Magen Morse, January 2014
I was recently asked to speak in my church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, on the topic of church music. The unspoken agenda was that we wanted more people to sing the hymns during the service and more people to sing in our church choir. I have had lots of great experiences with music – hearing music, singing music, learning about music in my church in my formative youth but I wondered what I could say about the relevance of music to each individual on a more profound spiritual level – how does, as the song goes, ‘music move us’ in our relationship with our God?
Here, then are some ideas about that topic:
Our music is an essential part of our worship service. Our leaders have told us this and we read it in the scriptures. Emma Hale Smith (the wife of Joseph Smith, Jr.) was directed to select hymns soon after the organization of the LDS church; we read in Doctrine & Covenants 25:11 And it shall be given thee, also, to make a selection of sacred hymns, as it shall be given thee, which is pleasing unto me, to be had in my church. And the Lord tells us why he wants the hymns in the church in the following verse 12: For my soul delighteth in the song of the heart; yea, the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads.
I’d like to talk today about the power of music to transform people both in secular and religious settings in a specific spiritual ways to each soul. I would also like to touch on the power of music as a vehicle and expression of conversion.
I think we could all agree that there is a transformative power to music. It can be healing, unifying, help us be more courageous, help us express love, or just be good for our soul. Just this past week I came across two stories that I found touching and that I think illustrate how music can transform a person or situation.
The first was a story told by a veteran of WWII: 2 weeks after D day he was in France, he was cold because it was dark, rainy, and muddy. He was feeling stressed and decided to get out his trumpet. His commander said, don’t play that, there is one sniper left. He thought to himself, this German soldier out there is as scared and lonely as I am. He decided to play a German love song. The next morning a jeep full of German prisoners drove up. One of the men kept asking in broken English who played that trumpet last night? He said, ‘When I heard you play that song, I thought of my fiancée in Germany, about my mother and father, my brothers and sisters, and I just couldn’t fight anymore.’ He offered his hand and they shook hands. The veteran said, “I shook hands with the enemy but he was no enemy, he was scared and lonely, just like me.” (http://www.visualnews.com/2011/03/08/the-power-of-music-an-inspiring-story-from-wwii/)
The other was a story on the radio about on a new film documenting how Beethoven’s 9th symphony has, over the years, became a vehicle of solidarity around the world. For instance, the last movement of 9th symphony, known as the “Ode To Joy” is sung every year in Japan in December – the diku – the great 9. Five to-10 thousand people get together to sing the Ode to Joy, as a way to bring good things into the New Year. Some slip papers in their pockets, writing their resolutions or things they value; the power of singing all together gives them courage and conviction for things they want to accomplish in the next 12 months.
The “Ode to Joy” was sung by women protesting, at the risk of their lives, the torture and unjust imprisonment of people outside a Chilean prison in the early 70s. They had learned the song in their churches as it had been adapted as a hymn. One of the political prisoners inside reported that hearing that music was like a colorful butterfly in his heart “it was fantastic, it was hope,” he said. (NPR, All Things Considered, The Ode to Joy as a Call to Action, January 14, 2014)
I love that image of music, like a butterfly, able to get in through those prison bars. The music gave him hope, that when and if he was released from prison, there would be people waiting for him.
[Of course that image of music entering into prison makes me think of the Prophet Joseph Smith in Carthage Jail asking John Taylor to sing to them, “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief” to try to bring comfort to their terrifying incarceration.]
All these examples show how music and singing can unite people. There has actually been a resurgence of choirs across the United States; probably thanks to some popular TV shows about choirs and there have been lots of studies done about the benefits to singing in choirs. As it turns out there are no downsides to singing together:
One article called “Singing changes your brain” explains it more scientifically:
“The elation may come from endorphins, . . . Or it might be from oxytocin, . . . released during singing, which has been found to alleviate anxiety and stress. Oxytocin also enhances feelings of trust and bonding, which may explain why still more studies have found that singing lessens feelings of depression and loneliness. . . .”
“The benefits of singing regularly seem to be cumulative. In one study, singers were found to have lower levels of cortisol, indicating lower stress. A very preliminary investigation suggesting that our heart rates may sync up during group singing could also explain why singing together sometimes feels like a guided group meditation. Study after study has found that singing relieves anxiety and contributes to quality of life.
“. . . It turns out you don’t even have to be a good singer to reap the rewards. According to one 2005 study, group singing “can produce satisfying and therapeutic sensations even when the sound produced by the vocal instrument is of mediocre quality.” (Stacy Horn, “Singing Changes Your Brain,” Time.com, Aug. 16, 2013)
All those benefits sure sound like “blessing on your heads,” talked about in D&C 25:12. The actual act of singing makes people happy, and improves their health and well-being.
In these stories, those transformative moments came through the power of music that was not necessarily designated as sacred music – a German love song or Beethoven’s 9th symphony. What can happen when we allow music to spiritually feed us and teach us?
I recently was talking to a man at a party. It turned out he loves singing at his Baptist church but he took some persuading by the director before he joined. He was understandably nervous about singing with the choir. But he emphatically told us is that anyone who called themselves a Christian should also be a singer because when we take Jesus into our hearts we start singing the song of the gospel. We have a song in our soul when we are baptized, he said. Now, he admitted that some still can’t carry a tune but we still are singing in our hearts. I appreciated those sentiments very much because they rang so true. It also rings true because we find the same expressed in the Book of Mormon scriptures. Alma asks us something similar in chapter 5 verse 26:
“I say unto you, my brethren, if ye have experienced a change of heart and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now?
