Guest Post: On Music and the Church
(I’m happy to introduce a post by one of the most brilliant, young musicians in the church, if not the world! And while I may be a little biased, I know no better individual than mr. mraynes to lead a discussion about the state of music in the Mormon church. Over the next couple of weeks, mr. mraynes will be writing a series of posts for us about the church and its relationship to music and musicians. I hope you enjoy!)
Many months ago, EmilyCC kindly extended an invitation to write a guest post on church music (which my wife has now turned into a guest series). I have procrastinated composing this piece for varied reasons (finishing my doctorate, subsequently accepting a faculty position and moving my family across the country, laziness) but I decided to act now and claim the honor of writing the 1,000th post on The Exponent (according to WordPress). Congratulations to all those who work so hard on this blog!
First let me stipulate that, as a musician, I take music and its influence on us very seriously. It is possible I overestimate the extent of music’s power. I hope the following discussions will give those with differing views the opportunity to voice their perspectives.
Music’s place in Mormon doctrine is most clearly delineated in the 25th section of Doctrine and Covenants, a revelation offered to Emma Smith. She was commanded to compile a book of hymns with the explanation that song (I believe we can interpret this to mean all music) offered with righteous intention is synonymous with prayer. This doctrine is oft-repeated and, frankly, trite to most Mormons. We take this remarkable analogy for granted.Prayer, as defined in the most basic way, is communication with God. Normally one “speaks” to another (including the Divine) through the medium of words. As I gain greater life experience, I have found that prayer has more to do with feelings than words. Prayer allows God’s children to share their true selves (or their spirit) with Divinity and in turn to receive God’s true Self, which is Love (or Charity). When prayer is conceived in this manner, words have very little to do with the process.
All of us, as the offspring of Godly Parents, come equipped with spiritual hardware that allows us to connect with the Divine in this manner. Normally in Mormonism we refer to this connection as the Spirit. The Spirit, or this direct link with God, arouses within us the most poignant, tender, and profound feelings that signify that our spirit (true self) has been contacted.
All of us have felt such sensations in spiritual and personal situations. In my own experience, there is one other class of experience that causes these same feelings. When I listen to music (or share a musical performance) I find that my spirit stirs in much the same way as it does when I “feel the Spirit” (to use our Mormon parlance).
No doubt my experiences and views arise from my natural inclinations towards music. Certainly some do not feel anything at all when they hear music (after all, science has demonstrated the existence of “tone deafness”). Nevertheless, the vast majority of humanity not only likes music (in at least one form or another) but I would propose that we need music.
Like the Holy Ghost, music penetrates our souls to reach the deepest part of who we are. Who among us has not been moved to tears by music? Who has not spontaneously started dancing around when hearing a good tune, even when the situation would make dancing ridiculous? And yes, music can also inspire confidence to the point of aggression (why else it ubiquity in sports arenas?) as well as anger. I often visualize music as a mechanic that can mess around with us under our “spiritual hoods.”
Church leaders understand music’s power very well. For this reason Emma was instructed to collect hymns for worship. On the other hand, young members are instructed to avoid music that arouses unworthy thoughts and feelings in For the Strength of Youth. We sing at least three hymns in each sacrament meeting to “invite the Spirit.” Special musical numbers (my personal favorite is 792 🙂 ) are similarly encouraged, but official Church guidelines regulate what kinds of instruments are appropriate and which are not (most notoriously, brass instruments are taboo) and what kinds of music should be presented (it takes a hardy individual to sing Ave Maria!). It should be noted that bishops are given a great deal of latitude with respect to what is permissible and what is not–I’ve even heard a trumpet played in the chapel!
Different wards, stakes, and even the Church as a whole will see cyclical periods of musical regulation. Sometimes leaders will stringently follow President Packer’s dogmatic stance that the hymnal contains all that the Church needs musically; other times musical offerings will come from much more diverse sources (I was very pleased last Easter when our bishop allowed the choir to sing an entire Easter oratorio composed by a venerable and serious LDS composer).
Another interesting issue arises with respect to musical talent. The Church as an institution has a remarkable relationship to musicians: on the one hand, the church requires musicians to provide the needed musical accompaniment considered standard in worship. On the other, church members as a group are extremely leery of the glorification of the individual and therefore “soloistic” musical presentations are seen as prideful and indulgent. Thereby some of the best music is shunned from church meetings and most capable musicians are pressured to actually hide their talents (in direct opposition to Christ’s own teaching). Yes, some performances are inappropriate for sacrament meetings, but can we not recognize the grandeur of God in the masterful performance, even if the music is not overtly religious?
Given my assertions regarding music’s power to reach our spirit, I believe restricting music in church is a regrettable limitation on the range of spiritual experiences we can encounter in worship services. Please do not misunderstand; I am not advocating a musical free-for-all at sacrament meeting. I do contend, nevertheless, that a more varied musical offering in church meetings will result in greater spirituality for those in attendance.
What are your thoughts? How does (or doesn’t) music move you? How would you regulate music in the Church if given the chance? My first change: more congregational singing in General Conference (one verse of a hymn in a two-hour meeting is simply not enough–even if the Tabernacle Choir sounds amazing).