Guest Post: A letter to the Music Committee of the LDS Church

A month or so ago, we put up a guest post on Church music, and shortly after we received from David Stoker an email containing a letter he had recently sent to the Church Music Committee. After extensive traveling, he was concerned about the ways Church music sometimes failed to uplift and inspire various members around the world, depending on the culture. This thoughtful letter brings up a number of salient points about exporting our Western European musical tradition to the rest of the world.

Below is a shortened version of the letter: …One element of culture shock [among Southeast Asian refugee converts] that I didn’t anticipate was the difficulty and strangeness of the music of the Church. I presupposed that singing could be a moment to relax from the relentless concentration required to listen to translation and simply be a still, pure moment of worship. But my Asian friends seemed to struggle with the hymns, the melodies and intervals were so foreign to them, to the point that most did not participate. I knew it was not that they didn’t enjoy singing (as one example, despite their relative poverty, every home was indelibly equipped with a karaoke machine), the music itself was the challenge.

I have subsequently traveled to Cambodia and worshiped with the saints there. While the singing of hymns enjoys more participation there, I think primarily because the entire congregation sings in the native language, I could still feel their struggle with the harmonies, intervals, and melodies which are unnatural to their ears. The traditional music of Cambodia, and all of Asia for that matter, employs a completely different musical scale. The intervals between notes and what is considered “beautiful” to their ears is so different than the traditional European folk melodies and Western musical tradition…

Last year in Ghana I was working in rural villages with women microcredit groups and would often hear them sing to end their meetings. I could not understand the words of the songs but I would assume the songs had religious themes, considering the general religiosity of the country and the Christian prayer that always followed the singing. The sound itself was full and rich, there was a special energy and life in their voices, and an uplifting spirit of unity and hope came across through their singing. I was moved to tears on multiple occasions. Having experienced this great expression through music I was surprised when I would attend LDS worship services on the weekends and I saw relatively low participation in singing and singing that was, frankly, painful to listen to. I couldn’t help but notice that the members seemed to especially struggle with the four-part harmonies and the upper range required to sing the appropriate notes as written in the hymnbook. Looking back at the native songs, rarely did they use harmony and they were sung in a lower register. The native songs were sung in unison without accompaniment, and were repetitive and circular in nature. Variety was achieved through variations on top of the circular sound and slight variations in different verses. But in general they liked the repetition, it had a certain ebb and flow that is relaxing. I think it lends itself to contemplation particularly on the words as they are often few and repeated over and over again. Whatever the specific musical characteristics that made their native songs appealing and beautiful to their ears is inconsequential, but the fact that it is beautiful and inspiring to them is.

As an interesting contrast to the last two examples, I have been in LDS services in the Ukraine, and throughout Western Europe, and have heard absolutely beautiful singing in LDS congregations. I think this is part due to the fact that these countries share the same musical traditions to which the composers in our hymnal belonged…

As another positive example, I have also traveled in the South Pacific and heard the Maori, Tahitian, and Hawaiian Saints sing both their native songs and LDS hymns. They seem to have found a happy balance: taking their traditional music/dance/culture and appropriately incorporating these elements into their faith and manner of expressing their love of the gospel (although the balance has not been incorporated as strongly in Sabbath day worship as it has in other church activities). I think this has been a critical element of the Church’s success in the Pacific Islands. The Polynesian peoples have embraced the gospel and subsequently made it their own. Their native music and dancing has been redefined in the context of the Gospel and they now use those elements of their culture as a way of expressing their faith.

I think the history of the early pioneers in this country is also insightful on this subject. Most of the hymns in the first hymn book were gathered from the hymns of the pioneers’ former churches. There was also a sudden burst of creative efforts which resulted in the composition of many new hymns that displayed the convert’s great enthusiasm for their new-found faith and the aspects of the gospel peculiar to the Restoration. To me, it is interesting how often those new hymns were composed to the melodies and tunes of their native cultures and countries in Europe. A quick perusing of the current hymnbook will show Scottish folk melodies, Swedish folk melodies and the like. Why did they choose to use those tunes? I think it was because those tunes were beautiful to their ears, it inspired them, the music created certain emotional feelings they wanted to capture. They took what was emotional moving to them and composed lyrics that reflected their joy for the Restoration.

