In my last piece I explored music as an aural drug based on its emotional power. Now I explore its educational power. But here is yet another comment on music that hints at both aspects of its power.
Martin Luther, the reformer (1483-1546) said:
“…For whether you wish to comfort the sad, terrify the happy, encourage the despairing, humble the proud, calm the passionate, or appease those full of hate — and who could number all these masters of the human heart, namely, the emotions, inclinations, and affections that impel men to evil or good? — what more effective means than music could you find?” (in the Preface to Georg Rhau’s Symphoniae iucindae, 1538)
Educationally, vocal music teaches directly and indirectly and impacts as a multi-dimensional communicator via melody, harmony, rhythm, style, volume, modulation, lyrics, etc., at once. It is well known that melody aids retention and recall of information, a feature of vocal music which is exploited by advertisers of products or purveyors of information that folk need to remember, whether it’s a governmental infomercial re disease/health or the alleged benefits of a particular protein source.
Hymns in churches capitalize on this aspect in Christian education but churches often abuse the power of music by using syrupy emotive music with dubious lyrics, doctrinally and even logically. I have heard the odd nonsense chorus, lustily sung and enjoyed. The classic one a clergy colleague shared with me is the song ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord’. One section says ‘even death could not hold him captive…’. My colleague heard a lady singing ‘even death could not hold im casket”.
Ages ago when I served as a local Youth For Christ Director in Montego Bay a beloved, regularly sung chorus at our Saturday night rallies was ‘Fire, fire, fire when the soul caught fire’. There is a section that says “it burns out…” I have heard different things sung right after the out, like condemnation, constipation, some even mumble the first part of either word and re-emerge vocally on the ‘tion’. I eventually stopped the singing one night and asked if anyone knew what is really burned out. One person suggested that it is supposed to be ‘carnal nature’ rhyming with the succeeding line which ends in future.
Even the odd hymn can have questionable lyrics, doctrinally. I was guest preacher at a United Methodist church 2nd Sunday in December and told the congregation that I was about to tread on thin ice and raised a slight theological problem with Charles Wesley’s hugely popular carol ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’’.
The 2nd stanza begins “Late in time behold Him come…”. My sermon text was Galatians 4:1-7 and v.4 says: “When the fullness of time came, God sent forth His Son…” Not late in time at all, Mr. Wesley!
With reference to this said carol, one year I was preaching on Christmas morning in a deep rural church in Jamaica and rather than offering a sermon I decided to share musical and lyrical reflections on a few popular carols and Christmas songs. Knowing that church folk at times sing words minus understanding, I asked if anybody knew what the opening word ‘hark’ meant.
After a period of silence when nobody attempted a response I heard a subdued “ah de angel name”. It took quite a bit of self-control on my part not to burst out laughing.
As a trained musician it troubles me too how we abuse music’s power in church by the following.
No serious regard for accuracy of some written melodies cf. ‘Dear Lord and Father of mankind’ at “forgive our foolish ways”; ‘Beneath the Cross of Jesus’ at, “the shadow of a mighty rock within a weary land”; ‘Thou did’st Leave Thy Throne’ at “But in Bethlehem’s home there was found no room”.
For me, as clergyman-musician, the supreme value/power of music as a catalyst worship is captured in 2 Chronicles 5.11-14. By worship is meant, at least, ‘the recognition of and response to, the supreme otherness and worthiness of God.’
If a weighty sense of the Divine presence is to result in worship through Church musicians then those musicians need much preparation and much consecration; the marriage of artistry and anointing.
One final slice of music’s educational power.
Music provides fun-filled, incidental/indirect learning and is thus quite powerful as a tool of education. Children especially, but not exclusively, are affected by this aspect of music’s educational power.
Popular songs with filthy, ‘fool-fool’ or violent lyrics ought to be of very grave concern given their availability to children on public passenger vehicles. Beyond ‘not fit for airplay’ one wonders why such are allowed to be produced at all. Censorship needs critical rethinking vis-à-vis freedom of expression.
Music, I maintain, is a powerful aural drug, emotionally and educationally.