The Universal Language

by Joan Cook

This morning I should like to look at an aspect of our services of worship, which is often taken for granted, that is, Music.

This month (January 2018) sees the anniversaries of the births of some of the world’s greatest composers; Mozart (1756), Schubert (1797), Verdi (1813), and Delius (1862). And 21 January 2018, marks the anniversaries of two quite different pieces of music. In 1947 Arthur Honegger's 4th Symphony premiered in Basle, and in 1903, The Wizard of Oz musical, premiered in New York City.

Why do we have music in our services?

And apart from being a convenient way of signalling the beginning and ending of services, what is its function, and would it make any difference if we didn’t bother having any? Well, interesting questions there, and you are probably wondering why probably the least musical person in the congregation has taken it upon herself to try and answer them!

Well, I am the first to admit that I have no musical gifts, but what I do have is an appreciation of the role music plays in our lives. I don’t believe it is necessary to be able to identify a specific chord, have in-depth knowledge as to how it is structured, it’s originator, or history, to understand it’s meaning. Everyone knows when the music is telling you the baddie is about to get his come-uppance, the shark is about to attack, or the lovers are reconciled and heading off into the sunset!

Generally, music is seen as ‘a good thing’, something which, along with other forms and expressions of art, can enrich our lives, as well as acknowledging the power music has over us all.

Music has been described by Pablo Casals as ‘the divine way to tell beautiful, poetic things to the heart’; by Jean Paul Friedrich Richter as ‘the moonlight in the gloomy night of life.’;
by Kahlil Gibran, ‘the language of the spirit. It opens the secret of life bringing peace, abolishing strife’; and by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow- ‘the universal language of mankind.’
Support for music also comes from one of the most unlikely sources, John Calvin who said

‘Music is very useful for awakening the minds of men and moving their hearts’.

Human beings are innately receptive to music and rhythms. From an early age children enjoy music, enjoy dancing or moving to rhythms. I fully support the provision of music education in our schools. It supports learning in many ways, not just as an academic subject in its own right.
It is no coincidence that children who are exposed to music learn better and quicker. Although it isn’t part of modern educational theory, I am sure many of you will remember, as I do, learning tables, quotations and lists to a rhythm.

Music is something that can be appreciated by, and created by, everyone, regardless of age, physical or mental ability. Music can also be a useful tool in various therapies, it is often used as an aid to speech therapy, and has a role to play in care settings, as an aid to physical and cognitive therapies.

But there are other benefits that come with the physicality of singing. Singing boosts the immune system, tones the muscles, improves the posture and lowers the blood pressure, encourages deeper breathing, thereby improving lung function. Those who are part of a singing group, find their heart and respiratory rates become synchronised with those of others in the group. Some sources state that regular singing can even help you live for longer!

Singing also brings benefit to the brain, it improves the blood flow and general health of the brain cells, which is why ‘Singing for Dementia’ groups have enjoyed such popularity in recent years. As well as providing a suitable, safe, social activity, for those suffering from cognitive impairment, singing stimulates the memory, lifts the mood, and encourages a feeling of well-being. It enables people to experience being part of a social group, taking part in a structured social activity, without having to depend on another’s assistance.

Regular group singing has been shown to help reduce loneliness, anxiety and depression, especially in older people.

Henry David Thoreau wrote;

When I hear music, I fear no danger. I am invulnerable. I see no foe. I am related to the earliest times, and to the latest’

As well as aiding relaxation, singing releases chemicals in the brain, endorphins, which help with alleviating pain, and there are now groups for people suffering from arthritis, lupus, cancer and other forms of chronic pain, which alongside their medical treatment, helps them to deal with their pain.

People who have mobility difficulties are able to enjoy music; those who have visual impairments can still sing or enjoy music; those with hearing difficulties can ‘feel’ the music. One of our most talented musicians today is Evelyn Glennie, who describes music;

Music is about communication...

it isn't just something that maybe physically sounds good or orally sounds interesting;
it's something far, far deeper than that.

And anyone who has seen Ms. Glennie perform, would be hard put to realise the extent of her deafness.

So OK, there are benefits to music, but why do we have music in our services? We have music in our services to facilitate our singing, personal reflection, as a way of creating the required ambiance for a service; whether it is to be a service of celebration, of commemoration; expressing joy, or sadness. Martin Luther wrote;

My heart, which is so full to overflowing,
has often been solaced and refreshed by music when sick and weary.

Hymns have been used through time as a way of teaching the aspects of faith, especially in times and places where literacy was not as widespread as it is in many countries today. The content of hymns can tell others about our faith, and the message we wish to spread. This isn’t always, as you might imagine it to be, a gentle, way of spreading encouraging, peaceful messages, some hymns contain messages we find uncomfortable today.

