by Ian Howarth.
In the Oscar nominated film musical ‘La, La, Land’ at a particularly poignant moment when the couple at the centre of the film see each other after a long break, rather than say anything the character played by Ryan Gosling sits at the piano and plays. It is incredibly moving. It is moving because it is the tune he played when they first met, but it goes further than that. Even though it is not a ‘great’ piece of music it is moving because in that context it seems to be infused with meaning. However, if you were asked ‘What meaning?’ it is a meaning that is impossible to put into words except in the most general terms.
Those twin abilities of music, to be able to move people emotionally and to be deeply meaningful without being specific about its meanings are key reasons why music has been so significant in many religious traditions. The combination of speaking deeply to people’s feelings and being ambiguously meaningful for many people enable music to be a symbol of the ‘other’. A symbol that can be simultaneously immanent and transcendent, seemingly reaching deep within us while at the same time offering the sense of being in communion with something/someone beyond.
The power and the ambiguity of music has led to both enthusiasm and caution among spiritual writers as to its use. St Augustine and John Wesley both loved music, but were keen to link it to words that were doctrinally sound, so that its power did not move people in the wrong ways: ‘Attend strictly to the sense of what you sing. See that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually.’ writes John Wesley in his Rules for Singing. St. Augustine may or may not have said: ‘Whoever sings, prays twice’ (it is nowhere recorded in his writings). What he did write in Book 10 Chapter 33 of his Confessions, feeling that his passion for music was potentially dangerous is: “I am inclined to approve of the custom of singing in church, in order that by indulging the ears weaker spirits may be inspired with feelings of devotion. Yet when I find the singing itself more moving than the truth which it conveys, I confess that this is a grievous sin, and at those times I would prefer not to hear the singer.”
The Methodist tradition is more enthusiastic about the custom of singing in church, and it has perhaps become a key way in our tradition of our worship speaking to people’s deepest feelings, and of offering meanings that go beyond words.
However, for that to happen effectively, we not only need to be careful of the words we sing, but we also need to recognise the potential meanings in the music itself which go beyond both the meaning of the words and the sounds being created and heard. Music, like our worship, exists in a cultural context. In many cultures and sub-cultures music serves as a powerful indicator of identity. Different genres of music relate to different cultural identities.
The type of music that an institution uses will say much about which social groups it can relate to effectively. There are stereotypes in people’s thinking about the fans of different musical genres. A recent article by social psychologists suggests that ‘people have very similar stereotypes about the psychological and social characteristics of most music fans – particularly fans of classical, rap and heavy metal music. For example, fans of classical music are believed to be white, wealthy, hardworking, introverted, physically unattractive, intelligent and artistic, whereas rap music fans are believed to be extraverted, relaxed, athletic and to drink beer and smoke marijuana. When the content of these stereotypes were compared with the psychological characteristics of actual music fans, the results revealed that many of the stereotypes have some validity.’
I wonder what that would say about the music we use in Methodist churches and who are most likely to relate to it?
Our Christian heritage reminds us that music is potentially a powerful spiritual tool for the reasons outlined above. However, in practice its cultural significance, and the way it helps people define their identity, means that we need to be far more thoughtful and aware about the way we choose and use music in church, so that we can enable it to fulfil its potential to enable people to reach the heights and the depths through which God is encountered.
 “The structure of musical preferences: A five-factor model,” by Rentfrow, Peter J.; Goldberg, Lewis R.; Levitin, Daniel J., in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 100(6), Jun 2011, 1139-1157. author’s manuscript version available to read here.