With a Song in Our Hearts by Jeff Nickloy
Recently we heard a solo on Sunday set to the music of Leonard Cohen’s famous song Hallelujah. It seemed somehow profound that such a beautiful song, written by a Jew, could be adopted by Christians and rendered into a version that celebrated the birth of a baby they recognize as Lord. At points the two versions intertwined, much like the stories of the Old and New Testaments. In a such a moment, it seems impossible to miss the ability of music to draw people of very different views together through a unified message and emotion. Because underlying the different words, was a common melodic theme that touches Jew and Christian alike.
The power of music to unify is undeniable. Whether the song is religious, or patriotic, or talks about injustice, happy times, hard times or lost love it can touch us. Can you imagine a movie with no music? Of course not, because all directors and producers know how it can affect an audience. It has the capacity to powerfully communicate without words. Think of the theme songs of Star Wars and Harry Potter. The audience is immersed in a galactic adventure and the mysteries of magic without any words. Did you really need a verbal or written explanation to understand the message two repeating bass notes conveyed in Jaws?
When words are added, a song can become a parable, set to music. In the same way that Jesus taught with parables, songs relay stories we remember; stories that teach us. Amazing Grace is a story of how a self-confessed sinner can be rescued by grace. Sunday Morning Coming Down describes the loneliness and sense of loss felt by someone totally devoted to his craft or profession. Where Have all the Flowers Gone is the story of people’s foolish addiction to war. Being set to music, these messages are easier to repeat and remember and relay to others.
All of us have favorite songs. Some are favorites because they bring back memories. For me, those are Holy, Holy, Holy; Bridge Over Troubled Waters and Royal Telephone. But there are others we love because they stir strong emotions of love, hope, comfort, or express causes we believe in. When we sing songs together, we feel closer to one another; whether it is singing a hymn in church or Happy Birthday to a loved one, or the National Anthem at a baseball game. Is it any wonder then that hymns are such a core part of worship services across so many Christian sects? One might say that worship service without music is like a story without a soul.
Music also has practical benefits. Playwright Will Congreve recognized in 1697 (in Mourning Bride) that “music hath charms that soothe the savage breast …” (No. It is actually “breast”; not “beast”; it being unlikely that anyone has ever tried to dissuade an attacking animal with a song). A more mundane version of this idea takes form in the lullabies we sing to infants. Mary Poppins taught us how a song will move the job along. And I have found that whistling a tune in a department store can help a vertically challenged spouse locate her husband.
Anyone who lived through the sixties or seventies understands how music can unite people in a common purpose of cause. Civil Rights (We Shall Overcome), anti-war protests (Blow’n in the Wind) or even the assertion of personal grooming rights (Hair) were used to support and unite people behind a political or social message, just as songs like The Ballad of the Green Beret and I’m Proud to be an American convey patriotic messages. These songs draw people into their message.
I have been attending our church for more than forty years and we have been extraordinarily lucky to have had a continuously outstanding music staff and have been blessed with talented singers and musicians. These wonderful people have elected to share their personal gifts with our congregants — a benefit for which all of us should be continuously grateful. But, I wonder if we should try to carry music more into our own lives, and let it lift us up, or carry us away, or inspire us more often. We might all feel better for doing so.
Jeff and his wife Sandy are long time members of First Presbyterian Church. Jeff is the senior partner of Nickloy & Higdon, a local general practice law firm where he works “almost full time” but is hoping to reduce that in 2019.