B.H Roberts wrote in the History of the Church “since it is natural for man to express his highest emotion, perhaps, in music, it would be expected that the highly religious emotions attendant upon the religious events of the church of the New Dispensation, would be to give birth to an hymnology and to music of a somewhat special kind.” With that quote in mind I find it leads to a series of questions: If the early Saints had migrated from Asia, and not from Europe, what would our hymns sound like? Why hasn’t there been this same burst of creativity among Saints in other lands? Has something in the system gotten in the way of that “natural” and “expected”, as B.H. Roberts calls it, phenomenon? What conditions would lead to that creative burst?

Another interesting thought to ponder comes from the ancient church: When Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn immediately preceding that act around which all life revolves, what would the hymn have sounded like? It might seem trivial, but I would suspect that it was not trivial to the members of the early church. I would suspect that that hymn, that music, those sounds, would be revered with the highest reverence among early church members. Then, if we were to know what that hymn sounded like today would modern latter-day saints embrace it? It definitely would not sound anything like the hymns in our current hymnal. I would even suppose that that hymn, if we heard it today, would sound strange to most members who don’t have a natural taste for the music of the Near East.

Now, in rehearsing these examples, I am not recommending a complete dismissal of the LDS hymns as established by the early saints of this dispensation. Having common hymns throughout the church, especially those hymns composed specific for the restored gospel, brings a special unity across the entire church, particularly at times such as general conference or when members travel between countries. However, I think there are solutions that would allow the appropriate ‘likening’ of the hymns in local contexts. Perhaps local musicians can be encouraged to take the lyrics of the great LDS hymns and apply them to local melodies or to use the basic melodies of LDS hymns and use them as a basic theme in a locally appropriate composition. Perhaps we need to rethink what a printing of a hymn book means, perhaps it can simply be lyrics without the western music notation system, there are many parts of the world that teach music simply by ear. Perhaps the responsibility of organizing, selecting, and printing hymns could be better done at a national or regional level. I provide such ideas as food for thought, not attempting to usurp upon the stewardship of the music committee, but fundamentally to spark ponderous thought.

I also acknowledge that the Church does not want a complete free-for-all regarding the approval of hymns. There would be the need to keep doctrine pure within approved hymns and some consensus about Sabbath-day appropriateness of styles but I would think, in the thinking of Joseph Smith, that, with certain principles laid down, local members could govern themselves. My personal feeling is that as members in local contexts do more to ‘govern themselves’ and are given more ‘ownership’ of their new found faith, their faith and leadership will grow much more quickly and even more important–deeply. We must show the same level of confidence that the early leaders of the church showed in newly baptized members arriving from Europe to compose hymns, build temples, and cross the plains. I believe people will rise to the occasion especially when it is for the cause of Zion. Could saints in foreign lands be called as Emma Smith was to make a “selection” of sacred hymns from those at their disposal and from encouraging the saints to compose new hymns? Considering the words directed to Emma, would a song locally composed, to a locally beautiful tune lend itself to be more of a “song of the heart” and, therefore, a more heartfelt prayer until the Lord? or even be considered more acceptable unto the Lord?

In the end I suppose I am writing to ask the simple question: What does the Church leadership think about this issue? Do they encourage local musicians to use their local musical traditions and compose “restoration” lyrics or otherwise apply them to their new found faith? If so, how do they encourage it? Are there mechanisms in place to encourage, approve, and publish locally composed or arranged music?

I appreciate you taking the time to read my thoughts. I again express my great love for this church and its great musical tradition and the personal inspiration I gain from the music of the Church. My hope is simply that all my brothers and sisters can enjoy this same privilege to sing praises unto the Lord in a way that is meaningful and inspiring to their souls.

Sincerely,
David Stoker

Caroline

Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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10 Responses

  1. Sue says:

    What a fantastic, thrilling letter. I hope they read it.

