes into contact with God, mere speech is not enough. Areas of his existence are awakened that spontaneously turn into song. Indeed, man’s own being is insufficient for what he has to express, and so he invites the whole of creation to become a song with him: “Awake, my soul! Awake, O harp and lyre! I will awake the dawn! I will give thanks to you, O Lord, among the peoples; I will sing praises to you among the nations. For your steadfast love is great to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds.” (Ps 57: 8f).
Spirit of the Liturgy, 136
Reflection – Of all the strange twists and turns of society and culture, the odd ways human life has of taking various forms, there is one which has always rankled for me personally, one which I have always raised a small personal protest against, one which I have always literally raised my voice against.
It is this: the creeping professionalization of music and the arts. Basically, the idea that unless you are a really good singer, you should not sing. Unless you are a really good artist, you should not create art. Once upon a time, everyone sang. Peasants in the field in Old Master paintings are always shown working with their mouths open—it was simply the norm of life that they sang as they worked.
Once upon a time, it was understood that music was part of the common patrimony of mankind. There was absolutely no sense whatsoever, once, that only the musically gifted should make music while the rest of humanity passively listened.
What changed it? Recording technology, I suspect. Once it was possible for everyone, rather than a privileged few, to hear (say) Enrico Caruso sing, then it became clear that the sounds coming out of your throat and mine were not exactly like that… and it changed what we understood music to be. And so the common people lost music. Music became something to listen to, and only to be made if you were talented at it.
This is a tragic impoverishment of our humanity. Singing, music, is a fundamental expression of our mind, heart, and soul. To sing is the fundamental human response to the beauty and wonder of being. To sing is the fundamental human response to the encounter with God. Music is what is meant to come out of a heart that is too full of joy and beauty for words alone to express.
Oh, there will always be people who are thoroughly unmusical. This is normal. There are also people who can’t string three words together into a coherent statement, or who can hardly walk across the room without tripping over their own feet. We don’t restrict speaking to the professional orator and walking to the professional athlete, do we?
Yet singing and music, more and more, are restricted to those who at least have potential for professional achievement. When I meet adults who were told at age six not to sing because they couldn’t carry a tune at that age, my blood boils, frankly. Because we only learn to sing by singing; telling a six year old never to sing is like telling a clumsy six year old never to walk. Clearly the situation will only worsen. And indeed as everyone but the talented few are told not to make music, the ability to make music in fact diminishes in all but the talented few.
OK, rant over. Sing! Make music to the Lord, or to the sunrise, or to the sunset, or to the man or woman of your dreams, or to the birds and the flowers and the snow! When the beauty and joy and poignancy of life overcomes you and your heart is filled beyond what words can say, this is when the song is to take over. Let it take over, and let music ring out from every home, every heart, every throat. Take back the song, people—let’s have a musical revolution. Power to the people!