For example, in ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ there is a verse, not sung as often as it was in my youth;

‘The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
And ordered their estate’.

Concepts that today, we would not be comfortable with. 

Today there are those who use hymns to spread negative messages, and messages of hate. In Syria, as well as other Isis controlled areas, it was commonplace for Isis to broadcast if not hymns, praise songs to promote their particular brand of Islam.

We are fortunate that our Unitarian hymns tend not to be too difficult to sing, and their content unlikely to be objectionable. But we also have music in our services to simply enjoy, and to celebrate the art form for its own sake. Creating music and bringing music into the lives of others is a wonderful gift to be able to give, and to receive.

We are most fortunate in our pianist Ailsa, who as well as being a most able musician, also takes the trouble to find out what the theme of the service is to be, and she chooses pieces for our musical offering to suit. And, also, our Chalice singers, whose singing encourages our efforts!

As Unitarians we are fortunate in that we are free to experience the wide range of music that exists, and we are not restricted to solely ‘religious’ pieces, but can enjoy music from a wide variety of sources, just as we vary in our theology, outlook, personal experience. It is only to be expected that the music which speaks to one, may not speak to another, and I have frequently been surprised, personally, and when leading worship, as to the depth of feeling, and memories that a simple piece of music can bring forth. The music we make together can be a gift to others, as well as ourselves.

What is the purpose of music in our services?

Well music contributes in many ways to a service of worship. It can be used to provide structure and support for our hymn singing. Most of our hymns are hymns which can be sung easily by the less than skilled amongst us, but as our congregations tend to be few in numbers, some help is often required, and in many of our churches today this is supplied by use of CDs.
The more cynical may say that the music is needed to make up for the poor quality of singing in Unitarian congregations, as they are all too busy reading the next line, to see if they agree with the theology, to enable them to sing as well as they should! But even the most gifted of singers benefit from a good accompanist!

The music with which we begin and end our services, is not just a convenient way of signalling the beginning and ending of services of worship, they are parts of our services in their own right, they set the tone of our service. The prelude is an opportunity for us to centre ourselves, to gradually shed the carapace with which we protect ourselves from the outside world, to enable us to engage more fully in the act of worship.

As we listen to the postlude, it provides us with an opportunity to collect our thoughts, perhaps reflecting on what we have heard, the hymns we have sung, drawing together the main themes, the experience of being part of a worshipping community, and how that may guide us, help us through the week ahead.

The music with which we introduce our periods of silent reflection in our services enables us to engage more fully in the silence. Studies have demonstrated a significant increase in the depth and quality of meditation in those meditating, having previously listened to a piece of music.

Would it really make a difference if we didn’t have any?

Well, yes, I do feel it would make a difference not having music in our services. I have noticed this when I have taken house services, or services of some description for small groups, perhaps a service of worship, a wedding, funeral memorial or baby blessing, I find that without music, something is absent. And obviously, without musical accompaniment, singing can be very difficult, to do, and perhaps more so to listen to. The opportunity for personal reflection, as we have seen can be lessened, or even lost. The chance to create a feeling of being part of a group, a congregation, is missed. As is the opportunity to consolidate the connections and relationships within our communities.

In a service which is predominantly delivered via the spoken word, which most are, music offers an alternative way to experience a theme; and perhaps for those who have been unable to connect with the words spoken, it is an opportunity to facilitate their personal experience of worship. Those with learning difficulties can find it difficult to access some of our services, but music is something that overcomes such hurdles.

Music is a language which crosses nations’ boundaries.

When we visited the Unitarians in Chennai, we didn’t understand a word of the service, which was delivered in Tamil, but we felt part of it, because of the music, and we were able to join in with the singing of a repetitive chorus.

One of the difficulties I found when leading services in ‘home’ settings, was the difficulty in having some sort of group singing, with small numbers, and without a musician. Recorded music can help, but what I found worked best was ‘chanting’, or short reflective pieces, which enabled everyone to join in without feeling self-conscious, contributing to and creating something new, something spiritual.

In our society of individualism, coming together to sing can create and reinforce bonds, of friendship, identity, of belonging. Being part of a congregation, a Church, a community of being.

But perhaps the last word should go to Albus Dumbledore;

Ah, music,’ he said, wiping his eyes. ‘A magic beyond all we do here!’ (J.K. Rowling, Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone)

Copyright Joan Cook
used by permission,
given in St Mark’s on 21 January 2018

Joan Cook, our Lay Celebrant and Lay Preacher,
is a member of St Mark’s,
President of the General Assembly
of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches
for the year 2018-2019 and
President of the Scottish Unitarian Association


Chalice Singers Rehearsals

If you enjoy singing, do come and rehearse with us. You don’t need to be able to read music
We will meet in the upper hall from 10.00-10.45
on the following Sundays
Please speak to Lesley Hartley to find out more