Friday, October 16, 2015

Musical Choices for Worship

Having described some findings about the brain’s receipt of music in his essay in Liturgy 30, no. 4, Tony Alonso continues his remarks on the relationship between music and worship.

In a book of reflections on the relationship between music and theology, Don Saliers writes about music as a living practice that is deeply bodily and intimately bound to our emotional lives. Reflecting on the theological significance of the ways in which music has potential to both shape and express our image of God, Saliers notes that controversies about music in Christian history emerge “precisely because music—played, sung, and heard—remains both emotionally powerful and yet mysteriously ephemeral, always passing away in linear time, yet always fusing past, future and present.” . . . It holds great potential for deepening contemporary conversations over musical styles in worship and, in particular, for helping to explain why such conversations can be so deeply felt and emotionally charged. 
 . . . Acknowledging the very human way in which musical tastes develop and the vulnerable emotional associations music has the ability to encode. . . challenges an uncritical assumption that the Spirit sings only through a particular genre or musical expression and instead opens us to the unexpected and perhaps even uncomfortable ways in which people hear God’s voice in a wide variety of modes.

Not content merely to call for new music, Alonso offers several conclusions about worship music. Here we have room to relate only a few.
[A]ttentiveness to the development of musical taste from the first music to which we are exposed as infants to its strong solidification in our teenage years should make us suspicious of whether marketing musical repertoire toward a specific demographic is salutary or even possible. . . . The cellist in the high school orchestra who enjoys listening to popular music with her friends and the mariachi music of her Mexican heritage surely has the potential to connect to the sacred through more than one musical genre. 
 . . . Levitin’s examination of the development of musical taste should cause us to reject the use of the terms traditional and contemporary to describe styles of music in worship. . . This unhelpful binary is not only musically inaccurate; it also ignores multivalent musical schemas, which do not fit neatly into such categories. 
 . . . [M]uch of contemporary praise and worship music used in Christian worship sounds less like the Top 40 and more like a popular musical schema from ten or twenty years in the past. Regardless of intention and without casting any judgment on the aesthetic quality of such music, it is possible that the adults who often hold the power in worship settings may be unknowingly masking a desire for music that reflects the comfortable musical schemas of their own teenage years. If musical evangelization in worship is a priority (an open question in itself), this work invites a deeper conversation about how such music might sound quite different than what is currently in the Christian mainstream. . . 
 The lack of rap, reggae, country, and hip-hop music played and sung in most communities who use music to evangelize testifies to the often unspoken limits. . . often as narrowly drawn as those who advocate for the exclusive use of Gregorian chant or the hymns of Charles Wesley. 
Urging greater thought be given to the choices for music used in worship, Alonso shows that musical tastes cannot be easily categorized by age group or ethnicity. The music most appropriate not only for the worship of the faithful – but for people new to worship, as well – is the music most faithful to the church’s witness. See his full essay to deepen your understanding of his important perspective.

Tony Alonso is a composer of liturgical music and a PhD student in the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

Tony Alonso, “A Not-So-Universal Language: What Neuroscience Can Teach Us about Music Styles in Worship,” Liturgy 30, no. 4 (2015), 53-60.

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