    This is a huge concern/peeve of mine, and I LOVED THIS. So thoughtfully written, so thought provoking.

    Thanks for posting it for us.

  2. allie says:

    A brilliant way to include all members of our worldwide church and get away from ethnocentricity

  3. skyeJ says:

    I love this! Beautifully put.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I had many of the same questions when I lived in India. I pondered a lot about what “sacred” sounds like for different cultures and religions. I came to appreciate “the sound of sacred” as manifest in what I call “Hindu hymns” (repetitive chanting to simple melodies). That type of sound was foreign to me at first, but it became a symbol of the genuine faith of many of my Hindu friends, and because of my respect and love for them, it became sacred to me too. Perhaps not in the same way as what I associate with LDS hymns, but in a different and moving way. Maybe that happens the other way too?

    When I am in other countries or cultures, I make it a point to sing the harmony. Usually I am the only one. I do so because to me it represents the fact that we are church members from different backgrounds uniting in a common belief while retaining our identities / what makes us us. I think it would be interesting to further do that by singing some of the beautiful words in our hymns to Eastern (and other) tunes.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I don’t feel like I quite expressed what I was trying to say in the comment above.

    My Hindu friends communicated with deity largely through their music. I came to respect the fact that this type of music helped them commune with deity and was what they associated with deity and with the sacred. And I wondered if it was hard for Hindu converts to tap into the Western “sound of Sacred” and connect to God through Western hymns because they maybe hadn’t connected to God through that type of sound before. I do think it is possible and I did witness it happen, but I think it would be beautiful if Westerners also had the opportunity to learn to commune with God through other cultures’ Sounds of Sacred.

  6. christi says:

    Wow, what a great letter. I absolutely agree. Mormon hymns are held sacred, as I understand it, mostly because they contain doctrine. The tunes, themselves, do not. They should absolutely be able to be adapted to sacred styles for different cultures. (Saying that a collection of notes in themselves are sacred is like saying that a saxophone or electric is by nature a sinful instrument…)

  7. Deborah says:

    A global hymnbook, with new hymns from modern “pioneers,” is inevitable at some point . . . isn’t it? I have great hope.

    A fantastic model for this is the Taize choir, an ecumenical monastical group that sings Christian hymns in many languages and from many traditions. Worth a look on iTunes.

  8. Anonymous says:

    An absolutely fantastic post. I hope the Church takes heed of these thoughtfully expressed ideas.

  9. Megan Pettus says:

    AMEN!

    I have thought about this so often–
    How do our brothers and sisters from non-Western cultures feel when they sing these hymns? We do belong to a worldwide church, and we have incredible access to all things “global” in our lives, so in the Lord’s Kingdom on this earth, why are we not trying to access the music that reflects the faith of Heavenly Father’s non-Western children? I personally would love to hear the words that express their faith, set to the rhythms, melodies and harmonies of their language and culture. And I would love to sing these songs as well.

    Perhaps in this regard we can learn from the approach that many other Christian faiths take: Devote a sizeable section of the hymnal to global hymns, i.e., doctrinally sound songs and hymns from other countries and cultures.

    The whole point of having one common hymnal, rather than every country/culture developing a tradition of church music with totally different songs, is to be *unified.* But certainly there’s room for variation among the different nations and areas represented in the church. We can be unified as we sing a pool of hymns that are common among us. (As Brother Stoker said in his letter, there are standard hymns that we sing at conferences.)

    There’s so much to do in music. Have you listened to the music in *your* ward lately? The singing in our ward is typically like a funeral dirge. People just don’t like to sing anymore? I really don’t know. I’m the ward music chairman and play the organ, etc. It seems that the only time people sing with any emotion and volume is at Christmas-time and on the national anthem.

    So singing the hymns isn’t just a Western or non-Western issue! But thank you so much for your letter and insights. Perhaps more of us need to write letters.

  10. Mary J. Kankamp says:

    Very insightful comments about our church music in other countries that I have often wondered about. Thank you for sharing your helpful thoughts.

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