An educational video
Okay, so once you get past the makeup (and the insanely huge mouth), he really does make a point: there really is something “phenomenally dreary” about (some) Christian singing. I’m a choir member at my church; every week I stand in front of the congregation, and I see people just going through the motions. They’re not excited about their faith, they’re not glad to be where they are.
But I’m not here to lament over the lack of faith in the world–that topic is better suited to people who are more faithful than I.* What I want to talk about today is “making a joyful noise.”
I’ve been singing since I could speak. Granted, I didn’t have much success at it until middle school, but everyone has to start somewhere. In high school I was a member of several of my high school’s choirs. We did great at competitions, and we always wowed concert attendants. But it wasn’t totally fulfilling to me. I literally remember my women’s choir teacher saying, “The words don’t matter.”
The words don’t matter?
Even then I remember thinking that sounded a bit strange.
Then there was college. I attended a small private university that many people have never heard of. Yet people would travel from all over the state–all over the country–to hear my school’s choir. And it wasn’t just because we sang music that sounded pretty, or because our musical pieces often utilized African instruments such as the djembe. It was because our director chose our music by not only selecting what we were capable of singing, but also by what the song meant. If it had a message that no one was interested in singing, out it went.
In college, the words mattered. We had to believe and connect to what we were singing; if we didn’t, our lack of interest would transfer directly to the audience, and they would no longer be interested in listening. And if they weren’t listening, the message would be lost.
I believe that a lot of the joy has gone out of our singing. This is often most obvious in churches, where the people simply go through the motions of worship without really paying much attention to the meanings behind it. They sing the songs whose words are projected on the screen, but they’re not really listening. They’re not learning the story the song tells.
Singing = Storytelling
The comedian featured in the earlier clip talks about gospel songs, certainly the best-known examples of joyful singing. Many of the older songs are considered “Apocryphal,” meaning that they have hidden meanings. Songs given this label often originated during slavery, when open communication among slaves about such things as the Underground Railroad could mean death. The best example of Apocryphal language comes from the song “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” While white overseers and plantation owners were hearing the slaves sing about wanting to go to heaven, other slaves who heard the song knew that agents of the Underground Railroad (the “sweet chariot”) were nearby, waiting to get them to freedom (“home”). But while this music is certainly important, and some of it is certainly joyful, there is another kind of music that I think is under-known and under-valued. And it happens to be all about making a joyful noise.
Technically known as “shape note singing,” Sacred Harp is an amazing style of music. Like jazz and the American musical, Sacred Harp is uniquely American. It began in rural Appalachia (the Carolinas, Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi), and continues to gain in popularity.
For me Sacred Harp is exactly the kind of music that is missing from contemporary worship. Who says that the sermon is the only part of church you’re supposed to learn something from?
Instead of using the typical seven-note system (of “The Sound of Music” fame: Do, a deer…), Sacred Harp uses a four-note system:
Rather than having to know notes based on a key signature and on which line they are set, a person need only know which shape is which in order to sing the song. It’s an informal and easy way to learn singing–and it’s really fun!
All music is sung a capella (no instrumental accompaniment). The song leader selects the key in which the song will be sung, and the singer uses his or her voice–the “sacred harp”–to create the music.
The setup is very different from a typical choral group. Instead of standing or sitting in straight rows with the conductor/director standing in front, Sacred Harp singing uses the “hollow square,” with the song leader standing the middle of all four vocal parts.
And rather than the typical vocal parts (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass), this style of music has Treble, Alto, Tenor, and Bass. The Tenors are always the ones singing the melody, and rather than reading the top line of the music, they read the third line. As a person who has spent almost 15 years reading and singing music written in the seven-note scale, it’s often a challenge for me to remember exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.
For just a quick sample of the hundreds of Sacred Harp hymns, click here. You’ll notice that everyone is waving his or her arm. Because there is no accompanist to set a song’s pace, it is up to the singers and to stay together. Shape not singing is a collaborative art form; the singers follow the song leader’s movements in order to stay in time with each other. The group also goes through the first verse singing the corresponding shapes, before beginning the song with words.
Sacred Harp is first and foremost a mode of worship, and the music is very powerful, and can be very moving. Each song has incredible meaning, and attending a singing is an amazing experience.
The music is simultaneously beautiful and harsh. The composers were people who had it tough: life in the South in the 18th and early 19th centuries was extremely difficult, if not deadly, and often the hope of salvation was all people had. Sacred Harp reflects this desire for heaven. It is bold, loud, and makes me feel a closer connection to my faith than almost any contemporary hymn (and especially contemporary Christian radio) can.
And Your Point…?
Honestly, I’m not totally sure. But I do know that my having a connection with what I’m singing changes the way I sing, and the way I listen and am affected. Sacred Harp strips away the instrumentation and the feeling that I have to get all the notes right and make pretty vowels; and once all those distractions are removed, I am able to focus on what the song means, and means to me.
Considering my love of storytelling and its general importance in, say, everything, I do not find it the least surprising that my college choral experience by far outstrips my high school choral experience. High school choir was about singing perfect notes and making perfect vowels and winning UIL competitions–it was almost completely soulless. It was not until I began to pay attention to the words–to use the music to tell a story–that singing became a fulfilling experience for me.
Singing is inextricably linked with storytelling–but I think that many people forget that. I know I do. It’s so easy to stand up in the choir loft and just go with the flow, singing the right notes, but not really focusing. I don’t want my singing to become something so soulless. I want to always be able to tell a story through what I’m singing. I want to use the story to connect to those around me.
So next time you’re singing–no matter where you are–remember to listen while you sing. It’s like whistling while you work, but way more fun.
*I am a self-proclaimed “heathen,” but I go to church. I guess we can add “hypocrite” to my list of sins!