I stand beside another man in casual day-wear and sing the same words and melody he sings, and we learn from each other. I learn, among other things, that one of us is better at staying on pitch than the other. He discovers that I like to belt the music out, occasionally to the detriment of others. I find out that he is a bass, and he finds out I have sinusitis. We make noise. We hope it’s joyful.
Every Sunday this picture is painted manifold. People sing beside each other while professionals stand before some and amateurs stand before others, conducting or playing and generally trying to keep everyone together. People play along in strange configurations – a slow chant, an old man with the oboe, a kid with some plastic congas, a Doctor of Music for an organist, a hippie strumming a guitar. All of it is to accompany the voice, this one instrument that plays not only notes but words. People get impassioned about it. You have the I-believe-we-should-do-this-or-thats and the you-really-don’t-get-it-do-yous. Churches split. Theories are constructed. Talks are held.
And it’s worth asking why.
We sing “Happy Birthday” together and, for the most part, no one panics, though we rarely sing it solo. It just wouldn’t seem right. There’s something about well-wishing in song that calls for group participation. Perhaps it’s that we don’t want to feel awkward about it.
I’m interested in discovering what it is that is distinct about congregational singing. However, I suspect that to do so would be akin to discovering what is distinct about light or water. In J.R.R.Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, the demigods co-create the world, including elves, and the elves praise the world, but “water most of all.” This one thing which has no nutritional value (according to the label on the bottle) is both a constant on our planet and is indispensible to all life. It shapes land and shatters stone. In C.S.Lewis’s The Man Born Blind, we discover how impossible it is to distill light down to an essential definition. Scientists everywhere find it constantly evading them as well, becoming a particle here and a wave there as if it had a mind of its own. In accordance with these mysteries, I don’t believe I’m taking the easy way out by saying that there is something rich and ineffable about singing together.
My wife and I try to read to our daughters most nights. Usually, we have a couple of good kids’ books on the docket, but I’ve been supplementing, for my own sake as well as theirs, with poems from a large collection of famous works that we own. It’s no Norton Anthology, just one of those beautifully bound, shoddily edited, moneymaking shelf sitters. There are typos I discover that occasionally make me cringe, but we read from it anyway. It was a gift, and we’re cheap.
One night, my wife and I decided to go through “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in unison, as it’s a favorite of ours. There was no fanfare. There was no synthesizer intro or fog machine. There was no organ-heavy summation of the motif to give us the tempo. We were two parents, sitting in our eldest daughter’s bed, reciting a poem together, and our children paused to listen. Let me say again, our toddler and baby paused to listen. Now, they’re usually fairly attentive, often teaching me a great deal about the discipline of sentience, but they do not often turn together to give any one thing full consideration for so long.
My wife and I read the poem, simply, quietly, trying to live in the rhythm that Frost intended, trying to let the meter teach us. When we finished, the silence was more than the absence of noise. It was the release of breath in wonder at what had just occurred. Though we could put no name to it, something had transpired as we read together that never would have happened had one of us read alone. We looked at each other knowingly, not understanding what it was we knew, just knowing that we had both noticed it. Being in the room with a number of other people singing the same thing is powerful. We see it every time Bono points the microphone toward the audience and the band quiets down to let the crowd belt out “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
Can this be distilled empirically? Likely not.
However, it is well worth remembering in the midst of figuring out what it is that we like and what it is that we want out of congregational singing – an ignoble and foolish place to begin – that we are dealing with something which is, by default, mystical in the human experience. The effect of one person’s voice on another person is more than a mere chemical reaction. If it were not, then it could be seamlessly synthesized, but such is not the case. These things were created uniquely, made out of more than pure whimsy. There is intention behind them.
I have always recalled a conversation I had with my father about the lack of sound in space. A studied musician, he told me that, in order to have sound, something must create the sound, something must transmit the sound, and something must receive the sound. Did he know at the time what beautiful Newtonian theology this would turn out to be?These three criteria are the legs of the milking stool, as it were – creation, transmission, reception. Without any one of them, the cycle is not complete. Sound does not exist. There is purpose in audibility. At least in part, we must sing together so that I can hear you, and so that you can hear me.
If we were not meant to hear the sounds of our voices, then we would not have been commanded to raise a ruckus. The human voice is a liturgy all its own, carrying with it the weight of woe, of joy, and of desperation. Every vowel or plosive is the audible story of the soul who bears it, and that story is worth telling. Talent is inconsequential. Sing me your story. Sing, “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” so that I know how much you feel the nagging doubt that it may not be true, and I will no longer suffer in the shadow of the pedestal I put you on. Sing, “a wretch like me,” so that we’re both human enough to stand beside each other. This exchange of sound is a gift unto us, a perilous entrance into communion with each other and with the Almighty. Small wonder that it’s awkward. Family affairs usually are, and it’s cowardly of us to try so very hard to make it less so.
The man next to me and I stop singing, and for a moment, I hear the space where his voice was – where our voices were. Like emerging from civilization into the relative quiet of the woods or the countryside, it is both the borders and the space which give us definition and time to contemplate. In the breath after our voices cease, I recall that I heard the sound of his heart in it.