Music Speaks Louder than Words

In this article from the Pentecost 2012 edition of the Different Voices magazine Ian McLarty looks at how we might use music as one of the ‘many languages’ to connect with our communities. 

Iain McLarty“When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” (Acts 2: 1-4)

It is sometimes easy to forget quite how important a moment Pentecost is in world history. It marks the point where the Christian message becomes something which belongs to people everywhere, regardless of where they were born or what language they speak. The United Bible Societies estimates that there are parts of the Bible translated into 2527 languages out of around 6500, with a complete translation available in over 450. This is important work and yet it seems to me that words are not always the best way to communicate the mysteries of faith in contemporary society. In our post-Enlightenment world we have learned to debate ideas using scientific logic and to trust what we are told by our brain rather than our heart. Yet we still turn to artists when we want to express emotions. Whether it is music, painting or needlework, we recognise that there are things that cannot be expressed in words. 

Of course the church has always recognised the power of music and congregational song in particular has been fundamental to the Protestant tradition. I was reminded of this when a church I was working in held a vote to find the congregation’s favourite hymns. As I saw the voting forms come in each week I was panicking because I could see that there was far less duplication than I had expected and I was concerned there would be no clear winner. In the end there were seventy-five different hymns nominated from under two hundred votes. The importance of hymns in forming people’s faith has almost become a cliché but it was reaffirmed for me in this process where you could see just how important they are in allowing people to express themselves in a society which does not always encourage such things to be spoken about.

However, let us turn back to thinking about Pentecost. Clearly music can be one of the tongues which we use to reach out to people but there are lots of issues here about crossing the sacred/secular divide. Much of the choral music with which people are familiar from concerts and recordings was originally written for use in a religious context. I wonder whether it has become so familiar to people in a secular context that it no longer conveys its original meaning. An example of this could be Paul Mealor’s “Ubi caritas”,

sung at the 2011 Royal Wedding and which suddenly became one of the best known choral pieces in the world. Yet despite the setting of a church service, how many people saw their listening to it as a faith experience and how many as entertainment? Many people watching would not have known the religious significance of the words but perhaps they did get a glimpse of the divine through the beauty of the music.

As church musicians we need to search for ways to use the language of music with which we have been gifted to reach out beyond our congregations. We have the opportunity to help people experience a connection with the divine who do not find Christianity accessible through the spoken word.

Ian McLarty is a Freelance Conductor, Church Musician, and convener of the Church of Scotland Music Group. He is active in worship development and regularly leads music at national conferences. A particular interest he has is music and liturgy in an ecumenical context.