“If you have felt to sing the song of redeeming love. . .” How has the gospel transformed you and do you feel to sing the song of redeeming love? We have the chance every week to proclaim our faith and testimony through music. But it is reciprocal – the hymns offer us sustenance.
Dallin H Oaks said in a talk in 1994, that music, specifically the hymns, are an essential part of our worship service. Some reasons why are outlined in this quote from the first presidency under the prophet Howard W. Hunter:
“Some of the greatest sermons are preached by the singing of hymns. Hymns move us to repentance and good works, build testimony and faith, comfort the weary, console the mourning, and inspire us to endure to the end. (Hymns, 1985, p. ix; Worship through Music, Dallin H. Oaks, 1994.)
A few years ago, I had an experience that helped build my testimony and faith as we sang “Come, Come Ye Saints” as a choir to commemorate Pioneer Day (the day when the LDS pioneers reached the SLC valley.) As I sang, I was feeling the words and visualizing the experience of the saints described in that beautiful hymn specific to our people. It was so powerful to me to experience, in a glimpse, their struggle as I sang.
Hymns have the power to console: My mother came to visit a month after my father passed away. For his funeral, she had wanted to sing “Be Still My Soul” but instead we chose a hymn he loved, “O Ye Mountains High.” Here in this chapel, a month later, it was no coincidence that one of our hymns that day was “Be Still My Soul.” The words to that song helped unlock that grief a bit and give her some emotional release. Hymns and music can be so powerful, they can move us to repentance and good works, they can console the mourning, and inspire us to endure to the end. My father while he was sick and dying could not abide listening to any music but the Mormon Tabernacle choir. I think that music helped him endure to the end.
This same power of transformation can happen to us every week in our meetings and as we repent and prepare for the sacrament. Those feelings in our hearts as we worship through music become a vital prayer to our Heavenly Father. Importantly, singing and music is both a way we can be converted and is an expression of our conversion to the gospel of Jesus Christ – how we sing the song of redeeming love.
In closing, I’d like to share an excerpt of one more story that is special to our family because it is told by Richard’s great uncle, Kenneth Brown. It tells the story of how one man truly expressed the song of redeeming love:
Kenneth J. Brown was serving as a US Marine in Japan following the dropping of the bomb in Nagasaki. He tells the moving story about a Japanese Christian he met at Christmastime. This man came to the base to see the Chaplain:
“‘I am Christian,’ he said. ‘I am told this is the head minister’s office. Are you a Christian? It is good to talk with a follower of Christ; there are so few Christian Japanese.’
“I took him to the inner office of the division chaplain and waited while the two men conversed. Professor Iida stated his request briefly. He was a teacher of music in a Christian girls’ college until it was closed by imperial command. … He had been imprisoned because of his professed Christianity. After being released he had returned to Nagasaki and continued his music instruction in his home even though it was forbidden. He had been able to continue a small chorus and would be pleased if … they [could] sing a concert for the American Marines.
“‘We know something of your American Christmases,’ he said. ‘We should like to do something to make your Christmas in Japan more enjoyable.’
“I felt sure the chaplain would give a negative reply.. … Yet there was something about the man that bespoke sincere desire to do a good deed so that … permission was granted. The concert would be Christmas Eve.
“The rains had stopped and a calm settled over the atomic bowl reminiscent of the calm that night long ago. The concert was well attended; there was nothing else to do. The theater … had been cleared of its fallen roof and men were sitting on the jagged walls. The usual momentary hush fell over the audience as the performers filed on stage. …
“The first thing we noticed was that they were singing in English and we became aware that they didn’t understand the words but had memorized them for our benefit. Professor Iida had taught his students well; they sang beautifully. We sat enthralled as if a choir from heaven were singing for us. … It was as if Christ were being born anew that night.
“The closing number was a solo, an aria from ‘The Messiah.’ The girl sang with all the conviction of one who knew that Jesus was indeed the Savior of mankind and it brought tears. After that there was a full minute of silence followed by sustained applause as the small group took bow after bow.
“Later that night I helped Professor Iida take down the trimmings. I could not resist asking some questions that propriety forbade but curiosity demanded. I just had to know.
“‘How did your group manage to survive the bomb?’ I asked.
“‘This is only half my group,’ he said softly, but seemed unoffended at my recalling his grief so that I felt I could ask more.
“‘And what of the families of these?’
“‘They nearly all lost one or more members. Some are orphans.’
“‘What about the soloist? She must have the soul of an angel the way she sang.’
“‘Her mother, two of her brothers were taken. Yes, she did sing well; I am so proud of her. She is my daughter.’ …
“The next day was Christmas, the one I remember best. For that day I knew that Christianity had not failed in spite of people’s unwillingness to live His teachings. I had seen hatred give way to service, pain to rejoicing, sorrow to forgiveness. This was possible because a babe had been born in a manger [and] later taught love of God and fellowmen. We had caused them the greatest grief and yet we were their Christian brothers and as such they were willing to forget their grief and unite with us in singing ‘Peace on earth, goodwill to all men.’
“The words of Miss Iida’s song testimony would not be stilled, ‘Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.’ They seemed to echo and re-echo over the half-dead city that day.
“That day also I knew that there was a greater power on earth than the atomic bomb.”
(recounted by James E Faust, Christmas Devotional, 2005, “A Greater Power,” http://www.lds.org/ensign/2004/12/the-power-of-peace?lang=eng, and in Christmas I Remember Best: A Compilation of Christmas Stories from the Pages of the Deseret News (1983), 51–53.)
God wants us to sing because the love that we share though music is the conviction and testimony of our hearts and can be a great transformative and healing power.