Why religion needs sacred song

Sacred SongIn a wide-ranging interfaith essay at The Conversation, David Stowe, professor of English and Religion at Michigan State University, discusses the role of music in religion.

He begins by noting the Jewish feast called “The Sabbath of Singing.”

This Saturday, Feb. 11, many Jews will celebrate Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Singing, which commemorates one of the most vivid musical performances in the Hebrew Bible: the songs sung by Moses and his sister Miriam to celebrate the Israelite crossing of the Sea of Reeds (Red Sea) in their dramatic escape from bondage in Egypt.

This Song of Miriam exemplifies one dominant motivation for sacred music: collective celebration.

He goes on to discuss praise, thanksgiving, sorrow and lament, “collective effervescence,” trance, protest, secular spirituals, and more.

You can read the whole thing here.


  1. Some friends of mine attended the women’s march on Washington back in January. We were all having dinner together a week or so later, and a few of them (50+) noted that there was a real generational divide – the younger women didn’t know the songs that the older women were trying to sing during the march. African-American music scholars have noted that, in similar fashion, current protests (esp. Black Lives Matter) are not tapping into song the way protests of the 1950s/60s did. This is driven by a number of phenomena: lack of a commonly-known repertoire due to music consumerism’s ability to allow everyone to program to their own tastes; lack of corporate gatherings (including a drop-off in church attendance in the black community) in which community song is featured; absence of group song in the individual household.

    This article could have been more appropriately titled: “Why sacred song is beneficial to religion” – and it’s beneficial to religious social groups and individuals because it’s beneficial for ALL social groups and individuals.

    Two things in particular interested me: 1) the photo, which showed a select group of leaders who were amplified . . . nothing quickly makes any group feel like they have nothing to contribute like amplification (how many people were singing along with Lady Gaga?) – I’m beginning to refer to this as full, conscious, and active disengagement; 2) the fact that the author’s personal experience is with shape-note singing, in which nobody is amplified & the leader serves only to give the starting pitch and count in the next hymn.

    The author does make some reference to the benefit of MAKING music vs. consuming it, both for groups and individuals. This, I believe, is where those of us involved in music for the public/corporate prayer of the Church would wisely turn our energies. Community song (esp. in the West), is disappearing, and we increasingly are expecting our assemblies to engage in a culturally aberrant behavior when we ask them to sing.

    (“Chanting” – “hey hey, ho ho” etc. – at a protest is TERRIBLE for your vocal cords – – singing is much better!)

    1. @Alan Hommerding:

      (“Chanting” – “hey hey, ho ho” etc. – at a protest is TERRIBLE for your vocal cords – – singing is much better!)

      At the recent demonstration at Baltimore-Washington Airport against the presidents Executive Order on Refugee and Immigrants, my daughter and I began adding just a bit of melody to the “chants,” precisely because it made them easier on the voice.

  2. One more illustrative anecdote: 4-5 years ago I went to a one-man play about Abe Lincoln while it was in its workshop state. The actor (who also wrote the play) used Civil-war era songs in the play somewhat like Bach used chorales in his Passion settings.

    During the Q&A/comment session, somebody remarked that they didn’t know Abe Lincoln was “a singer” – I informed the group that, in Lincoln’s time, everybody sang, and sang regularly, whether doing a mundane task alone or in a group setting like the family parlor or sitting around a campfire. It was a much more music-making society, not a music-consuming one. The same theme returned a couple more times – people didn’t think it was authentic for Lincoln to sing because there’s no record of him being “a singer.” I’m sure there were veins standing out on my neck by the final time telling everyone that in Lincoln’s day EVERYBODY SANG! EVERYBODY was “A SINGER!!”
    Afterward, I counseled the actor to include a bit before his first song to explain to everyone that people in Lincoln’s time and place all sang, sang frequently, and sang when they got together. It seemed like it was going to be a necessary bit of cultural history for the play.

    1. @Karl Liam Saur:
      Thank you for these references, Karl. Even without biographical reinforcement that Lincoln liked to sing, the fact remains that he lived in a much more music-making/singing culture. He seems to have been a jovial fellow & also loved to make jokes, and could always be counted on to have a joke at the ready. This was also featured in the one-man play, and yet nobody in the session afterwards said, “I didn’t know Lincoln was a comedian.”

      I remember reading the second item after the movie “Lincoln” came out and there was some consternation as to how high and reedy Daniel Day Lewis’ voice was in the film.

  3. This article is one of those where I think Church musicians and choir leaders would say, “I knew that, it’s very apparent as to what is going on.” Music has such a power that gets exposed as more and more study about brain mapping, somatic responses, and chemical releases get exposed. Singing together can bring healing, joy and consolation to the largest of groups. I see this as our Catholic parish belts out a hymn and they finish and look at one another as to “how cool was that?” or when at a funeral while Amazing Grace is sung, the instrumentation drops and one hears just human voices fill a feeling-filled experience.

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