On Musical Value

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IMG_0312 I mentioned the sacred music class I'm taking this semester once before, but just to recap, we've been discussing some of the practicalities of being a church musician: working with the lectionary, ideas for worship planning, and the role of music and liturgy in worship. Last week, we were invited to discuss the musical object and the role of music in worship. This is what I wrote.

Music is intangible. It enlivens the emotions, revives memories, and communicates beyond what words could ever tell. It is an exchange of ideas and emotional thought and the strikingly beautiful, peaceful soundscape that accompanies the experiences of our very souls. The musical object is something we observe–admire almost. It is something we experience from a distance and interpret through listening alone. It is regarded as a work of art–it is its own end goal. It separates those who make music from those who listen, though it unites the two in shared experience. The musical object bears no functional role; rather, it exists solely for itself as a unique form of communication, emotional expression, and aesthetic beauty.

Music of the church is also understood through listening, though, rather than being regarded as a work of art, it is seen as only part of a greater whole, complete only within the context of the liturgy it supports and serves. Unlike the musical object, which stands in between artist and listener, the music of the church emphasizes music-making for all. This music is functional. It connects elements of worship to one another and signals theological insights to those listening. The end goal for music of the church is, in fact, theological rather than musical (Zager, 1988). Listeners recognize the tune melody, recall personal experience, reflect on the text, and relate the theological implications to the present experience.

I believe that musical value is based on context: music in worship has a different function and end goal from music in a concert setting. The purpose of music in the concert hall is to create an experience, move the emotions, and impart a sense of artistic admiration. Musical value is based on the innate qualities of the art form. The purpose of music in worship is to create shared experiences, speak to the emotions present in the liturgy, and impart a sense of deeper theological understanding. Musical value is based on the ability to move beyond the innate qualities of the art form and inform the liturgy.

Can music with liturgical function become a musical object in another context? An organist may perform a set of chorale preludes by Reger on an organ recital and though they may bring theological events to mind, the purpose of music in this context is to be admired and enjoyed for its own sake so it seems the answer is ‘yes’. Can a musical object serve a function within the liturgy? Take Chausson's "Sérénade Italienne." This romantic, dreamy French art song has all the qualities of a musical object and no apparent connection to worship. Though, when an instrumental transcription of the song is given a liturgical role based on its innate programmatic qualities (i.e. a flowing accompaniment), it brings the story of Jesus walking on water to life (Matthew 14:22-33). The sweet, sweeping melodic line expresses the serenity of drifting out to sea, the fear of the disciples in the night, and the peace that comes at the end of the storm. Does this serve and support the liturgy?

The musical object is not part of a greater whole; rather, it stands on its own. A piece that exists solely for itself does not need context to be appreciated, admired, or understood; thus, it cannot become sacred through liturgical context. It cannot acquire function simply by being situated in between the readings of the day. However, if the programmatic nature of the music supports and serves the liturgy, through title, text, or compositional features; if it can move beyond the glorification of the art form and become theologically meaningful by enhancing and depicting the Scripture readings in musical terms; then I believe it is capable of serving a liturgical function. Of course, not all musical objects are capable of this level of function and purpose. Church musicians should be both thoughtful and discerning in their selection of music for worship by choosing music that informs the liturgy and creates true value in the authentic experience of worship.

Source: Zager, D. (1988). "On the Value of Organ Music in the Worship Service," The Diapason: 18-19.

Image Credit: personal

Previously: On Liturgy and Culture