“Why Church? Music!”
Paul Edwin Jackson
Sunday, October 13, 2013
University Congregational Church
THE SECULAR WORD
THE SACRED WORD
A Psalm for giving thanks. Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing!
Psalm 100:1-5 ESV
What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also.
Good Morning. I am a lucky man. I say this often, as I consider myself very fortunate. I am grateful for so many things in my life that it is difficult to enumerate them all. And every time I write out a gratitude list, one of the things that always finds its way to the top is music. I am profoundly grateful for music. I cannot imagine my life without music. It’s a cliché to say “Music is My Life”. So I’ll say “Music Shares My Life”. And I share my life with music. I’d like to spend a few moments this morning contemplating this strange and wonderful part of our human experience—music. Music begins when mere words alone cannot convey the message.
Let’s start with some biology—I taught anatomy and physiology at the Wichita Area Technical College for many years, so bear with me as I work us through a few things. There is a basic biological reason that we love music and that music is able to have such a profound effect on us. This biological response also explains why music crosses all cultures and has the same effect on all humans. Dopamine. Dopamine is a powerful chemical that our brains produce in certain circumstances. There is a definitive link between music, both making it and listening to it, that causes our brains to release this important neurotransmitter. Dopamine. Dopamine is the same substance that puts the joy and pleasure into sex, the thrill into certain legal and illegal drugs and the warm feeling and bonding response that a woman and her child experience during breast-feeding.
So we’re listening to music, a favorite selection, some jazz, or Beethoven or Katy Perry, and as we listen there is a slow release of this pleasure chemical, dopamine. It infuses our brains and it causes an emotional response—good feelings, security, warmth, pleasure. As the music builds, so does the level of dopamine (this is all science, by the way, not opinion—see me for my notes if you like). So the dopamine levels build as the anticipation levels in our brains build. We’re listening to the song, tapping our foot and here comes our favorite part and in that moment, say when the chorus finally gets to the fourth movement in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, The Ode to Joy section, and your brain releases a rush of dopamine in response to the musical climax. There can be a moment of sheer bliss—sheer joy—sheer gladness at being alive and hearing that song and feeling your body and your mind bright and clear with pulse-pounding glory.
So that’s a little of the science behind our response to music—but science only illuminates the what and the how. There is so much more. What about the memories triggered by a particular piece of music. Your brain is once again engaged and certain cues are picking up memories from your past—that song was the first song we danced to as a married couple, that song was in a mix-tape so-and-so gave me years ago—I wonder what he’s up to these days?—or, the comment I hear more and more in this new position here at UCC—I want that song at my funeral. The “place-holder” that many songs serve as in our lives.
Music serves numerous roles in our lives. It is background music that can keep us going throughout our day with rhythm and melody and lyric. But what about the cynical use of music as a device to influence your purchasing decisions or how some organizations use the dopamine/brain link to manipulate a specific response to reinforce their message? The Germans in power during World War II knew this effective and sinister function of music well—they would have long periods of marches and anthems and music designed for public consumption. About 45 minutes of this can put an average human into a trance-like state with Theta brains waves oscillating at the perfect balance for the input of new information. It would relax the conscious part of the brain and allow the unconscious part to receive their messages of hate and control without any conscious reasoning. This is a form of brain-washing and smart entrepreneurs use it to this day to relax your “aware” self into a state more pliable and easier to ‘sell” to: whether the product is the solution to your lack of “abdominal muscles” (or as I like to call, ab-solutions) or perhaps the product is a belief system that runs counter to everything else your rational mind perceives as true. You may know for a fact that science unequivocally holds evolution as a basic, fundamental piece for the study of biology—it is NOT a theory in standard parlance, but a Scientific Theory, and yet you still believe that God smote the ground and out came us perfectly formed humans. A good brainwashing can help you live with these irreconcilable differences. Now, it is always dangerous to use the term brainwashing, because there are plenty of people who think I am brainwashed—but I am confident that my brain has never been washed. It is as unwashed as the masses. It’s important to remember in this instance that knowledge IS power and the more we are aware of potentially sinister motives, the more we can resist being manipulated in such sly, subtle ways.
This same manipulation can also be used in a beneficial manner: think about how the skillful composers of film music use melody and orchestration to evoke specific responses from their audiences. You don’t hear a blaring march during the tender death scene. You hear violins and harps or a solo piano.
Think about the music we make up here on a weekly basis—40 or so individuals gather and push air from their lungs over their vocal cords to produce sound waves that then travel through this soupy air to land in your ear and trigger a variety of responses from you. You didn’t know there was so much going on here did you? Making music does not come easy. For those of us in the choir, who have made a habit of this, it comes easier than it might for one who hasn’t done it routinely, but it’s still difficult. The challenge of making sure that you are on pitch with your neighboring singers, helping each other get the rhythms right, or the pronunciation of the Latin text correct, or any other of the myriad problems encountered by a large choir engaging with the repertoire of great composers. I should note that Helen’s skill at the piano greatly helps in keeping us together and on track and focused. We take little tiny dots on a page and make them make sense in a larger, choral whole. We do it—and we laugh—we laugh a lot—in fact, it’s a particular testament to Bob Scott’s leadership that we have such a good time in the choir and still manage to produce meaningful music for our worship each week. Bob’s good humor and skill and Helen’s craft are such a refreshing combination and that makes singing in this choir such a joy.
But it’s more than that. Music is not produced in a vacuum. Music is community. Last week Robin taught us to look at that word in a different way. The “wholeness” of community. The unity of the group. Belonging to one and another and to the greater world. It gets us out of ourselves. It helps us be less selfish and much less “me first!” It makes us think about the rest of the world and our place in it. When this assembled community pulls into our lungs this shared air and expels notes and harmony and rhythm, is that not a metaphor for God? The very words we use for respiration and inspiration have, at their core, the word spirit—spiritus. Are we not engaging the “spirit” at its source when we breathe the same air and sing the same song and in that one moment become unified in purpose and unified in community?
The choir is just one example of many of a specific community within our larger church community. I challenge each of you to find your place here at UCC. Is it in the choir? See Bob and we’ll find a place for you? Do you want an opportunity for more study and meditation? Let Robin or me know and we’ll help you make it happen. Do you have an idea for an outreach? Come see me and we’ll work with the Outreach board and help you put your mission into motion. Church happens because of community. And we need each of you in our community.
For me, singing in this choir is one of the highlights of my life. It is one of the times I feel closest to God. I feel like God is happiest with me when I am singing.
It also, in me, reinforces that there IS a God. And that God loves music. And that God really loves us when we make music.